High-tech HAULER

BY Lesley Wimbush . Apr 22 04:00 am

It really doesn’t seem that long ago that a wool blanket thrown over the bench and a tape deck that actually worked was as comfortable as it got in a pickup truck. Yet here we are, a little over two decades later, with trucks that not only out-tow the heavy duty trucks of yesterday, but come with a list of high-tech features that reads like it is from a premium luxury sedan.

Honda holds the title for Canada’s best-selling car; its Civic has occupied that spot for 17 consecutive years. Impressive, yet it pales in comparison to the Ford F-150, which, depending on who you ask, has been Canada’s top-selling pickup truck for nearly 50 years.

The latest F-150 boasts a few notable firsts. For starters, it debuted last year with an all-aluminum body, a controversial move for Ford in a highly traditional market that equates strength with steel. Critics were doubtful the aluminum shell could be as durable or offer as much protection as steel, but some configurations have proved them wrong. F-150 SuperCrews have achieved the highest possible ratings with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), earning the Top Safety Pick award. However, extended cab models only received a mixture of “good” and “marginal” ratings, because they lack the extra structural reinforcements of the SuperCrew.

IIHS crash results also concluded the aluminum-bodied pickups received more extensive damage than previous steel-body trucks, and in some cases, were more difficult and thus more costly to repair. Ford disagreed, and claimed its results proved the current trucks averaged nearly $1,000 less in repair costs than steel-bodied counterparts.

Either way, the reasoning behind the aluminum was its light weight, which made it possible for the F-150 to establish another first in its category; eking out the sort of performance with its V-6 lineup once reserved for big V-8s. Ford’s twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre EcoBoost V-6 has a 5,535- kilogram (12,200-pound) maximum tow rating, making it best in class. But the fuel savings are marginal at best, with the much-trumpeted low numbers limited to the small 2.7-L EcoBoost.

Our 2016 F-150 4x4 SuperCrew Limited tester was a blunt-nosed beast, with plenty of chrome brightwork to offset its Blue Jeans Metallic paint. The sheet metal might be radical, but it maintains the F-150’s familiar blocky outline.

As a top-spec trim, it was optioned up to the gunwales with automatic high beams, a key fob-operated tailgate, automatically deploying running boards, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, locking rear differential, leather bucket seats that are both heated and chilled and, best of all, the slick new trailer back-up assist function.

Under the hood was the larger of the two EcoBoost options, the 3.5-L V-6 with an output of 365 horsepower and 420 lb.-ft. of torque. The piped-in engine growl seems a little ludicrous, but certain truck buyers (you know who we mean) probably need the assurance their V-6 emanates masculinity. Certainly, there’s no discernible feeling of a power downgrade, thanks to the healthy torque and quick throttle response.

It’s an enormous vehicle, but several features make the F-150 SuperCrew handle much better than you’d expect. For the most part, the damping did a fine job of absorbing bumps and potholes and provided a nicely isolated cabin environment. The truck’s rear end does tend to dance a bit over washboard and railway crossings, an unavoidable consequence of a leaf-spring setup when not compressed by a heavy payload.

Lane-keeping assist (which gently nudges the truck back when it crosses the yellow line) and adaptive cruise control remove a lot of the stress inherent in piloting a large, cumbersome vehicle through heavy traffic.

The interior is comfortable and roomy, laden with features that include a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated seats, real wood trim and Sync 3 upgraded connectivity, rather than the universally despised MyFord Touch.

While there’s a large storage area under the arm rest, the centre console itself is compromised by the location of the gear shifter, and doesn’t have nearly the cubby space of the Ram 1500 or Chevrolet Silverado.

A huge array of features make this a seriously capable work truck as well as a comfortable driver. They include bumper step-ups that deploy with a kick, a cleat and bracket-based BoxLink cargo system, tailgate step and handrail, bed lighting, underbody skid plates, an oversized 136-L fuel tank and 3.31 electronic locking rear axle. But the most notable new feature of this truck is the Pro Trailer Backup Assist.

Lining up the hitch and ball used to require an extra set of eyes, but the rear cameras make this ridiculously easy; simply follow the program’s onscreen prompts, enter the measurements from hitch to trailer and axle, and the system can calculate the steering inputs needed to guide the trailer accurately. Hands off the steering wheel, the driver uses a control knob to steer where he wants to go, and the Backup Assist manoeuvres the trailer. Eventually we were able to negotiate a tight honeycomb network of roads at our local airport — backwards — with surprising accuracy.

The long list of luxurious amenities in this Limited truck are nice, but I’d forgo them all for just this one piece of technology. It’s part of the $1,875 Tow Package available for all models, and can be special ordered on the base work truck. Those who have spent years perfecting their backing-up skills probably won’t like it, but for the rest of us, it’s a stroke of brilliance that has been a long time coming.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

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