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On the exterior, the changes to the new F-150 are largely cosmetic and relatively minor.

Courtesy of manufacturer

The next generation of North America’s best-selling vehicle offers a dizzying array of innovations that raises the stakes in the Detroit Three’s relentless war for light-duty truck domination.

Want choice? Fasten your seat belts.

Among the dozens of optional choices on the 2021 Ford F-150, consumers will be offered: a hybrid power train with 5,400 kilograms of continuous hauling power, front seats that fold flat for naps, and/or an on-board integrated electrical power source strong enough to drive multiple power tools.

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In this, the 14th generation of the all-American full-sized pickup truck, Ford has foregone revolutionary change in favour of adding features and refinements that aim to meet challenges from GM’s Sierra and Silverado, and FCA’s Ram.

The 2021 F-150 does not have a singular radical change on the scale of the weight-saving all-aluminum body introduced in 2015. Instead, the new truck, which retains its aluminum body, has a broad range of innovations that: make the vehicle more convenient and comfortable on the inside, improve driver safety, and increase productive workspace for contractors.

Or should I say new “trucks?” The F-150 comes in dozens of variables stacked onto its traditional body-on-frame platform. There are 11 different front grilles, six engine choices, 13 wheel choices ranging from 17 to 22 inches, three cab configurations – even three headlamp configurations! – all spread over six trim levels that range from the XL work truck version to the luxurious Limited.

On the exterior, the changes are largely cosmetic and relatively minor. The front grilles are identifiably F-150 macho but have been rounded for a softer look, not unlike the grille found on the Ram 1500. The headlamps are surrounded by C-shaped LED running light halos that bear a passing resemblance to the GMC Sierra. The tailgate offers optional pockets to accommodate c-clamps (for holding materials in place), more tie-down points, and little pockets to hold tablets, cups and pens.

Kick-switch operated power running boards on upgraded models were extended to make it easier to reach into the cargo box.

The tailgate offers optional pockets to accommodate c-clamps, more tie-down points, and little pockets to hold tablets, cups and pens.

Courtesy of manufacturer

Ehab Kaoud, chief designer for Ford’s North American trucks, said the wheels have been pushed out two centimetres to provide a more aggressive stance. Yet, the vehicle’s aerodynamics have been improved by three per cent through, among other things, active front grille shutters that close at speed and a front air dam that deploys at speeds above 64 km/h.

The headlamps range from standard halogen reflectors to LED reflectors and, in premium models, “dynamic bending” LED lights that point in the direction the vehicle is turning.

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The interior, meanwhile, has plusher, upgraded materials on premium models. Ford has introduced an optional fold-down shift lever, creating a large flat work surface on the centre console to handle laptops and clipboards. Dawn Piechocki, F-150 engineering manager, said one-third of current owners use laptops in the cabs, and yet prefer a traditional shift-lever over space-saving dash-mounted gear controls. Storage space enhancements include a flat storage area in the back seat with foldable storage boxes.

For stolen naps on those too-long days, the F-150 also has available front seats that recline nearly a full 180 degrees.

Another play to contractors (or, far that matter, tailgate partiers) is the available on-board electrical power inverter, with capacities that range from 2.0 kW to 7.2 kW, depending on model. The battery-driven electrical inverter, which is recharged by the truck’s engine as needed, eliminates the need to carry a standalone unit to run power tools.

The SYNC4 infotainment technology has a 20-centimetre touchscreen as standard, but the XLT lux and above models will have a 30-centimetre screen, oriented horizontally. This fourth-generation system offers voice-activated controls, customizable screen, wireless Android Auto and Apple Car Play connections, and both on-screen and traditional control buttons.

Higher end models come with hardware that will enable the trucks to be driven hands-free on more than 160,000 kilometres of divided highways.

Courtesy of manufacturer

Although the 3.3-litre gasoline V6 is the base engine, Ford retains the 2.7- and 3.5-litre Ecoboost (i.e., turbocharged) engines. Kaoub says Ecoboost engines are account for 60 per cent of F-150s sold. The beefier 5.0-litre V8 now has cylinder deactivation, which cuts fuel consumption under light loads.

Craig Schmatz, F-150 chief engineer, notes the 3.5-litre Ecoboost hybrid is the first full hybrid light duty pickup on the market. Though it uses electricity stored in a smallish 1.5 kW/hr lithium battery to save fuel, he said the vehicle can pull its rated 5,400-kilogram load “as long as you need” drawing on the gasoline engine as needed. Ford estimates the hybrid can travel as far as 1,100 kilometres on a tank of gas.

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Among the 10 new driver-assist features, one of the most intriguing is the hands-free option. Higher end models come with the hardware that will enable the trucks to be driven hands-free on more than 160,000 kilometres of divided highways in Canada in the U.S. The system won’t be operational right away; Ford says it can be activated for an additional fee when the software is released in the summer of 2021.

When an automaker seeks to keep a best-selling vehicle at the top of the heap, there is tendency to avoid risky changes. The caution is understandable, given the fact that the F-series has been Canada’s top selling truck for 54 years and, around the world, Ford’s truck franchise is valued at more than $50 billion. That is why Ford is keeping a familiar look, while enriching the new F-150 with an array of technology and features.

“It is radical? No,” said Kaoub. “We do vehicles that satisfy our core customer group.”

It’s also playing to American patriotism, with little U.S. flags embossed on the sides of the front dash. One model even comes with an applique map of Ford’s home city of Detroit. Ford emphasizes the trucks are “100 per cent assembled in America,” at plants in Dearborn, Mich., and Kansas City, Mo.

With safety concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Ford did not provide journalists any hands-on experience with the new F-150. Deliveries to Canadian dealerships are expected in November.

The front grilles are identifiably F-150 macho.

Courtesy of manufacturer

Tech specs

  • Base price/As tested: Not yet announced. (2020 models are $32,339 to $84,649, plus freight and PDI)
  • Engines: Six choices: 3.3-litre gasoline V6 is standard; also, 2.7- and 3.5-litre Ecoboost (i.e. turbo boost), 5-litre V8, 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel, and 3.5-litre gasoline hybrid.
  • Transmission/drive: 10-speed automatic in two-wheel and AWD
  • Fuel economy (litres/100km): Not yet rated (2020 models are rated 12-15 l/100km city/9-11 l/100 km highway, depending on configuration)
  • Alternatives: GMC Sierra/Chevrolet Silverado, FCA Ram, Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Titan

Shopping for a new car? Check out the Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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