ROMEO, MI—Ford opened the gate to its proving grounds here earlier this month, inviting a small group of journalists inside and turning them loose—though never out of sight—with the opportunity to put four brands of full-size pickups through their paces.
The areas of the testing facility in use were the same ones the company’s developers use to test durability, handling, and towing ability.
It was especially interesting because the full-size truck market is such a competitive and profitable place for manufacturers with everyone finding some positives to publicize.
This year for example:
• The Ram 1500 was named North American Truck of the Year.
• Consumer Reports named the Chevy Silverado its top pick, edging out the Ram.
• Pickuptrucks.com and Popular Mechanics named the F-150 the top light-duty pickup in comparison testing with Chevy and Ram.
• Toyota just celebrated building its one millionth Tundra at its San Antonio, TX, plant.
So where does that leave Ford F-150, the No. 1 selling vehicle in the United States for 31 straight years with a heritage of 33 million sold since 1948?
The F-150 merely remains atop the sales charts with the present (12th) generation truck, one that made its debut as a 2009 model. The 2014 model is due out soon with new Tremor and Raptor special editions; meanwhile, the outgoing 2013 still is holding its own.
“We’ve sold 499,050 F-150s this year [through August],’’ says Doug Scott, Ford’s truck and SUV marketing manager, “and we’ve increased our market share and widened the sales lead over Silverado (No. 2) and Ram (No. 3) this year.’’
Word is that the next generation F-150 will be a 2015 model to be unveiled in mid 2014; however, if there were any heavily clad prototypes on site, they were locked away far from our curious eyes and cameras on the 4,000-acre facility.
What better way to demonstrate the F-150’s continuing competitiveness than by putting the trucks through their paces, pitting the 2013 F-150 versus the 2014 Chevy, Ram, and Toyota?
These were hardly cruises over smooth highway.
To a non-truck guy, one thing was clear: All the pickups rode and handled “like trucks’’ over the test courses. “This is the kind of extreme use a work truck experiences and what our customers expect from our trucks,’’ says Mike Levine, Ford truck ommunications manager.
Watching the trucks going through the durability tests showed them bouncing and making a lot of noise. However, experiencing the ride from the driver’s seat was enough to make me wish I had my dentist, Dr. Mark, on speed dial for possible loose fillings.
The durability course is so turbulent that Ford’s own test drivers are limited in the number of loops they can drive during a shift; indeed, Ford has added a robotics element for autonomous driving in testing the new Transit full-size van over the loop because the in-car experience can be so violent. “They add bouncing-over-curbs to the Transit Connect’s testing,’’ says Levine.
Jackie DiMarco, chief engineer for the F-150, advised us to evaluate the overall ride, to note how the vehicle was reacting, and to look for things such as body roll, door fit and rattle, bed flex, wheel hop, and suspension reactions.
The advice was spot-on. There are differences in how each of the full-size trucks bounces through the simulated potholes and handles stretches such as the diagonal broken expansion grates, washboard sections, and simulated boulder-strewn stretches.
Photos, either still or video, don’t capture the experience. You need to feel and hear it, preferably from the driver’s seat.
Fortunately, there are speed limit signs for each stretch. Even so, there was enough action that none of our test-drivers-for-a-day wanted to be the one who lost control and mashed a front-end or body panel.
No component is exempt in this testing.
“When we introduced HID headlights on the F-150, this testing showed that the jouncing was so extreme that the light beams were interrupted,’’ says Ford’s Levine. “The supplier had to re-design them for rougher duty.’’
My first trip over the course was in the Silverado. Among the cacophony and jouncing, it felt as if the rear end wanted to break loose.
Next up was the Tundra. The experience was that of extreme flexing of the body and frame.
Third was the Ram. The independent (coil springs) suspension that makes it a pleasure on smooth roads resulted in extreme wheel hop under this extreme use, and it took continuous steering correction to keep it on an almost-straight line.
The draw had me in the Ford F-150 last. Maybe I’d become a veteran on the loop by then, but while the ride wasn’t any smoother, the F-150 seemed more balanced and easier to control.
The wet skid pad, frankly, was just fun. Swerve to the side to avoid an obstacle between 25-30 mph, and then swerve back into your original path as you slam on the brakes and feel the ABS working had.
I messed up in the Silverado, but both the Ram and Tundra seemed to handle the maneuver smoothly. The F-150’s braking seemed much more intense (almost violent), and the truck came to a quicker stop.
On the towing loop, climbing a long 7 percent grade, we only had three trucks, each pulling a 9,000-pound enclosed trailer.
“The Ram had the wrong gear ratio so it wouldn’t have been a fair test,’’ says Ford’s Scott.
So the test trio was the ’13 F-150’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 against the 5.7-liter Tundra V-8 and the 5.3-liter Silverado V-8.
We could feel the Silverado (only 355 horsepower and 383 lb.-ft. of torque) working hardest on the hill, and doing more bouncing (“whoop-de-doos,’’ according to one engineer) on the pavement.
The Tundra made a strong pull up the hill but the engine was working flat out all the way, never shifting out of second gear. Coming down, it had less aggressive engine braking.
The F-150’s EcoBoost V-6 (365 horsepower, 420 lb.-ft. of torque) had a nice combination of a strong pull uphill and engine braking on the descent with less bouncing than the Chevy but more than the Toyota.
What did it prove? That not all pick-ups are created equal and Ford certainly hasn’t been left behind.