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THE BENCHMARK

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Mon, Aug 25, 2003

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

THE BENCHMARK

By ZORAN SEGINA The plastic strip covering the top of the cargo box gate on the 2004 model of F-150 truck is style side box is 52 inches long. But for Steven Burford it would have been fraction of an inch shorter.

The laws of physics mandate that when you place a two-foot strip of plastic on top of the steel cargo box gate there has to be room for temperature expansion. Put simply, an F-150 owner from Phoenix will drive around Arizona in August with longer plastic strip than his second cousin driving the same F-150 around Christmas in Minneapolis. When the new F-150 was in early design stage, the engineers left a quarter of an inch on each side for the expansion. If they attempted to flush the strip close to the side, the plastic would twist in hot weather. Underneath the strip one could see the metal of the cargo door, which is ugly, but one cannot fight physics, and a quarter inch expansion was customary accepted clearance in all similar designs. After all, at Ford they always did it this way.

The problem with this approach is that the phrase “we always did it this way” raises Steve’s eyebrows. Maybe it is his Welsh upbringing, or the years he spent in aerospace industry, who knows, Steve just refuses to accept conventional wisdom. Since Steve’s title at Ford Motor Company is a Chief Body Engineer - Tough Truck, the upward movement of his eyebrows receives a lot of attention. So, into the oven the plastic strip went, and when it came out, a quarter of an inch was no longer customary accepted expansion tolerance in the new F-150 design. Tinkering with a competition go-kart, as Steve did in his teenage years, is interesting. Tweaking a better performance from the vintage Cobra in his garage is challenging. Playing with a design of a vehicle that sold over nine hundred eleven thousand units in 2001 alone, and accounts for nearly twenty-eight percent of Ford Division’s sales - now that’s serious intestinal fortitude stuff.

Among cars and trucks there are certain models against which all others are measured. If you endeavor to build a sport sedan, the result of your efforts will inevitably be compared to BMW 3 series. You may claim that your product is better, faster, stronger or cheaper, and all of it may be true, but the very fact that another sedan - a BMW - is used as a benchmark, places that automobile in a special position. It is the place attained by a select few after years of hard efforts. In the full size truck business that position is occupied by F-150. The truck outsells every other full-size truck brand, and, as of December 2002, the F-Series has been America’s favorite vehicle for twenty years running. The nearest rival’s sales are off by nearly two hundred thousand units. To say that the F-Series is extremely important to Ford’s bottom line is an understatement. If you are Steve, and your boss Frank Davis, the F-150 chief program engineer, is out of town, and you had to present parts of the program to Jac Nasser and others on the top floor, and they just gave the nod to redesign the America’s favorite truck - that also happens to accounts for twenty-three percent of Ford Motor Company’s total U.S. sales - your heart starts pumping a little more blood that usual. If, on the other hand, you happen to be one of the hundred and fifty engineers working for Steve, and are fully aware of the importance of the project, your natural instinct tells you to play safe, and not make a single mistake. Unfortunately, this will cause your boss’ eyebrows to move up again. Steve is a racer at heart, and knows that the only way to find the limit is to push over it. He encourages his guys to engage in a calculated risk, even if it results in failure, just to find where that limit may be.

The results of this approach with the F-150 are impressive. The entire frame is fully enclosed to form a closed “box” section rather than the traditional “C” rail design, and uses hydroforming for the sections of the frame rails that bear the loads of the front suspension. As a result the frame is approximately nine times stiffer in torsion and approximately fifty percent stiffer in bending compared to the current truck. Another innovation is the placement of the rear shock absorbers outboard of the frame rails. Rear leaf springs are three inches wider which is twenty percent bigger than in the 2002 F-150 to help reduce sway during cornering and considerably improve towing stability. The shock position also provides better control of axle “skipping” and “skating” that can happen on washboard-type surfaces. It is an innovative application of the old racing adage - reduce unbalanced weight and the car will grip better. Upfront, the new F-150 has a coil-on-shock, long-spindle, double wishbone front suspension with cast aluminum lower control arms. Steve’s guys put in “gripping” bushings and double ball-type joints instead of rubber bushings in the stabilizer bar system. The front shock absorbers are mounted inside the springs, allowing four-wheel-drive models to use coil springs instead of the traditional torsion bars, permitting more precise suspension tuning. A turn of the steering wheel now moves a rack-and-pinion steering system rather than the old recirculating-ball system used on the current F-150. Front discs are 330-millimeter in diameter and have vented have twin-piston calipers. In the rear there are two 348-millimeter disc brakes. Four-wheel anti-lock brake control and electronic brake force distribution are standard.

