The Ford F-150 inherits three new or updated engines, a more handsome face, and more available active-safety technologies for 2018. The aluminum-bodied, steel-frame F-150 was our choice as the top pickup among our 2017 10Best Trucks and SUVs, and the 2018 model improves on that strong base.
Next in line is the EcoBoost twin-turbocharged 2.7-liter V-6, a $995 option on XL and XLT and standard on the Lariat trim level. It qualifies as “second generation” by Ford’s measure, keeping its fancy compacted-graphite iron and aluminum block and boasting the same dual-injection capability as the 3.3-liter, as well as a new exhaust-gas-recirculation (EGR) system and reduced internal friction. Peak horsepower holds at 325 and is available 750 rpm lower in the rev range at 5000 rpm, while torque jumps 25 lb-ft to an even 400 and peaks 250 rpm sooner at 2750 rpm.
Ford left alone the other available EcoBoost, the twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6, as well as its higher-output sibling that powers the equally unchanged F-150 Raptor, as that engine was new last year. The 375-hp engine is the burliest in the conventional F-150 range—and a steal at between $600 and $2895 when added to the XL, XLT, Lariat, King Ranch, and Platinum models. It is standard on the range-topping F-150 Limited. Compared with the updated 5.0-liter V-8 ($1995 extra on XL and XLT, $1000 on the Lariat, and standard on the King Ranch and Platinum), the 3.5-liter dominates with a whopping 470 lb-ft of torque. The 5.0-liter inherits the same port and direct fuel-injection capability as the rest of the F-150’s engine range to produce 10 more horsepower and 13 more lb-ft than before, for totals of 395 horsepower and 400 lb-ft.
Ford’s 10-speed automatic transmission is no longer exclusive to trucks with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost. That gearbox replaces the six-speed automatic that was previously paired with the 2.7-liter and the 5.0-liter. Ford kept the tried-and-true six-speed automatic for the 3.3-liter V-6, citing cost and drivability goals. With help from the engine updates, the new 10-speed, and the stop/start feature that’s now standard on all F-150s, EPA-estimated fuel-economy numbers edge up by 1 or 2 mpg for every powertrain except the carryover 3.5-liter EcoBoost. Expect bigger fuel-economy gains from the upcoming diesel V-6 option, a late arrival due in spring 2018 that we haven’t yet had a chance to drive.
Behind the Wheel
Incremental though they are, Ford’s powertrain updates are welcome. The 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6 is now even more appealing, thanks to its punchier torque and the wider ratio spread of the 10-speed versus the old six-speed. The small six-cylinder sounds great under load, too, and emits a satisfying turbo whistle when the driver really sticks the spurs to it. Traditionalists, for whom Ford continues to offer the 5.0-liter V-8, likely will be more pleased by the continued availability of the big, naturally aspirated engine than concerned about the marginal improvements to its performance. It feels much the same as before, meaning its low-end torque isn’t as satisfying or as early to arrive as the EcoBoost engines’, which match or outgun it in this regard. Still, there’s no beating the five-oh’s muscle-car soundtrack and linear, old-school power delivery that builds thrust to a crescendo near redline.
As we noted in our test of the 2017 F-150 with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost and this same 10-speed, with so many gears to choose from and the ability to lock, unlock, and even partially lock its torque converter to maximize efficiency or to smooth over a shift, the transmission can stay busy no matter which engine it’s bolted to. For the most part, one must consult the comically long string of digits from one to 10 displayed in the gauge cluster to track the transmission’s behavior. In normal driving, the transmission skips gears when accelerating and decelerating to avoid shift pileups, and it runs sequentially through every single gear only under full throttle or when driven gently, as during, say, the EPA’s fuel-economy testing procedures.
Busy also describes the six-speed automatic attached to the new 3.3-liter V-6, although for different reasons. Lacking the broad and flat torque curve of its turbocharged siblings, the V-6 forces the six-speed to shift often to keep up momentum. We drove two F-150s with that engine: a stripped-out two-wheel-drive, extended-cab F-150 XL and a four-wheel-drive, crew-cab XLT. Both felt slow, a condition exacerbated when we loaded the crew cab’s bed with a 1200-pound bundle of horse feed.
We suspect that Ford’s decision to go with the six-speed in the base trim is its way of keeping the opening price as low as possible. As it is, the six-speed makes the most of the V-6’s output, the larger gaps between its ratios enabling the engine to wind out a little more. Its Sport mode (in addition to a traditional tow/haul mode) is even snappier, usefully hanging on to lower gears, reducing the need to dip further into the throttle when encountering hilly terrain. Leadfooting the 3.3-liter has two unfortunate consequences. First, at higher rpm there’s a shrillness to the V-6’s sound; it is also where the fuel injection switches from port to direct. Second, all that revving probably doesn’t help fuel economy, rendering its better EPA ratings more of a theoretical than a real-world advantage.
To be fair to the updated base engine, the old 3.5-liter was just as poky. Fortunately, Ford makes it easy and affordable to upgrade to the far better and more powerful EcoBoost engines or the V-8, and we recommend every F-150 buyer do so. We’ll confirm Ford’s claims of higher efficiency (and see how much quicker the updated engines are) when we run the 2018 F-150’s variants through our regimen of instrumented tests.
Minor Updates Elsewhere
As for the rest of the truck, Ford has left well enough alone. The existing F-150’s interior carries over to 2018, sans any changes beyond a few new color schemes and a classy Kingsville upgrade for the King Ranch model. Now there’s an onboard 4G LTE data connection with a Wi-Fi hotspot for the optional Sync 3 infotainment system. Even top-dog F-150s with 21- and 22-inch wheels ride well, and while the Ford isn’t as buttoned down during hard driving as General Motors’ well-sorted Silverado and Sierra trucks, its excellent driving position and forward sightlines make it easier to maneuver.
For the first time, the F-150 offers adaptive cruise control that can bring the truck to a complete stop in traffic and accelerate again (provided each stop lasts fewer than three seconds). Forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection and automated emergency braking also join the roster. No upgraded full-size pickup worth its salt hits the scene without enhanced capability, an embarrassment the F-150 avoids with a beefier rear axle on the most towing-focused variants that raises its maximum gross combined weight rating (GCWR) to 18,400 pounds. Maximum towing capacity grows to 13,200 pounds (up by 1000 pounds), while the highest payload an F-150 can carry remains 3270 pounds.
We’ll soon see whether the 2018 F-150 can repeat as a 10Best Trucks and SUVs winner, too, when it gathers for our competition this fall, but everything we see here indicates it’s still a satisfying truck.