December 3, 2020
2021 Ford F-150 first drive review: Merica's most wanted gets one heck of a hybrid

2021 Ford F-150 first drive review: Merica’s most wanted gets one heck of a hybrid


I’ve got exactly zero empirical evidence to back this up, but if I had to guess which new-vehicle buyers are the most inherently against vehicle electrification, I’d wager it’s pickup shoppers. Conversely, with the truck segment’s emphasis on torque and its seeming indifference to higher curb weights, light-duty pickups stand to benefit from gaining a motorized helping hand more than most. While others have tried and largely failed to spark interest in gas-electric trucks, spending a few days driving this 2021 Ford F-150 PowerBoost has me convinced that this model stands the best chance of converting the masses to the joy of electrons. In fact, it’s the first hybrid pickup I’d buy with my own money.

When I say “masses,” I mean it. Ford’s F-Series has been America’s best-selling truck for 43 straight years, and the country’s best-selling new vehicle of any type. In fact, the truck line is one of this nation’s chief economic drivers, reportedly earning more money than every major US sport combined. Ford built 900,000 F-Series trucks last year. That means that even if hybrid models only make up a modest percentage of total F-150s sold going forward, PowerBoost could single-handedly have a bigger net effect on America’s fossil-fuel consumption than any other vehicle — Tesla included. This new truck, then, is a big deal. No pressure.

While the Blue Oval will continue to offer its cash cow in a predictable array of gas- and diesel-powered flavors, the new 2021 Ford F-150 PowerBoost will give shoppers plenty to chew on. I’m not just talking about this model because it’s got the most horsepower and torque of any F-150, although with 430 horsepower and 570 pound-feet, this plugless pickup has those honors locked up tighter than an owner’s fist around a bacon-double cheeseburger. Thanks to the F-150 hybrid’s standard Pro Power Onboard built-in generator and a host of other tricks, this new F-Series offers plenty of reasons to consider electrification beyond improved fuel economy.

Small exterior changes meet big capability updates

Before I dig too deep into the gas-electric guts of this particular King Ranch SuperCrew 4×4, an overview of the new F-150 is in order. While it may look like a mild refresh of the outgoing model, this 14th-gen rig is, in fact, very different — well over 90% different, Ford says. The new truck rides on a stiffer, fully boxed steel frame clothed in all-new bodywork (aluminum, as before), and it sits on a half-inch-wider track. All cabin and box configurations return, along with all major trim levels — XL, XLT, Lariat, King Ranch, Platinum and Limited (a new Raptor is expected next year), but there’s a lot new going on under the skin regardless of trim. 

The easiest way to spot the 2021 F-150 on the street will be its revised C-clamp-shaped LED running lights, which now flow into a redesigned front bumper. There’s a range of new grilles up front, and aerodynamic improvements include active shutters and a chin spoiler that automatically deploys at speed. Out back, new taillights bracket a redesigned tailgate while repeating the C-clamp design theme.

The F-150’s track width grows modestly, but in terms of overall dimensions, it’s very similar to last year.


Nick Miotke/Chris Paukert/Roadshow

It’s worth noting that this new F-150 eschews the industry’s trend towards trick multifold tailgates like those offered on arch rivals such as the Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra and Ram 1500. Instead, the Ford’s more conventional one-piece tailgate is available with power up/down actuation and a redesigned work surface that includes features like a tablet holder, bottle opener and clamp pockets, and a built-in deployable step. These are clever features, but one has to wonder if the automaker isn’t leaving something on the table by not offering an optional variable-hinged tailgate like the split rear door on the Ram or the Chevy’s Multi-Flex unit.

2021 Ford F-150 – big cabin improvements

While Ford’s departing F-150 held up well in general against the competition, it was clearly bested by Ram in terms of cabin niceness and noise isolation, especially on upper-end trims. I’ll need some back-to-back time in both rigs to know for sure, but I think this new generation might reorder things a little. I have almost no complaints about my King Ranch tester’s cabin. Material quality and aesthetics have improved noticeably, and the interior’s feature count is through the roof. With its rich color palette and wall-to-wall leather, the King Ranch is legitimately luxurious, and this isn’t even the new F-150’s top trim. (I experienced some lesser trims, including an XLT and XLT Lariat, and I didn’t think some of their details were as convincing for their prices, but I’ll need more time in them to know for sure.)

