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2021 Ford F-150 Test Drive Review
The Ford F-Series pickup truck has been the bestselling vehicle in the United States for decades, so a lot is at stake with any redesign. The 2021 Ford F-150 plays it safe, with changes that are smaller in scope than the truck’s previous redesign (for the 2015 model year), but nonetheless significant.
This latest redesign brought an updated version of the previous-generation truck’s bold styling, a revamped interior with more convenience features, and the new Sync 4 infotainment system, as well as an available PowerBoost hybrid powertrain. This is the first time Ford has offered an F-150 hybrid, and the PowerBoost is currently the only full-hybrid powertrain available in a full-size pickup truck.
The F-150’s traditional rivals are the Chevrolet Silverado 1500/GMC Sierra 1500 twins and Ram 1500, along with the slower-selling Nissan Titan and Toyota Tundra.
Ford offers a staggering array of options, including six trim levels (XL, XLT, Lariat, King Ranch, Platinum, and Limited), three cab configurations, three bed sizes, six powertrains, and the choice of rear-wheel drive (RWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD). Our test vehicle was an F-150 King Ranch with the SuperCrew cab, 4WD, and the PowerBoost hybrid powertrain.
Look and Feel
The exterior styling appears thematically similar to the previous-generation F-150, with oversized wheel arches and a tall hood for a tough look, as well as the stepped front windows that are a Ford truck trademark. The 2021 model changes things up a bit with a new front fascia that includes bigger headlights and a rounder grille shape. Speaking of the grille, Ford said there are 11 design options, plus new tailgate appliques.
Ford said the new look is more aerodynamic than before, thanks to new active grille shutters, a new automatically-deploying air dam, and changes to the shape of the cab and tailgate. These changes were aimed at reducing aerodynamic drag to improve fuel efficiency—something truck makers have become increasingly focused on.
As with the previous-generation model, the 2021 F-150 has an aluminum cab, bed, fenders, and hood, with a steel frame. The aluminum bodywork reduces weight substantially compared to traditional steel which, again, helps improve fuel economy. A lighter truck also leaves more room for payload without hitting the maximum gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).
The interior was redesigned as well, but like the exterior, it retained the same design theme as before, with large angular air vents and a high center console with a traditional shift lever (which Ford said its customers prefer to column shifters or rotary knobs). The look is distinctive and very truck-like.
Typically for a modern pickup truck, materials vary from spartan in the base XL trim level, to downright luxurious in the King Ranch, Platinum, and Limited trim levels. Our King Ranch test vehicle sported leather upholstery and wood trim, which looked and felt fancier than materials in other high-end trucks.
Most F-150 powertrains carry over from the previous generation. Base models get a naturally-aspirated 3.3-liter V6 that produces 290 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. The only other naturally-aspirated engine in the lineup is a 5.0-liter V-8, rated at 400 hp and 410 lb-ft.
Ford also offers two twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 engines—a 2.7-liter engine (325 hp and 400 lb-ft) and a 3.5-liter unit (400 hp and 500 lb-ft). A Power Stroke 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 is also available, with 250 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque. While customers get plenty of powertrain choices, the F-150 is only available with one transmission—a 10-speed automatic.
The new-for-2021 PowerBoost hybrid powertrain combines the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 and 10-speed automatic transmission with an electric motor and 1.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Total system output is 430 hp and 570 lb-ft of torque, making the PowerBoost the most powerful 2021 F-150 powertrain. The V6 hybrid also offers more horsepower and torque than the Chevrolet Silverado’s 6.2-liter V8 and the Ram 1500’s 5.7-liter V8.
The new F-150 also beats its Detroit rivals in payload and towing capacity—but not with the hybrid powertrain. Maximum payload of 3,325 pounds is achieved with the 5.0-liter V8, and you’ll need the non-hybrid 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 to get the maximum towing capacity of 14,000 pounds (the hybrid is rated at 12,700 pounds). As with all trucks, achieving those numbers requires specific towing packages.
Equipped with the PowerBoost hybrid powertrain, our test truck had more than enough power to get itself moving, but the powertrain also made good use of its electric motor, with the engine rpm readout on the digital instrument cluster frequently going to “zero.” However, the transition between electric-only driving and hybrid mode was not smooth. The gasoline engine engaged with a disconcerting thump, especially during midrange acceleration.
Other than that, the truck’s road manners were quite good. Ride quality and cabin noise levels were impressive for a pickup. We would have been happy to drive the F-150 for the full 700 miles Ford claims you’ll get on a single tank of gas with the hybrid.
Form and Function
You may hear automakers crow about how customers use their pickup trucks as mobile offices, but Ford seems to have actually taken that into consideration. For example, the F-150’s shifter can fold flat, creating a work surface big enough for a 15-inch laptop, according to Ford. King Ranch, Platinum, and Limited trim levels are also available with fold-flat Max Recline Seats, so owners can sleep in their trucks after long hours on the job site.
Those F-150-specific features are complemented by the generous storage space one should expect in a full-size truck. That includes a center-console storage bin big enough for a Stetson, and cupholders large enough for unhealthy amounts of caffeinated drinks. Ford also included an angled wireless-charging pad with a lip on the bottom, ensuring your phone won’t slide around.
