Ford Civilizes Its Popular Big Trucks - With Room for the Baby

When you drive this truck, you stand tall - especially when you're trying to climb in. Once you're on the road, people get out of the way. And if your 4x4 is fire-engine red, airport visitors waiting for you to pick them up can spot you a mile away. Maybe that's why Americans like them.

People in this country have bought more of Ford's full-size F-series trucks than any other vehicle - car or truck - every year since 1982. So when Ford softened them up for more car-oriented buyers in 1997, a lot of people took notice. And not just people who wear hard hats. The company's marketing studies have shown that many buyers use their pickup only for light-duty weekend hauling and as a secondary family vehicle. Light trucks of all sorts accounted for 45 percent of overall sales by US carmakers in 1995.

So when Ford redesigned its best-selling truck series for 1997, its main goal was to make the trucks more user-friendly. They have a more aerodynamic sloping nose that gives better visibility. They employ a more passenger-car-like front suspension system. And they have more interior room than any previous Ford truck.

Actually, Ford introduced the new half-ton F150 last January - as a '97 model. In November the redesign continued with the 3/4-ton F250. This F250 is rated to haul only 8,500 pounds gross, however. Truckers who carry heavier loads have to make do with the old design for another year.

When Ford set out to make its bestselling truck more user-friendly, it followed the lead of Chrysler, which geared its full-sized Dodge Ram pickups toward contractors who practically live out of their trucks all day. So Ford has incorporated a center armrest (part of the XLT trim package) with a storage bin just large enough for a laptop computer. Notably, the bin in the Dodge will hold the laptop along with a cellular telephone and several odd items such as pens, sunglasses, and cassette tapes.

But in other ways, Ford has taken truck livability a step further: It was the first to introduce a third door on its Supercab models for access to the handy area behind the front seats where kids can ride on weekends and "hard-hats" can keep their tools locked up and dry on the job site. The extra door was a big help, for instance, in loading a baby and carseat onto the rear bench. While General Motors has copied the idea on all its trucks, there it is optional. Ford made it standard. Dodge still doesn't offer it. To Ford's credit, the front passenger seat belt remains anchored to the roof, not the rear-opening third door, as in the Chevy and GMC trucks.

As for a baby, a rear-facing car-seat can be installed in the front passenger seat; the passenger airbag in Ford pickups can be switched off using the ignition key. The number of seat belts indicates the Supercab seats six - but I wouldn't recommend it. Four is OK for short trips.

The dashboard has two "power-points" - cigarette-lighter outlets to power everything from the cellular phone and laptop to a portable baby-bottle warmer.

The one thing that isn't well thought out inside is the four-wheel-drive control, which is identical in size, feel, and operation to the heater fan switch. The two are so close together that it's easy to pop into four-wheel-drive accidentally when you mean to turn up the fan.

The new independent front suspension dramatically improves both the ride and control over bumps. For an 18-foot-long vehicle, this truck feels almost nimble. An optional $490 automatic-leveling rear suspension makes hauling big loads easier.

Ford's new Triton engines produce gobs of pulling power, but all this power comes at a price: 10.3 miles per gallon around town with the largest 5.4 liter V-8. By contrast, the highest-mileage two-wheel-drive F150 with a V-6 is EPA rated at 17 m.p.g. city and 22 highway.

Prices for the F-series range from $15,070 for a bare-bones two-wheel-drive F150 regular cab all the way to $33,870 for a completely loaded four-wheel-drive F250 Lariat Supercab. The tested mid-level 4x4 F250 XLT Supercab came to $29,155.

Under its pretty new skin, the F-series is still an honest truck, not just for weekend handymen, sports aficionados, and poseurs after all.

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