It's a good time to be a work truck buyer. With high gas prices driving the image buyer (termed "air haulers" by some truck engineers) out of the market, manufacturers are back to courting fleets, its core business, more so than ever before.

So said Jim Farley, Ford's marketing chief, during the launch of the next generation F-150 at Ford's Michigan Proving Grounds in October. Indeed, the percentage of Ford's commercial buyers in the full-size truck segment has increased from 15 percent in 2003 to 25 percent today.

Farley called the ground-up development of Ford's top-selling vehicle a "handshake with the customer, the working guy. Those customers ring in our ears every day," he said.

To see if the truck lived up to that promise, BF gave the new F-150 a beating no fleet driver should.

Capable? Prove it!

During two days of track testing, the one word Ford's marketing and engineering teams kept on drilling into our heads was "capability." The truck's fully boxed frame is constructed from hydroformed high-strength steel side rails and offers more torsional rigidity than previous models. In other words, you can tow 11,300 lbs. across all cab configurations and haul a payload of up to 3,030 lbs.—both best in class.

For the payload test, the 2009 F-150 took the tight turns on a cone course with barely a notice of the 750-lb. weight in the bed. The truck drives smaller than it is and the cabin is "luxury car" quiet. If you're managing heavy loads, take the 20-inch tires over the base 17. You'll notice the firmer grip on the road.

In the towing test, our STX model had more than enough power to take a 7,000 lb. trailer over some hilly terrain. The truck never hunted for any of its six gears and experienced little sway at high speeds and around turns.

Trailer safety is augmented by the F-150's four-channel anti-lock braking system, AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control and Trailer Sway Control, as well as an available integrated trailer brake controller. (You can finally lose the ugly aftermarket under-dash thingamabob.)

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An Undeserved Beating

No truck deserves the next two set of beatings. The first was a ride over a teeth-chattering test strip of concrete that felt like the Andes of cobblestone. Where a passenger car may have disintegrated on the spot, the 2009 F-150's 6-inch longer leaf suspension dampened the vibration and the truck held to a straight line.

We then took an FX4, the off-road model, into its natural habitat. The roller coaster dirt road had enough moguls to force second-by-second wheel jockeying. Our hee-haw moment—powering over a dirt hill and through a mud bog—put the low gear 4WD and Electronic Locking Differential axle to a true test.

Will our fleet drivers subject the truck to the same punishment? We hope not. But from a fleet perspective, the extreme tests show durability for the long haul. Fleets may want to spec the new F-150 against the Super Duty for fuel and cap cost savings.

Lighter and Leaner

Ford managed to shed 100 lbs. from the F-150's high-strength frame, which, along with aerodynamic refinements, contributed to an 8-percent improvement in fuel economy across the entire V-8 engine lineup.

Ford will introduce the new F-150 SFE "superior fuel economy" edition, which delivers up to 21 mpg on the highway while still providing 7,500 lbs. of towing capability. The new SFE package will be available on Super-Crew XL and XLT 4X2 vehicles with 4.6L, 3-valve V-8 engines and 5.5-ft. beds.

No hybrid is in the works, and previously announced plans for an F-150 diesel engine option are on hold at present. Coming next year is an F-150 V-6 model with Ford's EcoBoost technology, which combines direct injection and turbocharging for a balance of V-6 fuel economy and V-8 power.

We averaged 15.6 miles per gallon in our 5.4L Lariat SuperCrew in a 50/50 mix of city/highway driving.

Solutions for Work

The available box side step, tailgate step (borrowed from the Super Duty), cargo management system and stowable bed extender should be especially helpful for those who use the box regularly—i.e. fleet customers.

The capless fuel-filler system makes one wonder why every vehicle still has a gas cap.

The SuperCrew has been stretched 6 inches for plenty of room for your biggest guys. That cab space is maximized with a second-row flip-and-fold seat that exposes a flat-load floor and a class-leading 57.6 cu.-ft. of total cargo space behind the front seats.

Another fleet-centric option is Ford Work Solutions. Work Solutions is a suite of four technological functions designed to enhance security and connectivity, and bring the office into the field. Each option can be ordered separately.

The suite includes:

  • An in-dash computer with high-speed Internet access that allows customers to print invoices, check inventories and access documents stored on the office computer.
  • Tool Link, an RFID asset tracking system that allows you to identify your tools in the pickup box from the computer screen. 
  • Crew Chief, a fleet telematics and diagnostics system that shows your fleet's location and informs of vehicle maintenance issues.
  • Cable Lock, a security system with a vinyl-coated steel cable that spools out from a cargo box-mounted case and snakes through tool handles and equipment. For only $180, this seemed like a worthy option. BF
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