I had the chance to talk to with Pete Dowding, an Englishman who is in charge of the F-150 engine. He pointed out to a new Charge Motion Control Valves. These devices are located at the end of each intake runner and controlled by an electronic motor. As engine speed increases they are programmed to open at a predetermined point. The valves are specially shaped to speed up the intake charge and induce a tumble effect in the combustion cylinder. This causes the fuel to mix more thoroughly, and to burn quickly and efficiently, with reduced emissions, particularly at idle. At higher engine speeds, they do not affect the intake charge at all. This allows undisturbed maximum flow into the combustion chambers at wide-open throttle. The 5.4-liter, 3-valve Triton V-8 engine delivers 300 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 365 foot-pounds of torque at 3,750 rpm. The smaller 4.6-liter Triton, also a V-8, puts out 231 horsepower at 4,750 rpm and 293 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. And it’s all drive-by-wire. Instead of a mechanical throttle linkage, both engines are equipped by a torque-based electronic throttle control that uses driver input from the accelerator pedal to actively modulate the torque at the drive wheels. It is a direct descendant of technology first used in fighter aircraft. Ground version of the Top Gun. The system is equipped with an accelerator position sensor, an electronic control circuit and an actuator at the throttle valve on the engine. The controller takes into account the current operating status of the engine and ambient conditions, and then operates the throttle as needed to best deliver the desired result.

Sitting behind the wheel of a refined F-150 Lariat, in beige leather seats, my hand resting on a chrome clad floor shifter (this is not a typo), I have difficulty accepting the fact that the passenger cabin ends behind the second row of seats. I glance at the rear view mirror expecting to see the rest of the sport-utility vehicle which somehow isn’t there. The ride is eerily quiet, more suitable to the Lincoln Navigator than an F-150 truck. The quiet environment gives Steve plenty of time to tell me about the shape of the rubber insulation between a door and the frame. Traditionally, the rubber insulation is round, because this is easiest shape to make. As the truck and the rubber age, the movement of the truck causes doors to move ever so slightly around the frame. With time, the door starts to press on the insulation unevenly and the rubber gets deformed. Not much, but enough to produce noise. Which again raises Steve’s eyebrows. And explains why the door seals on the new F-150 are square-shaped. The subject matter is highly technical, but Steve voice overjoys with pride. This truck is his toy, a multi-billion dollar version of the racing go-kart he put together back in his native Wales. He and every one of the hundred and fifty guys in his department, as well as countless others, worked hard for years, and the product of this labor is taking us around the country rounds of the “old San Anton.” Then there are stories. Of a young engineer on Steve’s team who came up with an idea to put a spring load in the rear cargo door so that a gentler segment of the F-150 customer base need to lift only thirteen pounds as opposed to standard twenty-five when closing the cargo box.

We begin testing the F-150's towing capacity. I am invited to get behind the wheel of several trucks made by the competitors. Strapped to each truck is a trailer loaded with seven thousand five hundred pounds of lead bricks. The test consists of taking the trailer on the road, going little uphill and then little downhill, turn around and go back. A couple of miles round trip. We start the engines and take off. Holy Smokey and the Bandit! I am eastbound and down hauling a... The seven hundred pounds of tongue weight lightens one of the competitor’s front wheels that on a return trip uphill produces a very interesting driving sensation. My hand is searching for a Citizens Band Radio so I can yell: “Breaker One-Nine” and warn other east- and west-bound hands I am out there on the road. During the third round of testing, on a downhill run, I am sufficiently emboldened by my trucking skills to press the brake a wee bit late. The weight of the two full size sedans behind me immediately responds with a quick lesson in the Newton’s law of gravity. After a brief internal negotiations with the Maker (of the Universe, not the truck - of the sort “If I ever get out of this unharmed, I promise . . .. “) I return the competitors and the trailers unharmed, and get behind the wheel of the F-150. The truck is visibly superior to its competitors. Despite three tons of the weight behind us, the ride is smooth, and the drive-by-wire system allows for very measured dispensation of power. Ninety percent of torque on both engines is available at 2,000 rpm. As a result, an empty F-150 accelerates more slowly that its competitors, but when towing heavy loads, its torque curve is more even. The stiff chassis makes the handling much easier and the truck does not wander around on an uphill run. One realizes that, among the potential buyers out there in East Texas, there are those who do not give rodent’s behind about the chrome shifter on the Lariat, but are vitally concerned that their three horses, saddles, tack, hay, trailer and all, will make it in time to the next local rodeo in Austin. These people made the F-150 a benchmark, and they are the ones Steve and his guys have to satisfy first.

