If the last generation Ford F-150 concentrated on brawn, then the 2021 F-series is about brains.
America’s best-selling pickup is back for its 14th generation, and it’s one clever cookie. Think fully digital displays, over-the-air-updates, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, a stowable shifter and a hybrid powertrain that acts as an onboard generator that can operate an armful of tools.
Built Ford tough? Built Ford smart.
Five years ago, pickup buyers got a crash course in metallurgy as the 2015 F-series became the first truck to sheath itself in aluminum. Though based on the same rugged steel ladder frame familiar to full-size pickups, the F-150’s toned, aluminum bod allowed a weight savings of up to 700 pounds, making it more athletic and fuel efficient. The Ford weathered all sorts of taunts from its competition (remember Chevy’s aluminum bear cage ad?), but came away unscathed, posting big sales numbers as well as class-leading towing and payload.
Funny thing, though. The aluminum revolution didn’t follow. Other truck-makers ignored Ford’s tin lead. Now comes F-150 with the first hybrid drivetrain in class, and my bet is that it won’t be the last.
That’s because the benefits of going hybrid in trucks is — like super sports cars — about more than preening green.
Tell performance car buyers that a battery will make their car more sustainable, and you’ll get yawns. Tell them its torque will rocket it to 60 mph faster, and they’re all ears. Today, hybrid supercars abound — and wait until you get a load of the forthcoming, 1,000-horsepower hybrid-electric Corvette.
“It wasn’t enough that a hybrid F-150 got better fuel economy,” said engineer and F-150 program supervisor Mike Schneider. “We wanted to use it to really enhance a work truck’s capability.”
The onboard generator was born. Trucks are rolling toolboxes, and truck guys have been carrying around bulky gas generators in their beds for years. Schneider himself has a $2,300, 5 kW generator that takes two people to load into the truck bed.
Opt for the F-150’s “Powerboost” hybrid, twin-turbo V-6 engine option (a $3,300 premium over the 2.7-liter V-6) and a 2.4 kW generator is integrated into the truck (a 7.2 kW option is also available). My F-150 Lariat tester had the 7.2 kW option with five plugs bristling from the rear bed: four 110 volt outlets, one 240 volt.
The tailgate party options are enormous. Ford showed off a model at its Milford Proving Grounds that was running a 55-inch TV, Weber grille and meat smoker, which makes the truck a double threat at the football game and the worksite. Tailgate on Sunday, cut wood on Monday.
Ford couples bed outlets with a nifty tailgate complete with built-in rulers and clamp holders so you can plug in your bandsaw while measuring wood cuts.
The hybrid powertrain is no slouch on the road, either. Combining low-end electric torque with the twin-turbo’s upper-RPM range capabilities, the engine pulls hard through the rev range. That 570 pound-feet of torque was especially noticeable when dragging a 13,000-pound mobile home around local roadways.
With electric-motor assist, the 10-speed tranny was noticeably smoother in the hybrid than a comparably burdened truck powered by the non-hybrid, twin-turbo V-6. In keeping with its Swiss Army knife capability, the F-150 comes with a dizzying array of engine options including the standard, 3.3-liter V-6, turbo 2.7-liter V-6, twin-turbo-V-6, hybrid, V-8, and diesel.
You could shop all day mixing and matching the F-150’s drivetrain options over the vehicle’s six trim options. I focused my time on a $68,000, hybrid-powered Lariat model which was a nice middle ground between Ford’s best-selling XLT trim and the luxurious Limited ocean liner.
Ford claims 90% of its sheet-metal is new for 2021, but the exterior betrays few major changes. The grille has a nice ovoid shape to it — shades of little brother Ranger — for a more pleasing face. Otherwise, the signature elements are all there — C-clamp headlights, scalloped A-pillar window for better visibility, F-150-stamped tailgate.
My Sport 4X4 picked up a couple skid plates to keep from slapping its belly on off-road excursions. The truck was suitably rugged when I took it off-road — the frame rails absorbing punishment over challenging moguls that would have reduced a unibody SUV to a trembling bowl of jelly.
But even the off-road experience benefited from the new truck’s interior smarts.
I crawled up a steep embankment of the F-150, its 4x4 system churning happily along in the Mud/Ruts driving mode (one of eight modes). I couldn’t see what was on the other side. No problem. I pushed a button above the dash and an underbody camera showed me the way.
Such conveniences are all over this truck, and all of them operated from the truck’s big, 12-inch touchscreen (eight-inch is standard — but in the Age of Tesla, everything has a 12-inch option). Need a floodlight to illuminate the woods on a moonless night? It’s in the display. Need a bed light? In the display. Even the bed outlets can be monitored from the screen.
This dexterity extends to the console itself, where the turbo V-6 engines come with a stowable shift lever. Hide the lever with the push of button and the console turns into a flat desk surface.
My crew cab interior was enormous and enhanced with more storage — including a second glovebox and lockable, sub-rear seat storage. The latter is suitable for fishing rods and gear — but also for electronic devices that not only benefit from the truck’s Wi-Fi hot spot, but can be recharged by plugging into the second row’s outlet. These are amenities normally associated with your house, for goodness sake, so you can see why trucks are fast becoming a luxury option to rival big European sedans.
The truck’s brains help makes its size more manageable, too.
My F-150 featured advanced cruise control called CoPilot 360 Assist (a Cadillac Super Cruise-like Active Drive Assist is on the way next year), which offers capable driving assistance on interstates and in crowded traffic. Truck owners are busy folks, and the system allows them the ability to take phone calls or glance at text messages without having to pull over to the side of the road.
Trucks have always been the biggest, brawniest things on the road. Now a new generation of F-150s shows they are among the biggest nerds, too.