2021 Ford F-150 First Drive Review: Theory Of Evolution

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Whenever an automaker redesigns a core model, it’s faced with a choice – significant changes or incremental fine-tuning. Ford used the first tactic when it introduced the aluminum-bodied 2015 F-150, which implemented advanced materials and construction methods to cut a whopping 700 pounds of overall weight. But now, the Blue Oval is taking a more conservative approach with the 2021 F-150, giving it a comprehensive list of minor improvements.

Admittedly, the 2021 Ford F-150 does feature one massively noteworthy enhancement, the so-called PowerBoost hybrid powertrain. Although it’s not the first parallel-hybrid pickup – that honor goes to the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid – the PowerBoost F-150 should be a much more successful application of electrified technology. Ford modernized the hot-selling pickup in other ways, too: over-the-air software updates, an available 12.0-inch infotainment display, and an optional semi-autonomous system called Active Driving Assistant (coming in late-2021). So how’s it all work in the real world?

2021 Ford F-150 off-road profile

Hit The Road, Jack

While Ford says the 2021 F-150 is new from the ground up, we’re a bit suspicious that it’s actually a heavily revised version of the 2015–2020 F-Series. However, in our book, that’s a good thing. The outgoing F-150 features surprising nimbleness, excellent visibility, and good proportions that make it easy to place on the road, an attribute that doesn’t apply to the Ford’s competitors at General Motors and Toyota. We spent most of our time in a lavishly equipped F-150 Platinum PowerBoost, and we’re happy to report that the marriage of electrons and petroleum distillates is a happy one.

The hybrid gets a familiar, twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 combined with an electric motor, for a total output of 430 horsepower and 570 pound-feet – staggering numbers for a half-ton pickup. What’s more, if your right foot is gentle enough, the PowerBoost can run on electricity alone, even at freeway speeds. Part of that is due to the electric motor’s location, sandwiched between the gas engine and 10-speed automatic transmission. Surprisingly, the motor runs through the gears rather than direct-driving the wheels, helping the powertrain feel more conventional and natural than other hybrids.

2021 Ford F-150 off-road rear quarter
2021 Ford F-150 off-road nose on

Hy-Tech

A clutch decouples the transmission from the engine when running in pure EV mode, but when called upon, internal combustion power provides a relatively seamless transition into hybrid mode. Jabbing the throttle sharply can result in some shuddering as the engine tries to provide propulsion to match the driver’s input, a situation exacerbated by some unavoidable turbo lag. For the most part, however, the powertrain functions invisibly, with the electric motor’s instant torque output and the transmission’s logical gear selection providing a smooth experience.

Predictably, the PowerBoost system also reduces fuel consumption, thanks in part to very natural-feeling regenerative brakes. Rated at 24 miles per gallon in both city and highway driving, we saw an indicated 19 mpg in decidedly hilly, aggressive driving. The same route in an F-150 equipped with the 5.0-liter V8 yielded a readout of 17 mpg, so we think the EPA’s estimate might be a bit optimistic. Nevertheless, the hybrid should still excel in low-speed city driving, where the electric motor will be most effective.

2021 Ford F-150 passenger's side
2021 Ford F-150 infotainment

Keeping Its Composure

Out on the open road, the F-150 is smooth and polished, even the base-model XL we sampled briefly on the freeway. Seat comfort is first-rate, with plenty of space and an upright seating position that provides excellent outward visibility – some credit here goes to the F-150’s signature low beltline. Even the base F-150 gets a manual tilt and telescoping wheel, with power adjustability available on higher trims.

Every F-150 also gets Sync 4 infotainment, displayed on a standard 8.0-inch or available 12.0-inch touchscreen. The system is very easy to use, with included wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto making smartphone mirroring even easier and more convenient. Other technology features include an available 12.0-inch digital instrument cluster that features crisp, beautiful graphics and extensive information displays.

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No one expects quick reflexes of a pickup, but the F-150 is a decent swashbuckler when the road gets twisty. The electrically assisted steering rack keeps the truck between the lines well enough, and there’s enough grip and composure to handle the winding, occasionally snow-covered roads we saw in our time with the truck. That’s in spite of an old-school live rear axle suspended by leaf springs – the Ram 1500 features a five-link design with coil springs – but Ford’s engineers did a good job quelling unwelcome body motions and harshness. The brakes are strong and sure, good for descending long grades with a trailer or some stuff in the bed.

2021 Ford F-150 off-road rear
2021 Ford F-150 off-road offset

Hauling The Mail (And More)

Speaking of towing, Ford loves to talk up the 2021 F-150’s best-in-class trailer rating of 14,000 pounds. Saddled with a three-axle trailer and a ski boat – total weight: more than 8,000 pounds – the F-150 felt unflappable, even when contending with heavy traffic up California’s legendarily steep Grapevine. We undertook the drive using the revised EcoBoost 3.5-liter V6, which now produces 400 hp and 500 lb-ft, and although the massive boat in tow blunted the F-150’s reflexes, the truck put power to the ground effectively and had little trouble merging into traffic.

When you’ve reached your towing destination, available Pro Trailer Backup Assist (which showed up on the 2016 F-150) makes reversing a trailer much easier. The driver turns a dial on the dashboard indicating which direction the trailer should go, and the F-150 takes over steering duties to make that happen, mitigating the left-is-right confusion (and resultant jack-knife) that sometimes happens when reversing with a trailer.

