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First impression: Aluminum Ford F-150 is a winner

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

San Antonio, Texas — THOOOOOONK!

The 2015 Ford F-150's bumper hits the bank full on as it barrels over a hill in the wilds of south Texas. The big truck shrugs it off.

Not a flinch. Not a tingle.

Nail the throttle and the 325-horsepower, 2.7-liter V-6 engine's twin turbos launch the 4,806-pound beast out of the gulch and onto the next hill. Hill after muddy gulch after rocky creek bed goes by like this without a groan from the chassis.

For those who thought an all-aluminum body would compromise Ford's "Built Ford Tough" reputation, think again. This F-150, whose predecessors have been America's top-selling vehicle for 37 years, is tougher than ever.

In perhaps the boldest move in the auto industry today, Ford — which allowed automotive journalists behind the wheel for a first test drive in San Antonio this week — has bet its franchise vehicle on aluminum. The result is a new truck that not only vaults Ford back to the top in the truck arms race, but it also likely changes the segment forever. The F-150 — available later this year with a starting price of $26,615 — greets you with a huge, new, upright, three-bar grille and matching headlights.

With the new 2.7-liter Ecoboost engine, Ford promises RAM diesel-like fuel economy

This is not a shy vehicle. And neither is Ford shy about its aluminum transformation.

Begin with the obvious. Aluminum won't rust, making for better longevity in Michigan winters, where the salt piles up almost as high as the snow. In making the big truck 700 pounds lighter and with a significantly lower center of gravity, Ford's engineers tout a truck that is more nimble, sips less fuel, yet maintains its best-in-class towing capabilities with a remade high-strength steel chassis and two stump-pullingturbo mills.

The new F-150 still rides shy of the coil-springed RAM truck, but it's no longer a leaf-spring buckboard. Take it off-road, however, and the lighter, stronger chassis really comes into its own.

The big pickup has benefited from Ford's past ownership of Jaguar. The aluminum Jag taught the F-150 light-weighting and riveted manufacturing. The F-150 is no English sports car, but the same principles apply.

But the aluminum diet is only half the story.

With the new 2.7-liter Ecoboost, Ford promises RAM diesel-like fuel economy (EPA figures don't arrive until November, but the turbo is likely close to the diesel's 23 mpg) without the diesel's $4,000 premium.

The 2.7-liter engine is $495 more than the F-150's base V-6.

Like Ford's turbo-riific ST small sedans, the F-150's turbo engine has fast become the preference over bigger, thirstier V8s.

Inside a well-equipped $46,600 4x4, Ecoboost Ford XLT gains size and amenities on par with its Chevy and RAM peers.

These aren't your grandfather's pickups.

You can enjoy the refinement of a sedan inside — while the F-150 assaults the local terrain outside.