Higher-end 2021 F-150 models like this King Ranch benefit from a much richer cabin, both in terms of materials and tech.


Nick Miotke/Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Available class-exclusive features include Max Recline lay-flat seats with heating, ventilation and massage (great for sneaking a quick nap on the job site) and a power-folding gearshift lever that allows the armrest to flip down into a massive flat work surface (a traditional column selector is also offered). You can’t roll out a new truck these days without a boatload of infotainment smarts, and the F-150 obliges with a 12-inch touchscreen running Ford’s robust Sync 4 infotainment platform leveraging available wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Even low-end XL models get an 8-inch touchscreen, a big update from last year’s comically small 4.2-inch unit. Furthermore, this King Ranch features a punchy B&O Unleashed audio system with 18 speakers — including ones in the ceiling and headrests — and SiriusXM 360L.

The new infotainment system enables over-the-air updates — not just for center-stack tech, for the entire vehicle, powertrain included. That means Ford will be able to wirelessly beam out bug fixes and feature updates to owners.

It’s also worth calling out this F-150’s matching 12-inch reconfigurable fully digital instrument cluster, which offers vivid, splashy animations (especially when changing drive modes) and all kinds of info. The way the engine speed is prominently expressed with two digits by default (0.0, as in 1,000 x rpm) takes a little getting used to, and it feels a bit “2010 design-magazine infographic” to me. I admit it’s also oddly satisfying to see how often you can get the tachometer to fall to 0.0 rpm — indicating the engine has shut off and you’re temporarily sailing along solely on electric power.

The way the tachometer expresses engine revs in numerical shorthand takes a little getting used to.


Nick Miotke/Chris Paukert/Roadshow

PowerBoost hybrid power, fuel economy and refinement

Running on electrons definitely enhances the 2021 F-150 PowerBoost’s sense of inner calm, but you needn’t be in electric-only mode to understand that this new F-150 feels appreciably quieter than before. Wind and road noise are well controlled, and whether the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 is pumping its red-hot fists in the air or not, the cabin of this F-Series is a surprisingly serene place to be. I even made a point to drive my tester on greater Detroit’s badly rutted dirt and gravel roads, and not only are body motions well controlled (even with an empty bed), the lack of noise when cinders ping-pong around in the F-150’s specially lined wheel wells is impressive. Yes, the Ram 1500’s available coil-spring setup is ultimately more compliant, but at least by truck standards, this new F-150 King Ranch rides very well, and it’s quieter than a church mouse pissing on cotton.

To be frank, I’ve never much cared for the way Ford’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost sounds, and the fact that the PowerBoost tech silences its noise periodically while offering 30 more horsepower and 70 more pound-feet of torque is icing on the cake. It’s not that the V6 itself sounds bad, exactly, it just isn’t authoritative in the way you might want or expect for a full-size pickup. Ford’s naturally aspirated 5.0-liter V8 sounds worlds better, for instance, but it only delivers 400 hp and 410 lb-ft (and it does so at much higher engine speeds). Of course, you can still also opt for Ford’s 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 (325 hp, 400 lb-ft) or just save some dough going for the turbo-free 3.3-liter V6 (290 hp, 265 lb-ft). Introduced for 2018, the 3.0-liter Power Stroke V6 diesel returns for 2021 unchanged, delivering 250 hp and 440 lb-ft. That’s right, the new PowerBoost hybrid handily outperforms even the diesel’s output figures.

PowerBoost features a 35-kW electric motor hidden in the 10-speed transmission’s case, powered by a modest 1.5-kWh battery under the rear seats.