Saddled with a three-axle trailer and a ski boat – total weight: more than 8,000 pounds – the F-150 felt unflappable.

We must admit some trepidation, however, at the idea of towing near that 14,000-pound limit. Ford’s aggressive weight-loss regimen on the 2015–2020 F-150 resulted in a truck that felt nervous towing a trailer more than double its weight, and we’re not convinced the Blue Oval made enough changes to the 2021 F-150 to remedy that. Although it handled the 8,000-pound boat trailer with nothing but confidence, we’d still be inclined to consider a three-quarter-ton truck if we regularly needed to tow more than 10,000 pounds.

Of course, towing is only a small part of the F-150’s work resume. Since many of these trucks will get pressed into hard labor, the F-150 is rated for a maximum payload of 3,325 pounds, enough for about 1.5 yards of gravel or 2 yards of topsoil. We tried on the costume of a fleet manager with a base F-150 XL 4×2 powered by a 5.0-liter V8, producing 400 hp and 410 lb-ft (up 5 and 10, respectively, over the outgoing truck). Even loaded down with nearly 2,000 pounds of gardening equipment, the F-150 XL boasted more than enough power to keep up with freeway traffic, as well as stable handling and braking.

2021 Ford F-150 off-road front
2021 Ford F-150 off-road wide

A Little Mud On The Tires

Although Ford will leave the hardcore off-roading to the revised F-150 Raptor (which we’ve yet to see), the standard pickup will still enjoy the occasional rough-road playdate. While it won’t rival the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon when it comes to tight trails, the 2021 F-150 will still do a fine job getting its owners to the backcountry campsite or fishing hole. The Lariat SuperCrew we drove featured respective approach, departure, and breakover angles of 24.3, 25.3, and 20.0 degrees, with 9.4 inches of ground clearance to get over most light off-road obstacles.

What’s more, Ford will offer the PowerBoost hybrid system with four-wheel drive, a configuration we were eager to test. The company’s pre-planned off-road route included a man-made rock garden that put the PowerBoost’s prodigious output to the test, which it aced by providing the driver with smooth, consistent torque that was easy to modulate over each rock and obstacle.

There’s also a very particular satisfaction that comes with cruising down a somewhat rough dirt road in four-wheel drive with the gas engine completely shut off, allowing the electric motor to do the work. Although we spent most of the drive with the truck running in hybrid mode, there were a few stretches over which it turned into an EV, and the regenerative brakes helped keep downhill speed under control. Aiding matters further is hill descent control, which is included in the FX4 Off-Road package along with skid plates, specially tuned shock absorbers, a rock-crawl drive mode, and more.

2021 Ford F-150 work surface
2021 Ford F-150 propower

A Vehicular Multitool

Among the 2021 F-150’s more interesting enhancements is an available Pro Power Onboard generator system, which can produce 2.0 kilowatts of electricity on internal-combustion pickups and either 2.4 or 7.2 kilowatts on the hybrid. Even the smallest generator would make an excellent home improvement or tailgating companion, easily handling items like an electric air compressor, circular saw, margarita blender, or toaster oven. Meanwhile, the 7.2-kilowatt Pro Power Onboard system can run all the tools needed for a medium-size job site, and it includes a 220-volt outlet in the bed that’s perfect for welders and other big appliances.

Moving inside, Ford is justifiably proud of its Interior Work Surface, a deployable desk that extends out from either the center console on trucks with bucket seats or the folding center armrest on those with a front bench. The Interior Work Surface sits at the perfect level for a laptop or notepad, lending credence to Ford’s claim that many of its customers occasionally use their trucks as a mobile office. The large, flat tray table will make this much easier for those folks who need to occasionally pull into a rest area to get some work done.

The Max Recline Seats are far more comfortable for roadside naps than anything else on the market.

Speaking of rest areas, Ford also noticed that F-150 customers frequently took mid-day (or mid-drive) catnaps in their trucks, so the company used the 2021 model to introduce the Max Recline bucket seat (a late-availability item). With the rear bench folded up, the front seatbacks recline nearly 180 degrees while the seat bottom raises a few inches, creating a nearly flat space to saw a few logs. The feature is far more comfortable for those roadside naps than anything else on the market, although it’s only available on the luxurious King Ranch, Platinum, and Limited trims.

In addition to those productivity and comfort features, Ford’s Active Driving Assistant will show up on the 2021 F-150 at some point, although it won’t be available at launch. Folks interested in the feature will need to option their trucks with the hardware, then download an over-the-air software update to activate the hands-free highway driving system when it becomes available.

2021 Ford F-150 interior work surface
2021 Ford F-150 seats

Strong Truck, Strong Sales

There’s no reason to expect anything other than segment-leading sales of the 2021 F-150, given the pickup family’s ongoing winning streak in the showroom – 43 years and counting of being America’s most popular vehicle. The new truck should only add to that popularity with modern features that don’t detract from capability or comfort.

It’s not quite the quantum leap that the 2015 pickup was, but the 2021 Ford F-150 boasts consistent refinements in drivability, comfort, technology, and efficiency that keep it current against the wonderful Ram 1500 and stable Chevrolet Silverado 1500. Not only is it all but guaranteed to keep its crown, but the F-150 might even convert some other brand loyalists to the Blue Oval.

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