So you've driven a Formula car, mastered the Stelvio Pass and set a lap record at the Nurburgring. Now it's time for a real driving test: parking a full-sized pickup truck in downtown Toronto.
Seven days behind the wheel of a new Ford F-150 Supercrew 4x4 taught me a few things. For example: negotiating a spiralling parking garage ramp in a 5.8-metre-long truck is not for the faint of heart. Also: the congested core of Canada's largest city is not the natural home of a super-sized truck.
The F-150 4x4 is an amazing machine. It can tow a combine harvester, claw its way up a logging road or haul a load of railway ties. But driving an F-150 in a major city negates these brilliant features. Your position is not unlike that of a Saskatchewan grain farmer who buys a custom-built yacht.
This doesn't stop the committed truck buyer. There are half a dozen F-150s in my neighbourhood, a place noted for crumbling old houses and bad parking, not cattle ranching or heavy construction. One of the local F-150 owners is a litigator. He loves his truck, but he has never carried anything larger than a briefcase with it, and he can't take it to his office, because it's too big for the garage.
All of this got me thinking about the curious phenomenon of the Urban Dude Truck, which has helped lift the pickup truck to sales glory by expanding the pool of owners to downtowners who want country cred. In the spirit of social and mechanical investigation, I spent a week living with an F-150.
The interactive chart above shows the best selling truck and car for each of the major brands and how many were sold in Canada in 2013 and 2014. See how cars match up with trucks and how the Ford F-150 dominates the marketplace. Click on the dots to see the exact number of vehicles sold.
The 150's arrival caused a stir. My son's friend, Jake, declared it "awesome." A neighbourhood wag declared that I had finally acquired a machine that made me look like a "real man" instead of a "sexually ambiguous downtown loser."
I had to admit that the F-150 was a masterpiece of its genre, with a turbocharged motor, an aluminum body and an infotainment system worthy of a cruise ship. Unfortunately, it was the size of a cruise ship, too – trying to fit the F-150 in my garage was like trying to dock the Carnival Dream at a municipal marina. I gave up and parked it outside.
Under way, the 150 drove like a well-engineered car, but the sensory experience was uniquely truck-like. I rode high in the saddle, eye to eye with bus drivers. The F-150's cab felt large enough to host a volleyball tournament. Smaller machines skittered out of my path.
After four days, I hadn't done anything with it that couldn't be achieved with a Toyota Corolla. The 150 had a load bed designed to carry nearly 800 kilograms, but I'd never even opened the tailgate. On my next grocery run, I loaded my purchases in the back, just to say that I was actually using the 150 as a truck. Five bags of vegetables, dishwasher detergent and paper towels didn't provide much of a challenge.
Two days later, an errand put the 150 to its toughest test. Our cats had worn out their scratching post, so we bought a new one with multilevel perches and a climbing ramp. It weighed about 30 kilograms. Carrying it home in the F-150 was an exercise in overkill.
This experience showed how far the pickup truck has come. When I was a boy, pickup trucks were used almost exclusively for work – they were the ride of farmers, ranchers and painting contractors. The typical pickup was a machine such as the Chevrolet Apache or Ford F-100 – simple and hard-working, with bench seats and hand-cranked windows.
But there were outliers. I knew an artist who drove a pickup because he thought they were culturally significant. My mother's cousin, Ed, a legendary family character who squandered his father's fortune on liquor, gambling and backwoods adventures, drove a pickup in the 1970s, only because he lost his car in a card game.
If you had told someone in the 1960s that pickup trucks would one day be sold to city residents and suburban commuters, or that pickups would be decked out with leather interiors and killer stereos, they would have laughed. And yet, that is exactly what happened.
Until about 15 years ago, pickups made up only 8 to 10 per cent of the vehicle market. Today, that figure has more than doubled and the Ford F-150 is the top-selling vehicle in North America.
The 150's rise is part of the pickup truck's ascent from humble work tool to high-priced lifestyle symbol (the one I drove lists for more than $56,000). Selling the pickup truck to city dwellers is a key element of this commercial narrative.
"There's more to a car than getting from Point A to Point B," auto industry consultant and analyst Dennis DesRosiers says. "It's also a means of expression and a symbol of how you want to be perceived. And pickup trucks make a particular statement."
Pickups are marketed largely on their lifestyle association. They symbolize an authentic, uniquely North American lifestyle. Driving a pickup truck is like riding a Harley-Davidson or living on a cattle ranch. Chris Kyle, author of American Sniper, and the definitive man's man, drove a blacked-out F-series pickup. The pickup is the ultimate male enhancement: behind the wheel, you are converted from trodden-down schlub to Marlboro Man. Or at least that's the theory.
After a week in the 150, I came away impressed with its design. Ford engineers have done a remarkable job of integrating high-tech elements such as the turbocharged engine and aluminum body with traditional function. The F-150 was comfortable and easy to drive.
But lifestyle ads notwithstanding, the F-150 did nothing for my image. I did not picture myself wearing a cowboy hat, roping a steer or joining Seal Team Six. I was still the same worn out, unimpressive guy I'd been in my faded Honda Accord. But it was a lot harder to find a parking spot.
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