Ford

Importantly, the PowerBoost hybrid does a convincing job of feeling like a conventional gas pickup. Electric muscle comes courtesy of a 35-kilowatt motor that lives inside the (otherwise similar) 10-speed automatic gearbox, with power coming from a liquid-cooled, 1.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack mounted under the rear seat. You can’t get the nifty foldable and lockable rear-seat storage pack with PowerBoost, but interior space is otherwise unaffected. Acceleration is strong — I’d wager that this SuperCrew’s 0-to-60-mph time is somewhere in the mid-5-second range. Better still, interplay between the V6 and the electric motor are all but seamless. The brake feel — often a sore spot due to regenerative braking — is mercifully progressive. The same goes for the stop-start hardware. I’m a guy that frequently turns off such systems in new cars and trucks because their lack of smoothness annoys me, but I’d happily leave the tech active on the PowerBoost every day.

To Ford’s credit, PowerBoost availability isn’t just reserved for high-end models — it’s offered on all F-150 trims. The hybrid will handily outlast the stoutest of bladders with its 700-mile range between fill-ups, and even with four-wheel drive, the EPA rates fuel economy at 24 miles per gallon city, highway and combined. Compared with the less-powerful 3.5L EcoBoost 4×4’s 18 city, 23 highway and 20 combined, there’s a substantial difference. Yes, the hybrid costs $1,900 more than gas-only 3.5L, but the potential long-term fuel savings look tempting, especially for city dwellers.

2021 Ford F-150 Pro Power Onboard is a gamechanger

And that’s ignoring the PowerBoost’s cherry on top: Pro Power Onboard, a built-in generator that includes power outlets in the cab and bed for maximum flexibility. Operable through the dashboard or through the Ford Pass app on your phone or tablet, PPO is nothing short of a game changer, whether you’re a roughneck or just someone who likes to camp or tailgate. PowerBoost hybrids come standard with a capable 2.4-kW PPO system — enough juice to run a pandemic-era drive-in movie setup in your backyard, including projector, loudspeakers and a full-size popcorn machine simultaneously. Ford says you can get up to 85 hours of power on a full tank.

For an extra $750, my King Ranch has an available 7.2-kW PPO system that offers four 120-volt household outlets and one 240-volt hookup, backed by enough power to energize a small construction site. In fact, Ford officials tell me they’ve used this system to fast-charge their new Mustang Mach-E
electric SUV. What’s more, while the Blue Oval can’t say as much due to regulatory concerns, this version of PPO is actually robust enough to power the essential items in most people’s homes in a blackout for up to 32 hours per tank of gas. (Translation: You can probably forget about running the central air at the same time as your Sub-Zero fridge and clothes washer, but you can more than likely keep the septic pump, fridge, lights and TV on while you ride out the storm.)

Yes, you can opt for a 2.0-kW Pro Power Onboard system on non-hybridized models, too. This basic, lower-power setup is enough for a TV, mini fridge, heater, blender and speakers for a proper Big 10 football party, but it’s the hybrid-only 7.2-kW setup that’s the real workhorse. What’s more, with new Zone Lighting features to illuminate nearly the entire perimeter of the vehicle, night games won’t be a problem.

Questioning the need for an onboard power source? Lots of job sites rely on heavy, cumbersome generators, and PPO should appeal to people who use them. It doesn’t eat into bed space, it’s not a theft risk, it’s a lot quieter, works without gas cans and its emissions are a lot lower than a typical standalone generator. Me? I’m not a contractor, but I like the idea of taking some electric motorcycles out to an off-road park without fear of needing to find a charger, or for using the onboard inverter to give new life to an old Airstream. More than anything, I relish the idea of parking one of these in my driveway instead of paying thousands for the whole-house backup generator that’s been on my shopping list for years.

