Photo by: Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.
We drove the 2011 Ford F-150 in Dallas last week, but Las Vegas might have been the better locale for it, because Ford is making one of its biggest truck gambles ever. The automaker is introducing three all-new engines for the best-selling vehicle in its lineup and pitching the F-150 as an alternative to the outgoing Ranger compact pickup.
Ford is replacing its legacy two-valve and three-valve 4.6-liter V-8 twins and the venerable three-valve 5.4-liter V-8 in the F-150 with technically advanced six- and eight-cylinder engines that Ford says will be the most fuel-efficient in the industry. Ford says that each new engine delivers best-in-class towing and all will be paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.
In perhaps the riskiest move of all, Ford is positioning one of two V-6 engines, the twin turbo gasoline direct injection 3.5-liter EcoBoost mill, as every bit the equal of a conventional large displacement V-8. It’s going to take more than a first-drive hot streak to convince some traditional truck buyers that’s the case.
Electric Power Steering
The first surprise we experienced, though, wasn’t related to the powertrains at all. It was the F-150’s new steering system that caught our attention from the moment the truck started moving.
Turning the truck at low speeds required much less effort than it has in the past, thanks to its all-new, electric power-assisted steering that replaces the old 12-volt engine-driven hydraulic steering system with an electromechanical motor-driven connection to the steering system. Each wheelbase and cab configuration gets its own steering calibration.
While we generally liked the new steering, in some of the trucks we drove, such as the 3.7-liter V-6, the steering felt too light and overboosted during low-speed driving around tight turns until we got used to it.
At highway speeds unloaded and while towing all of the trucks had a solid steering feel that was very similar to that of the 2009-10 F-150.
Electric steering is available as standard equipment on all engines except the 6.2-liter V-8, which keeps its legacy hydraulic steering setup.
3.7-liter V-6 (Standard Engine)
We’re impressed by Ford’s all-new Duratec 3.7-liter V-6. The 3.7 is the new base engine for the F-150, rated at 302 horsepower (@ 6,500 rpm) and 278 pounds-feet of torque (@ 4,000 rpm) on regular unleaded fuel, though it will also burn E85. If there’s a sleeper in the F-150 engine lineup, this is it. Its unloaded driving performance took us by surprise.
The dual-overhead-cam, all-aluminum, 60-degree V-6 is stuffed with technology. Starting with composite upper- and lower-intake manifolds to feed air to the engine, the engine’s heads have four valves per cylinder (two intake, two exhaust) that are combined with twin independent variable camshaft timing, or Ti-VCT in Ford speak. Ti-VCT varies valve actuation throughout the power band so there’s improved torque at the low end, cleaner emissions and better fuel economy throughout the rpm range. Bucket tappets that actuate the valves are low-friction and designed to boost mileage further.
The 3.7 V-6 also features a die-cast aluminum deep-sump oil pan that helps the engine go up to 10,000 miles between oil changes. The high use of aluminum throughout the engine saves weight and improves fuel economy, expected to be at least 23 mpg on the highway.
Ford had us drive the 3.7 in two scenarios: in wide-open-throttle against the clock and on country roads.
In the wide-open-throttle scenario, we drove a two-wheel-drive STX SuperCab model and recorded a zero to 60 mph sprint of 9.07 seconds. That’s not far off from mid-8-second times we’ve recorded in the 2009-10 5.4-liter V-8 F-150. And it’s very respectable considering this is the base engine.
It was driving at highway speeds that blew our minds after we experienced a 6-2 downshift at around 60 mph after we went wide open throttle to check out the engine’s passing performance. The engine leapt from about 2,000 rpm to around 6,500 rpm and ran all the way to 7,000 rpm before it upshifted into third. While we’ve had 6-3 downshifts with a V-8, we can’t recall ever experiencing a 6-2 downshift. The 3.7’s tenor immediately changed from muted lugging to screaming sports car. It’s like driving a domestic half-ton V-6 that thinks it’s a Japanese-engineered hi-revving V-6 that thinks it’s a V-8.
The 3.7 can tow too: up to 6,100 pounds, although we didn’t test it with a trailer. To help the naturally aspirated six-cylinder launch truck and trailer, Ti-VCT is combined with an optimized exhaust architecture to help boost low-end torque before peak torque at 4,000 rpm. On a dyno chart provided by Ford, you can see a brief torque peak between 1,500 to 2,250 rpm.
According to Al Cockerill, Ford’s rear-wheel-drive V-6 application supervisor, wide diameter exhaust pipes runs about 18 inches further back than normal behind the engine’s two exhaust manifolds before they join in a collector and continue as a single wide pipe out the back.
The exhaust manifolds collect and channel combusted gases from the three cylinders on both sides of the engine.
Using wider, longer exhaust pipes behind the manifolds improves exhaust scavenging. Scavenging is a process that reduces power loss; the engine doesn’t have to work as hard to pump exhaust gases out of the chamber, and the low-pressure of the exiting gases helps fill the cylinder with new air.
Extra torque from exhaust scavenging also helped the 3.7 hold gears longer instead of experiencing shift fussiness often found in other six-cylinders trying to optimally move a heavy half-ton truck.
Engine sound from the 3.7 was muted except at the high-end of the rpm band when it sounded like a sports car. The 3.7 didn’t have anything near the authoritative exhaust note of the 5.0 and 6.2 V-8 engines. It sounded like a quieter version of the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 when the 3.5 was running off-boost.
Zero to 30 MPH (SuperCab): 3.44 seconds
Zero to 60 MPH (SuperCab): 9.07 seconds
What We Like
- 7,000 RPM redline
- 6-2 downshift at 60 mph (twice) blew our minds. Ford says it’s rare but normal
- Good driving performance in a two-wheel drive SuperCrew
- Estimated 23 mpg highway fuel economy
What We Don’t
- Too soon to say. We like this engine but haven’t towed with it
- An F-150 with a V-6 is not a Ranger replacement