Ford’s EcoBoost F-150 packs a powerful punch

Image: 2011 F-150 XLT Custom
Ford has equipped its 2011 F-150 with EcoBoost — a turbocharged, direct-fuel-injected engine that is designed to provide the power of a large engine with the fuel consumption of a smaller one. Ford / Wieck

You know the pickup truck commercials, the ones that air during football games. A gravel-voiced actor boasts of the truck’s unbelievable toughness and capability, while the video shows images of said truck being jettisoned from the space shuttle, withstanding fiery reentry and enduring an impact leaving a crater the size of the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium.

As the dust and smoke settle, a construction worker, or maybe a cowboy or firefighter (only occupations on the kindergarten “I want to be when I grow up” list need apply), hitches the truck to Mt. Rushmore and drags the mountain to the coast for the soft-living citified folks in those parts to admire.

There’s no doubting it — trucks are marketed to the working man, but there’s trouble brewing in Washington, D.C. Politicians look set to outlaw the V8 engines that are a mainstay for pickups (well, maybe not immediately, and not specifically, but increasingly stringent fuel-economy standards demand efficiency levels that will have that effect).

So Ford’s announcement that it would introduce a pair of small V6 engines in the new F-150 seems likely to surrender the truck’s status as the best-selling pickup for 33 years in a row. It sounds like a barkeep responding to a roughneck’s order for a “shot o’ rotgut” with a prissy pastel-colored umbrella drink.

Guys, you’ll be happy to learn that’s not necessarily the case.

Ford has equipped its 2011 F-150 with EcoBoost — the automaker’s trade name for its emerging line of turbocharged, direct-fuel-injected engines that are designed to provide the power of a large engine with the fuel consumption of a smaller one.

And the good news is these new engines are fantastic. The F-150 gets four new engines for 2011 — two new V8s, a base V6 and the Ecoboost, which is a turbo V6. The V8s are truckified versions of the hot-rod 5.0-liter V8 that debuted in the Mustang and the hell-strong 6.2-liter V8 seen previously in the even more monstrous F-Super Duty pickups last year.

That the V8s are good is no surprise. Ford’s powertrain engineers have been on a roll of late, but a V6 in a truck? To win over the average truck buyer, these engines are going to have to not just exceed expectations but demolish them entirely to find acceptance among conservative truck buyers, and these engines accomplish that convincingly.

The base 3.7-liter V6 engine is rated at 302 hp and 278 lb.-ft. and it moves the F-150 with sufficient urgency and grace, while competitive V6 engines and some V8s wheeze and strain and still fall short. The F-150’s 3.7 V6 not only spanks the V6 engines found in smaller Ram, Chevrolet, GMC and Toyota pickups, it also tops GM’s 4.8-liter V8 powerplant and falls just shy of the Ram and Toyota entry-level V8s. With 107 more ponies than GM’s V6, look for Chevrolet and GMC trucks to get an upgraded six-cylinder post-haste.

Truck conversion for the engine includes hardware like a forged steel crankshaft, oil squirters to spray the underside of the pistons and a cast aluminum oil pan that helps reinforce the engine block rather than the usual stamped steel or plastic pan. This is an engine that makes no apologies for either power or toughness and which should deliver more palatable real-world fuel economy than the engines we’re accustomed to. Unfortunately, the EPA hasn’t released fuel economy numbers yet for the F-150, though Ford is predicting a stunning 23 mpg highway, which is 3 mpg better than any competitor’s six-cylinder truck.

But the EcoBoost is where the real interest lies. The company is positioning this as a premium engine and will charge $750 more for it than for the 5.0-liter V8, which it thoroughly out-muscles. This ought to be the first clue that this is not the smoking, cast-iron straight-six lump that some us of may recall from pickups of the past.

Indeed, the EcoBoost bears more resemblance to Ford’s PowerStroke V8 diesel truck engines than to its gasoline engine families, with parts like heavy-duty polymer-coated bearings.

And it will take whatever loads drivers can heap on it, with 365 hp, 420 lb.-ft torque, and 11,300 lbs. towing capacity. For comparison, that’s more torque and towing capacity than is available from any engine in any competitor’s truck. Ram drivers with a manly Hemi under the hood may snicker at the F-150’s “EcoBoost” badge, but the EcoBoost will thumb its nose at the Hemi as it powers away with more torque that is delivered at lower revs.

Unfortunately it is still too early to quantify the EcoBoost’s efficiency because the EPA hasn’t tested it yet. In testing by journalists employing their best “hypermiling” techniques the F-150 returned as high as 32 mpg. In more realistic driving on highways that included some construction delays we saw 20 mpg.

Outside the engine bay the F-150 remains the titanic hauling machine it was when this new edition debuted for 2010, with a stronger frame and more lavish cabin than any of its competitors.

When that truck arrived a year ago, still saddled by its old-tech powertrain options, many reviewers picked it as the top pickup, while others made equally strong cases for Chevy and Ram with their muscular engines. This new engine lineup puts Ford ahead of its competitors and the EcoBoost in particular puts the F-150 over the top because it doesn’t ask drivers to choose between power and efficiency. Giving them both should be enough to discourage shoppers from counting how many cylinders it uses to do the job.

The new F-150 has strong green credentials too. Even die-hard fans don’t like the truck’s lousy mileage. In surveys they have consistently identified poor fuel economy as their number one point of dissatisfaction, Ford reports.

Now if they would just change the engine’s name to TurboMax, the F-150 EcoBoost would be ready for its new TV commercial. Cue the astronauts, cowboys, construction workers and firefighters.