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Yet another chapter is opening in the 72-year history of Ford Motor Co.'s F-Series truck range, the profit engine that powers the Blue Oval and is arguably the most popular vehicle in America.

The Dearborn automaker on Thursday night unveiled the 2021 F-150 pickup truck, a redesigned version of the pickup now in its 14th generation. The truck, manufactured in Dearborn and Kansas City, is scheduled to go on sale later this year. Pricing has not been announced.

Ford is touting the new F-150 — encased in a fully boxed, high-strength steel frame, with an aluminum-alloy body construction that Ford first debuted on the 13th-generation F-150 in 2015 — as the most digitally connected, comfortable, amenity-rich F-150 yet, while staying true to the qualities that have made the F-Series the best-selling truck in the country for more than four decades. 

The truck was revealed via a livestream from Willow Run, the former manufacturing complex where Ford mass-produced aircraft during World War II. The event hosted by actor Denis Leary drew tens of thousands of viewers. 

Virtual renderings of the truck being assembled, and then driven over rough terrain and through multiple climates, preceded the big moment. Then, the garage doors opened and a dark-blue truck cruised onto the stage, followed later by the hybrid model.

"That is one great lookin' truck," Leary said.

Truck marketing manager Todd Eckert said the vehicle was redesigned "from bumper to bumper," to give it a "bolder stance" and make it more aerodynamic: "This all-new truck has the bold look F-150 is known for. But it doesn't just look tough."

A video voiced by actor Bryan Cranston highlighted some of the new amenities that Ford says makes the F-150 more than just a vehicle: "(It's) your home on the road — if your home can tow your boat."

Another video juxtaposed the F-150's qualities: "It's clean, and it's dirty. It's brains and brawn. It's for work, and for off-duty."

Leary signed off with this descriptor: "A souped-up, super-size F-150 ready to help America get the job done, right when we need some forward momentum."

Debuting just a few years after Detroit's Arsenal of Democracy helped ensure allied victory in World War II, the F-Series has become one of Ford's iconic nameplates. If the Model T defined the automaker in the first half of its 117-year history, analysts say the continual sales success of F-Series trucks is doing something similar in its second half.

The new F-150 is available with the PowerBoost, a 3.5-liter hybrid powertrain, alongside the usual complement of gas-powered models. The automaker is targeting a 700-mile range for a single tank of gas with the PowerBoost, and says the hybrid variant will have at least 12,000 pounds of towing capacity. A fully battery-electric edition is expected within the next two years.

"Since 1948, our hardworking F-Series customers have trusted Ford to help them get the job done," Jim Farley, Ford's chief operating officer, said in a statement. "F-150 is our flagship, it's 100% assembled in America, and we hold ourselves to the highest standard to make sure our customers can get the job done and continue to make a difference in their communities."

The new truck features a redesigned exterior that Ford describes as a "bolder" and "tougher." Changes include a raised front fender, a tucked-in mid-section and larger tires that are pulled out three-quarters of an inch. The truck's headlamp design has been updated, and it has a new power-dome hood and wraparound bumpers. Eleven different grille options are available across the lineup.

More: 'Continuing the legacy:' Ford F-150's roots go back to early 20th century

Features include trailer backup-assist and reverse guidance; a mobile generator with a built-in power source — ranging from 2 to 7.2 kWh of power — that comes standard in the hybrid variant and is available across the lineup; zone lighting that allows truck owners to control individual exterior lights; and over-the-air software updates designed to cause minimal disruption.

The launch of the truck will be crucial for Ford to get right. It comes on the heels of a costly, botched introduction of the Ford Explorer last year amid a global restructuring and higher-than-expected warranty costs. That was followed by an eight-week North American production shutdown because of the coronavirus that cost the automaker billions and which drove Ford to take on more than $20 billion in new debt.

The F-Series drives the profits of the Blue Oval, and strong F-150 sales will be necessary for the company to weather financial headwinds, as auto analysts forecast a years-long recovery to peak sales volume.

"Trucks are the most profitable vehicles that the domestic automakers produce," Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book said, noting the segment has been one of the few to hold up during the pandemic. 

Ford sold nearly 900,000 vehicles from the F-Series in 2019, a whopping 37% of overall sales. F-Series sales generated about $42 billion in revenue, almost 30% of Ford's automotive business last year, according to a study Ford commissioned from the Boston Consulting Group.

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"Ford has the best-selling truck and the best-selling vehicle, and it has for decades," Brauer said. "So, it's not an overstatement to say that the F-150 is Ford's success and Ford's success is the F-150."

The pressure is on, he said, for Ford to get the next-generation truck right.

"A new F-150 from Ford is a moment, as the Blue Oval’s big truck has long been what Michelangelo’s David is to statues or Pat’s is to Philly cheesesteaks: the genre’s best example," Cox Automotive said in a post this week. "It is a six-time Kelley Blue Book Best Buy winner and for a lifetime it’s been the market’s undisputed sales champion."

While the F-150 is a consistent leader in its segment, the introduction comes as the field becomes increasingly competitive.

"Competitors have been taking notes from (Ford's) playbook and are moving in on existing F-150 owners," said Ivan Drury, Edmunds.com Inc.'s senior manager of insights. "F-150 has led the way for innovation within the segment, which has not only allowed the competition to benefit from Ford testing the waters but also given an opportunity to piggyback off of the learnings. As a result, competitor trucks now pose a threat at nearly every price point and have begun to poach loyal F-150 owners."

The launch also comes as the Blue Oval's leadership faces questions from investors, noted Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds executive director of insights: "Ford may have more exciting launches with the Mustang Mach-E and Bronco on the horizon, but since the F-Series is what pays the bills, Ford needs it to succeed the most to get through this economic crisis and beyond. Ford has been under intense scrutiny from Wall Street for a number of years, so the pressure is on (CEO) Jim Hackett and team to get this right and inspire investor confidence."

While sales of the hybrid F-150 will likely make up a small share of overall sales, it is critical as competitors push forward with development of hybrid and electric trucks: "Ford must continue to innovate in this space as it can't afford another competitor to swoop in and steal the crown," Caldwell said.

Inside the new F-150, which comes in three cab styles and six trim levels ranging from XL to Limited, owners will find a host of new amenities developed based on customer feedback. The features reflect the fact that many owners use their trucks for more than just transportation.

To provide a more comfortable experience, reclining seats available on Platinum, King Ranch and Limited models fold nearly 180 degrees flat. "By observing customers, we know that many of them spend a large portion of their day in their trucks and want it to be both a productive workplace as well as a refuge. Some even grab some sleep in between jobs or while camping," said Craig Schmatz, chief engineer of the F-150.

A lockable, flat-folding, dividable storage compartment extends the width of the interior, under the rear seats. And for those who use their trucks as a workspace, the new truck's cabin features a flat work surface. New running board options make it easier to access the cargo box.

The next-generation is also the most digitally connected yet. Ford's Sync 4 system, which has voice-control capabilities and makes real-time traffic and customizable information available on-demand, now has twice the computing power. The 2021 F-150 introduces a 12-inch center screen with split-screen capability that comes standard on XLT high series and above. An 8-inch screen comes standard on XL and XLT standard and mid-series trucks.

The truck will feature the latest version of Ford's CoPilot 360 driver-assist technologies, which includes a hands-free driving feature available on more than 100,000 miles of divided highways across the country. The technology uses a driver-facing camera to monitor the head position and eye gaze of the driver so that drivers can safely take their hands off the wheel for parts of their drive.

These innovations are must-haves, said Brauer: "There's about to be a wave of more advanced trucks ... and Ford has to stay equal if not ahead in that way."

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

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