Words and Photos by Dan Sanchez
Whenever a new or revised truck rolls out, there’s usually mention of an upgraded, stiffer, stronger frame meant to improve the ride and offer better durability. After countless years of new frame designs, you’d think that today’s truck frames would be so strong one could be used to make a hundred-story building earthquake-ready and last a thousand years. But we know that’s not the case.
Thus, as expected, the 2009 Ford F-150 debuted with yet another “stronger and lighter-weight frame” that Ford’s engineers are saying will improve both driving quality and fuel economy. It also has a few new tricks we weren’t expecting when we looked under the hood and bolt-on body.
The front portion of the truck’s frame is a tubular design, which seems more like what you’d see used in a Baja race truck than in an everyday pickup. OK, it’s not exactly like a race truck’s frame, which would use gusseted, chrome-moly, custom-bent tubing with smooth TIG welds, but it does incorporate some of the designs that racers have used to provide added rigidity and increased torsion strength.
Our test model was an XLT 4x4 equipped with a 5.4-liter V-8 and an optional Chrome Package that covers the three-bar grille, 18-inch wheels and trim.
By moving the frame inward and upward at the front, the F-150’s hugs a little closer to the engine and leaves the factory inner fenders almost void of any extra sheet metal. This can help shave off some weight in that area, while the use of additional cross members that go through the frame, not on it, decrease twisting and allow the suspension to work freely and without binding. Indeed, it was surprising to see a fully boxed frame that incorporates all these elements and weighs 100 pounds less than those used in previous model years.
Neither the impressive appearance nor the lighter steel construction means anything, though, until you put it to the test. We’ve experienced from the passenger seat what the 2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor can do as a factory-built long-travel suspension pre-runner, but we also know that if you want to see what effect a stiffer, stronger, lighter frame really has on a pickup, you have to take it off-road. The Raptor has specialized running gear but still shares its frame with the rest of the F-150 lineup.
Recent rains had carved out some deep ruts along the trail, which created the perfect test to see how well the F-150 would remain level and sure-footed.
Almost immediately we could feel how the F-150 maintained a flat stance both on and off the highway. On curvy mountain roads, we found ourselves taking corners faster and faster to test the limits of the truck’s handling. To our surprise, the F-150 stayed relatively stable and had minimal body roll, which is due not just to the frame, but also the suspension and Ford’s electronic stability system with Roll Stability Control. This measures a vehicle’s oversteer and yaw to keep it level and safe under various conditions, including towing and steep declines. The double ball-joint links used in the ’09’s front suspension give the truck precise steering, allowing the driver to maintain superb control. In fact, we enjoyed the F-150’s cornering abilities so much we were tempted to make a detour from our off-road destination and head to the road course instead.
To our delight, we passed on the road course and skid pad and enjoyed the truck just as much off-road as we did on the highway. The ’09 F-150’s electric shift-on-the-fly control made it very easy to take the truck from the pavement to the steep dirt trailhead that led to an overlook nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. Considering that our test truck was an XLT 4x4 not equipped with the aggressive FX4 off-road suspension, it still gripped well in 4WD High over the washboard-graded road during our ascent up the narrow path. While the FX4 package would have allowed for a slightly smoother ride and given us added agility and access to more difficult terrain thanks to an electronic locking differential, we were quite pleased with how the factory front coil-over shock system worked over various rocks and ruts that carved our path.
Even under extreme conditions that would twist most truck frames, the F-150 maintained a level stance, allowing us to stay in complete control.
The F-150’s rear utilizes the standard leaf-spring solid axle, which in most instances offers a better ride once some weight is added to the rear. In this case, the leaf springs are 6 inches longer and extend forward to provide additional front-to-rear support and control. This provides additional stability in towing situations and helped improve the truck’s handling on the highway. Despite the cornering agility, the F-150 did experience freeway hop in our extended cab model, but it made up for it by offering surprisingly good articulation and control when maneuvering over large rocks.
The trail included some steep descents pitted with water-eroded pockets, which are often too deep for a normal-height vehicle to straddle without scraping its frame or getting high-centered. Nevertheless, we tackled a moderate one that proved how well the F-150’s rigidity comes into play. As we headed down this steep grade, the passenger-side front wheel plopped into one of the holes, while the two rear wheels and driver-side front wheel managed to stay flat on the ground. Most other vehicles would twist and lift the opposing rear tire off the ground, but the F-150 stayed level, even as the right rear tire was shoved into the fender while inching over a rock to make it down the path. This is an extreme situation that not many people would experience with their trucks, proving the ’09 F-150 is indeed a strong and capable off-road performer.
The Hotchkiss rear-leaf suspension had good articulation and control, partly due to the longer leaf springs that aid in front-to-rear support and agility.
While there was adequate power from the updated three-valve 5.4-liter V-8, fuel economy in our test truck seemed to suffer. Power ratings are higher than last year’s engine, which made 300 horsepower and 365 pounds-feet of torque, and it’s added two more cogs to its gearbox, but we only averaged 15 mpg in combined city and highway driving. Granted, the new six-speed transmission coupled with the new V-8’s 320 hp and 390 pounds-feet of torque was good enough to out-accelerate a Chevrolet Silverado SS from 50 to 80 mph on the highway. That truck’s driver wasn’t too happy being beaten by the new Ford, but it was one of the highlights of our test.
We also enjoyed many of the F-150’s additional features, including Sirius Satellite Radio, a six-disc CD player and more. The truck’s Stowable Bed Extender is a unique option that we really liked. It folds out of the way when not in use and easily flips back when you want to use the open tailgate for extra room. The extender is very simple to operate and is a great feature if you plan to haul a motorcycle or a pair of ATVs to your favorite off-road destination. There is a drawback, however: When the tailgate is down, the sensors on the truck’s Reverse Sensing System reflect off the open tailgate and beep as though you’re inches away from a brick wall. Fortunately, you can turn the system off and back on again once the tailgate is closed.
Our XLT test model was nicely equipped with Sirius Satellite Radio, a six-disc CD changer and Shift-on-the-Fly 4x4 controls. Note the towing brake control that allows you to add or decrease braking power.
Although the 2009 F-150 XLT 4x4 isn’t as capable or as cool as the SVT Raptor, it still managed to impress us with some excellent handling and good off-road capabilities. Our test model, an XLT Supercab 4x4 with the Chrome Package, a flex-fuel V-8, trailer-brake controller, Sync and more, had an MSRP of $37,395. That’s relatively affordable among the sea of expensive trucks on the market, and a moderately good value for a brand-new, redesigned truck. We also liked the exterior color of the truck we tested, called Blue Flame, which got a lot of attention and looked great with the chromed three-bar grille and 18-inch wheels.
With additional news of a rumored 400-hp 5.0-liter V-8 engine and a V-6 EcoBoost gas turbo engine in the future, the F-150’s new platform has never looked or performed better. What’s more, its manufacturer’s claim of having developed a better frame that would improve the vehicle was substantiated. Next time we’ll check these things out before making any assumptions.
The Triton 320-hp, 5.4-liter V-8 provides 390 pounds-feet of torque on E85 fuel. Though estimated fuel economy is better than last year’s engine, we only averaged 15 mpg in combined city and highway driving.