2021 Ford F-150 towing, payload and off-road specs 

It’s not all rope swings and freshly tapped kegs for PowerBoost buyers. In addition to its upfront cost, the hybrid has lower towing and payload ratings than its gas-only equivalent — this, despite the driveline’s superior output figures. Among other things, you can blame the hybrid’s extra weight for the shortfall, but no matter the reason, Ford rates a short-box, 4×4 Super Crew with PowerBoost to tow 12,400 pounds, while the non-hybrid will lug 13,900 pounds. PowerBoost payload is a similar story, rated at 1,830 pounds, while a gas-only 3.5 can pack-mule 2,100 pounds in its bed. Check the right boxes, and the 2021 F-150 can tow up to 14,000 pounds — 800 pounds more than last year.

In addition to several days of driving on country roads and freeways, Ford gave me the chance to try out towing with both gas and hybridized 3.5-liter V6s on its hilly proving-grounds road course. I tried an EcoBoost with a 7,200-pound Supra boat-and-trailer combo and the PowerBoost gas-electric with a double-axle Forest River Wildwood camper weighing in at a smidge over 7,000 pounds. Neither trucks were in danger of pegging their max ratings, but it was still impressive and instructive to experience how effortless towing such big toys can be without requiring a heavy-duty truck. It’s a particularly wild sensation to note the engine shutting off in the hybrid while driving down hills, only to pull away noiselessly from a stop before the V6 kicks back in.

I also tried some off-road exercises in a gas Lariat equipped with the FX4 suspension package, including muddy two-tracks through the woods and some steep ascents that helped test out the new F-150’s various terrain settings. To be honest, while fun, none of this was terribly eye-opening. More than anything, it just goes to show how capable most trucks are these days, and how modern four-wheel-drive systems and drive modes can make once-formidable challenges utterly routine.

2021 Ford F-150 OTA updates and hands-free driving

Earlier, I mentioned that the F-150 has over-the-air updates. That same ability will allow Level 2 hands-free driving on HD-mapped divided highways beginning late next year. Buyers who pony up $995 for the Co-Pilot 360 Active 2.0 Prep Package gain advanced driver assist systems like adaptive cruise control with lane-centering and speed-sign recognition, plus Evasive Steering Assist, Intersection Assist and a self-park function. Unlike most such systems — including Tesla’s Autopilot — Co-Pilot360 includes a driver-facing infrared camera that tracks head position and eye gaze to ensure drivers are still paying attention.

Properly equipped, the 2021 F-150 can tow a stout 14,000 pounds — that’s 800 more than last year.


Nick Miotke/Roadshow

2021 Ford F-150 – pricing and what it all means

A lot have people have been lamenting the rising prices of full-size pickups, and to be honest, the 2021 Ford F-150 isn’t going to do much to silence the grousing. A base, regular-cab XL work truck starts at $30,635 (including $1,695 for freight), just $195 more than last year. However, with all of these new options, it’s easier than ever to more than double that price tag in short order. King Ranch models start at $55,630 delivered, but my heavily optioned PowerBoost 4×4 tester stickers at a retirement-jeopardizing $77,000. Remember, Ford offers two trims above this model — Platinum and Limited.

It’s all the more remarkable, then, that even in this lofty specification, the 2021 Ford F-150 absolutely feels worth the money. It’s hard to imagine a more versatile vehicle, one capable of doing so much work while feeling so upscale and delivering so much tech. In particular, I think Pro Power Onboard could be a real difference-maker for lots of buyers — potentially even prying open the wallets of folks who have been reluctant to entertain electrification in a new vehicle of any type. Since PPO’s most powerful versions are available exclusively with PowerBoost, this new capability may coax a few gas- and diesel-only diehards into crossing the Rubicon and going hybrid. I can also see this tech being a boon for fleet buyers of municipal and utility vehicles.

While the 2021 Ford F-150 initially appears to be a conservative redesign, make no mistake, this rig is loaded with the latest tech and a raft of unique features to help defend Ol’ Henry’s turf atop the auto industry’s most important segment. If nothing else, PowerBoost should help truck buyers mentally prepare for Ford’s forthcoming all-electric F-150, which is due to take on the Tesla Cybertruck and Rivian R1T beginning in 2022. Setting America’s tables for Ford’s battery-powered (and heavily automated) future is a big ask. Fortunately, the 2021 Ford F-150 feels up to the job.



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