On The Road Review: Ford F-150 Ecoboost

Dearborn’s Ford Motor Co. has been pumping out best-selling pickup trucks for decades now, yet the F-series trucks have not always been class leaders in performance, refinement or capabilities. The latest Ecoboost-powered F-150 aims to erase any doubts about Ford’s commitment to its top-selling vehicle — the cash-cow that helps make Ford successful.

There is no other class of vehicles in America that defines the success of our economy — or the auto industry — than full-size pickup trucks. When buyers are making these expensive purchases for their business or their personal/recreational pursuits, we have a certain amount of optimism about the overall economy. History tells us if pickup sales are in the tank, indications are that the rest of the economy is headed that way.

While still true today — Ford’s F-series sales are up 8 percent so far this year in a mixed economic situation — there is a great deal of pressure to improve the fuel efficiency of all vehicles, including trucks.

Higher gas prices have forced incremental efficiency gains from all automakers. Better aerodynamics, low-rolling resistant tires, improved air and fuel-induction systems, cylinder deactivation technologies when cruising, stop-start electronics, direct injection fuel injection, lighter aluminum-cast engines, multi-ratio transmissions with high-threshold torque converters, plus different axle ratios have all been part of the mix so far. Hybrid powertrains have worked well in some applications, but their expense is still prohibitive for many vehicles.

To get to the next level of mandated fuel efficiency automakers will need to significantly rethink powerplants; either we need to move to diesel power very quickly as European automakers have, or, we need to adapt other innovative induction systems that make smaller engines perform like bigger, large-displacement motors.

Ford has chosen the latter route for now with its Ecoboost technology. The power results are very impressive. The touted fuel economy numbers did not materialize.

Ecoboost is Ford’s label for its turbocharged engine designs. For the F-series pickup trucks — the first rear- and four-wheel-drive application for this technology — Ford has taken the 3.5-liter V-6 used in the Flex wagon and Taurus SHO sedan, remapped the electronic managing program to boost output, and created a powerhouse that outperforms the 5.0-liter V-8 borrowed from the Mustang GT.

While Ford is also planning on using Ecoboost technology in all future models — including small cars such as Fiesta and Focus — the 3.5-liter V-6 is currently the largest application in production. Essentially a dual-overhead cam, all-aluminum engine using direct injection, variable valve timing, and twin turbochargers, the Ecoboost 3.5 motor makes a stunning 365 horsepower at 5,000 rpms, plus 420 pound/feet of peak torque at only 2,500 rpms. Running through a six-speed automatic that features manual shift mode, the Ford clocks EPA mileage numbers of 16/22-mpg in rear drive versions, or, 15/21-mpg in 4X4 models.

On the surface, these fuel economy numbers are not much different from the Ford’s rivals. Depending on where you drive, how you drive, temperatures, loads, etc., you could exceed the EPA estimates with a reserved right foot, or, you could exercise your right to explore the Ecoboost engine’s prodigious output and enjoy not so good fuel economy.

And therein lies the beauty of the Ecoboost motor. When you lean on it, this turbo motor spins out diesel-like torque all over the rev-band, giving the F-150 Ecoboost an 11,300-pound tow rating — tops in the class — plus the capacity of carrying up to 3,060 pounds of cargo and people. Acceleration is brisk no matter what your measuring stick is, as the Ecoboost whooshes away with barely a whisper from the exhaust or the engine room.

That alone will surprise a number of drivers; the V-6 engine here makes more usable power than the V-8 but makes no mechanical noise doing it. The Ecoboost is eerily subdued while being pushed.

The testing regiment behind the Ecoboost V-6 for the F-series is the stuff of Internet legend, with numerous videos and a lengthy list of accomplishments. Ford tortured the Ecoboost on racetracks, climbing desert mountain passes pulling heavy trailers during summer, and with extensive cold weather abuse. There is a lot of confidence at Ford for this product.

Ford also has made a big deal about the Ecoboost’s fuel efficiency, pushing this virtue above all others in heavy advertising. You’ve seen the ads: V-8 power with V-6 efficiency. During our time together, the Ecoboost SuperCab model shown achieved a fuel mileage best of 18.3 mpg for 400-plus miles, .5 mpg less than the trip computer. When driven at a steady 50-55-mph, the Ford’s nifty trip computer illustrated the highest fuel mileage numbers — about 22-23-mpg when tickling the throttle, a scenario that was not normal for very many miles.

Incredibly, Ford has seen a 30 percent take rate on the Ecoboost engine — double sales projections, and still rising — despite a $750 price premium over the 5.0-liter V-8 engine. The tow rating numbers and the overall performance of the Ecoboost V-6 are making a big impact in the marketplace.

Given that the rest of the new F-series embraces the character of last year’s top-selling pickup, pundits should expect nothing less. The styling is little changed from previous editions — some grille alterations suffice for most trim levels — while the rest of the truck’s portfolio is basically the same. Ford did add a revised dash with a 4.2-inch information screen front and center — a data center that lets the driver scroll through a menu of reports and trip information via buttons on the steering wheel — plus the column-mounted shift lever (much preferred to the console location) has manual-mode shifting capabilities useful for towing.

Ford also has changed to electric-assist power steering which is designed to lessen the power draw on the engine’s accessory belt. Most automakers are moving in this direction, as low-speed steering is easier, lighter. However, the drawback is less ‘feel’ or direct feedback to the driver as this steering design isolates the action of the wheels from the driver. Ford has done an admirable job of mitigating some of the downsides, but you won’t mistake electric steering for the communicative responses formally associated with driving.

Ford has tuned the Ecoboost V-6 for power and it surely delivers. After market tuners are capitalizing on the turbo-engine’s ability to create ever more power.

I could envision future adaptations that accentuate the Ecoboost’s ability for greater fuel efficiency with a slight loss of power. Then, the F-150 will certainly be able to make credible mileage claims that best its rivals.

Ford Ecoboost pricing starts at $25,440 for a regular cab RWD pickup, $1,750 more than the standard 3.7-liter 302-hp V-7 and $750 more than the 5.0-liter 360-hp V-8. Tested Ecoboost SuperCab 4X4 listed for $35,260 before options.

Ecoboost F-series hits: impressively smooth and powerful, nicely finished interior, quiet.

F-series misses: choppy ride over uneven surfaces, rear suicide doors seem outdated, fuel mileage not quite as advertised.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.