All of this performance comes in a very nice design package. The new F-150 has chiseled looks, an automotive version of James Brolin. The front and rear tracks have been widened by more than 1.5 inches, the standard wheel and tire combinations are larger and sit within straightforward circular wheel arches. The headlamps are round, but sit within a square. The front fascia is accented with a bold bumper. The beltline is lower at the A pillars and then raises to the level of high cargo bed line. Steve points out how the inward bow of the side windows was placed more vertical to give the F-150 a planted stance. The F-150 comes in variety of shapes, sizes and combinations. A customer can order a different engine, trim, interior, cabin, two or four doors, longer or shorter truck bed, you name it. All in all there is more then a hundred possible configurations, from the different interiors to the four axle ratios (3.31:1 to 4.10:1) and limited-slip capabilities. A particularly interesting feature in the Lariat I drive is a modular overhead rail system which allows owners to customize interior storage options. There are questions, of course. The new F-150 is heavier than the existing model. The truck weighs from 4788 to 5879 pounds depending on the trim. Given that the heaviest configuration for the 4.6 liter engine is SuperCrew 4x4 at 5502 pounds, and the smaller power plant may not provide sufficient oomph because each of 231 ponies has to carry almost 24 pounds. The electronics are numerous and sophisticated, but may, in the long run, prove to have more quirks than the guy driving to the Austin rodeo would like to have. And than there is the transmission question. Owners of the full size Ford trucks I know love the trucks but hate the fact that the high output eats through transmissions at an alarming rate. My friend Larry is a contractor whose truck takes him from one job site to the next, and there may not exist a patch of unpaved road in Southern New Mexico that his truck has not covered. After having gone through two transmissions he ultimately switched to the diesel-powered F-350.

The new F-150 uses an upgraded version of Ford’s 4R70E four-speed automatic transmission. The 5.4 liter engine is mated to a 4R75E type. Steve’s colleagues explain that the transmission has been upgraded to handle the torque of the 5.4-liter engine, while taking advantage of the existing improvements. Most notably Ford engineers enhanced the cooling process which seems to have been the cause of early failures. In a presentation of a new vehicle, especially as important as the F-150 there is a lot of statements concerning design, handling, power, you name it. Talking to Steve, and getting an inside glimpse on how much hard work went into the Lariat that is taking us around Bexart County, it is a pleasure to tell him that the results of all this labor show in the most impressive way. The statement about F-150's long term reliability, however, cannot be answered yet. It will take hundreds of thousands of trucks, and millions of miles of America’s roads, and many a guy and gal going to the Austin rodeo, and Larry’s riding over thousands of yet-to-be-developed home sites before the results are known. As Steve and I drive through a forest, toward the next presentation point, we come across a section of the narrow country road overrun by a shallow stream. On the other side is a fellow journalist, a photographer trying to take a good footage of the F-150 as it runs through water. Can I refuse a colleague’s request? And because this photo-op will also give me a chance to drive the truck through four inches of running river, can I resist? I shift the Lariat in reverse, gun the engine, and off we go. This is a toy, albeit a big one. Steve and laugh like kids as water cascades around us. It turns out we splashed so much that the camera nary caught a glimpse of the F-150 in the spray. We will have to do another try, isn’t that bad? As I back the truck for the second run I sense more than I see a patch of concrete road covered by water.

The sharp beep of the rear sensor, and the tilt to the left inform me that the Lariat’s rear left tire fell off the pavement. Marcy, a Ford media representative on the other side of the brook, remains outwardly calm, but I can feel her tension through the windshield of the Lariat from fifty yards away. Steve, on the other hand, is as cool as though we are sitting on a showroom floor instead of a quite wet riverbed. I shift the gear forward, lightly press the pedal, the low Triton-powered torque takes over, and the Lariat climbs back on the road, without any slipping or sliding. We repeat the water run and this time the shots are perfect. Marcy breathes an audible sigh of relief. Back on the dry ground Steve asks me whether I was in an all-wheel drive mode. When I reply that I do not know he leans over to check the setting on the dashboard. He cannot find the button because none exists. This Lariat happens to be an ordinary two-wheel drive model. It is a good thing Marcy was unaware of this. Hell, it is a good thing I was unaware of this. Two miles later Steve’s face stretches into a mischievous grin: “Our competitor says that the rules have changed. I guess, we just changed the game.” It so happens that in Wales the game called football denotes a completely different sport from the one played under the same name in the United States. A game of Tough Truck, anyone?

Go to www.ford.com for more information

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