By Alex Taylor III
November 24, 2008

Ford likes to brag about the segment-leading status of the F-series pickup trucks, but being Number One isn’t what it used to be.  In 2004, F-series trucks set a record by selling 939,511 units. No danger of breaking that this year.  Through October, only 436,022 F-trucks were sold.  In fact, sales are so slow that Ford had to resort to the unprecedented – and expensive – move of delaying the launch of the 2009 models so that it could clear out more of the 2008s.

The 2009 Ford truck is a revamped version of the all-new vehicle that was introduced in 2003. The chassis has been updated with lighter-weight, higher-strength steel for better fuel economy and safety, and improved payload and towing capacity. Esthetic changes include a larger and more flexible interior, and additional choices of cab styles and trim levels.  F-150s now come in eight flavors, ranging from the bare-bones XL to the high-luxe King Ranch and Platinum versions. But no matter what level you order, you can’t get a gearshift  and clutch.  Beginning this years, manual transmissions are no longer available on the F-150.  Ford says customers stopped wanting them.

Ford believes that selling trucks is all about capabilities and it has crammed a laundry list of them into the new models. My pre-production Lariat was packed with a tailgate step, trailer brake controller, and various gizmos that make it easier to haul partial loads in the pickup bed. That came on top of the standard 5.4 liter V-8 engine with six-speed transmission.  All in all, my test truck was a sensible package wrapped in an attractive body painted an unfortunate color.  Ford calls it “amber gold clearcoat.”  I call it “butterscotch.”  Base sticker price was $34,854.  The options I mentioned are extra.

Over the road, the Lariat performed with aplomb. The steering was sharp, though one driver complained about lack of road feel. The accelerator tip-in was a bit aggressive, as several attendants at Ford’s midtown Manhattan garage will testify. The level of refinement, starting from the powertrain and extending up to the controls and interior trim was impressive. No longer do you have to suffer lack of comfort or sensory deprivation when you climb into a truck.

So what did I like best, the F-150 or the Dodge Ram? The contest is a bit unfair because the Ram was loaded with stuff the Lariat wasn’t: four-wheel drive, two rear doors and a fullsize rear seat, a sunroof, and a $9,000 richer base sticker price. But it seemed to have more character: a higher public profile, better sounding exhaust, crisper interior.  If price were no object, the Ram would be my  choice.  If I were a capability guy operating on a tight budget, the F-150 could get the call.

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