Hi-tech hauler

by Kelly Taylor  . Feb 26 2016

One of the most popular uses for pickup trucks is also the most difficult to master. Towing a trailer is easy, as long as you never have to back up. If you are towing, my advice is to not be a wuss. Learn how to back it up. Find some pylons, an empty parking lot and practise, practise, practise.

You will get the hang of it. As with learning how to drive a stick, you never know when it will come in handy. Not every campground has pull-through spots and if you get this right, you won’t care.

You should learn this even if you find yourself with a 2016 Ford F-150 equipped with the Pro Trailer backup-assist system. You just knew someone would use technology to bail out those drivers who lack the perseverance needed for these kinds of things, didn’t you?

It happened first with self-parking systems that helped only with parallel parking, but now help you back into a perpendicular spot, too. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you cannot master these two manoeuvres, give it up. Your driving days should be done.)

With Pro Trailer, you dial in the angle you want the trailer to turn and, like self-parking, the system handles the wheel for you. OK, it’s handy, and it might save you precious seconds at a busy campground when other campers are anxiously waiting while you struggle to back in. But would you like to fly in an airplane whose pilot knows how to fly only with autopilot? Didn’t think so.

Pro Trailer is one of the latest innovations Ford has built in to the new F-150. It requires a fair bit of set-up before it works, however. There’s a checkered sticker you have to attach to a specific area of the trailer’s tongue. Then, you have to enter into the system some precise measurements of where the sticker is located, the horizontal distance from the licence plate to the ball, the horizontal distance from the ball to the sticker, the actual distance from the rear-view camera to the sticker and the distance from the ball to the trailer’s axis (on single-axle trailers, the centre of the axle and on dual-axle trailers, the midpoint between the axles).

Then, you have to calibrate the system by driving forward and following on-screen prompts. If you find programming a VCR a challenge you may need help setting this up. The good news is all this information is stored for the next time. Up to 10 trailers can be stored for easy recall. In use, the system reads the trailer’s angle by where the sticker appears in the rear-view camera.

The tester is the King Ranch, named after a famous Texas ranch. It rolls out the door at $75,000, so it’s far from cheap. Amazingly, that isn’t the most-expensive or feature-laden F-150 you can get. That honour falls to the Limited, at more than $83,000. To put that into perspective the difference in price between the base model and the top-line model is $53,000.

The King Ranch, however, is choice. The leather is sublime. The heated steering wheel, divine. The sound from the premium sound system, heavenly. The backup camera and 360-degree surround camera, devilishly useful.

There’s so much to like about the F-150, there’s only one thing that gives me pause: I would be tempted to get the 5.0-litre V-8, as the tester has. Not only does it have an exhaust sound that is absolutely intoxicating, its fuel economy is only a smidgen worse than the 3.5-litre EcoBoost V-6. It doesn’t have quite the same amount of torque, but in a truck like this, I can’t help but put a little more faith in the reliability of a proven engine such as Ford’s five-litre than in the relatively new, turbocharged V-6s. Show me some more real-world reliability data, and you can convince me, Ford. Another option for the cost-conscious is the 3.5-litre normally aspirated V-6. It has less power and torque, but it is also more economical. The fuel-economy leader for the F-150 is the new 2.7-litre EcoBoost V-6, which has nearly as much power as the V-8.

Much has been made on social media about Ford’s aluminum body, with one video showing a guy opening his body panel like a tin can. Umm, yeah… and? It’s not like you couldn’t do that with the paper-thin steel body panels on some vehicles. The key is to remember that body panels are not a significant source of a vehicle’s strength. The high-strength steel channels inside body panels, in the frame and in the superstructure of the cabin is where the real strength resides.

As for how it drives, well, it is a truck. Not much getting around that. Ford isn’t willing to sacrifice capability for comfort by moving away from tried-and-tested leaf springs at the rear. So the back end will hop around a bit on bumps or washboard. But with nearly 12,000 pounds of maximum towing capacity, it’s a trade-off most truck buyers happily accept.

kelly.taylor@freepress.mb.ca