Ford offers a two-door regular cab with seating for three, a SuperCab with rear half doors and jump seats that seats five or six, and a SuperCrew cab with full-size rear doors and rear seats. The SuperCrew also seats five or six, but rear passengers will be more comfortable thanks to the additional space. However, the Ram 1500 boasts more rear legroom in its four-door crew cab, while the Chevy Silverado 1500 offers more headroom and legroom in the front row.
Available bed sizes include 5.5-foot, 6.5-foot, and 8-foot, which are close to what Chevy and Ram offer. In our test truck, bed access was made easier by optional power running boards, as well as a fold-out step in the tailgate. The tailgate itself had rulers (in both inches and centimeters) etched into it, and power opening and closing, activated by the key fob. However, Ford doesn’t yet have an equivalent of the six-way GMC MultiPro/Chevy Multi-Flex tailgate, or Ram’s vertical-split-opening tailgate and RamBox bed-side storage bins.
One feature Ford does have that the competition is an available in-bed power outlets. The optional Pro Power Onboard system has an output of 2 kilowatts with the 2.7-liter and 5.0-liter engines. The PowerBoost hybrid comes standard with a 2.4-kW version, with 7.2 kW of output available. Pro Power Onboard includes up to four 120-volt, 20-amp, outlets, and a single 240-volt, 30-amp, outlet with the 7.2-kW version.
The 2021 F-150 is among the first vehicles to get Ford’s new Sync 4 infotainment system, which includes wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and is capable of over-the-air updates. An 8-inch touchscreen is standard, but our King Ranch test truck had the optional 12-inch touchscreen, paired with a 12-inch digital instrument cluster. The touchscreen matches the Ram 1500’s optional Uconnect touchscreen in size, but with landscape, rather than portrait, orientation.
The touchscreen’s menus were sensibly arranged, and we liked that the digital instrument cluster displayed engine rpm and speed in large, easy-to-read numerals. Ford also supplied physical buttons and knobs for important functions like temperature, audio volume, and seat heaters. However, even with Sync 4’s greater processing power, it was still possible to start the truck up and drive away before all of the menus loaded.
The 2021 F-150 also gets the Pro Trailer Backup Assist driver aid introduced on the previous-generation model. It lets the truck do most of the work when backing up a trailer; all the driver needs to do is set the angle using a dashboard knob. Opt to do the reversing yourself, and Trailer Reverse Guidance provides coaching to help avoid jackknifing. Dynamic Hitch Assist adds sightlines to the rearview camera display to make lining up with a trailer easier. These features should make towing less intimidating, but they also cost extra.
Full crash-test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) aren’t available yet, as the 2021 F-150 just launched. However, the IIHS gave its top “good” rating for roof strength by carrying over results from the previous-generation model, which had a similar roof structure.
Standard safety features under the Ford Co-Pilot360 banner include forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and automatic high beams. Lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, hill-descent control, intersection assist (detects oncoming traffic while attempting a left turn) are available at extra cost.
The F-150 will also get Ford’s new Active Drive Assist system—but not at launch. Active Drive Assist will be able to handle acceleration, braking, and steering on designated stretches of divided highway, with a driver-facing camera to monitor for distraction. Trim levels that get Active Drive Assist will ship with a “prep kit” consisting of the required hardware, while the software will be added later at a dealership visit, or through an over-the-air update, for $600. Ford expects the software to be ready by the third quarter of the 2021 calendar year.
The PowerBoost hybrid returns impressive gas mileage for a full-size pickup truck, at 25 mpg combined (25 mpg city, 26 mpg highway) with rear-wheel drive, and 24 mpg combined (24 mpg city, 24 mpg highway) with four-wheel drive. However, it’s only a slight improvement over other trucks—including other versions of the F-150.
The 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 gets the same highway mpg as the hybrid, while the Power Stroke diesel gets 27 mpg highway with 4WD (the only version with published figures). The Ram 1500 EcoDiesel gets an EPA-estimated 26 mpg combined (22 mpg city, 32 mpg highway) with rear-wheel drive, and 24 mpg combined (21 mpg city, 29 mpg highway) with four-wheel drive. The Chevy Silverado Duramax diesel is rated at 27 mpg combined 23 mpg city, 33 mpg highway) with rear-wheel drive, and 24 mpg combined (22 mpg city, 26 mpg highway) with four-wheel drive).
Given how inefficient big trucks are, even a small increase in mpg adds up to big fuel savings. The PowerBoost is still a poor value proposition, however. It costs $1,900 more than the non-hybrid twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6 powertrain—which can tow more. The hybrid system also didn’t perform well in our hands, only managing 18.5 mpg over a few days of driving, according to the trip computer.
Overall, though, the 2021 Ford F-150 has a lot to offer. It can tow and haul more than its rivals from General Motors and Ram, has good road manners despite lacking the Ram 1500’s available air suspension, and has user-friendly tech. Pricing climbs quickly with options—our King Ranch test truck had a $76,720 MSRP, compared to $30,635 for a base XL model—but that’s the case with most full-size trucks today.
Ford’s warranty coverage—including a three-year, 36,000-mile, bumper-to-bumper warranty and five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty—is about average for the market segment.
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist living in New York state. He's obsessed with anything on four wheels, but particularly fond of his Subaru Impreza.
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