When Ford announced the 2021 Ford F-150, the company knew that it had a very tall order to fill. The F-150 is a very strong seller, and F-150 buyers know what they want in their pickup. As such, any updates that the company did couldn’t be just thrown wildly into the wind for the sake of doing it. Each one had to be carefully thought out to ensure that they made the most impact, and also brought something unique to the customer. Ford thinks it has managed to succeed in this role with the 2021 F-150, But are all these changes enough to help the truck retain its crown as the best selling pickup ever? We were keen to find out.
Evolution is the sincerest form of flattery
To find out just how well the 2021 F-150 managed to pull off this transformation, we were invited by Ford to visit Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, Michigan to take a deep dive into what makes the 2021 F-150 have that wow factor. Our day began with a drive around some of the rural slices of town that dot the area. We opted to go with the range topping Limited model for our loop partly because luxury trims are fast becoming a very potent status symbol, and also because it came equipped with Ford’s all new PowerBoost hybrid engine.
While we will save our thoughts on the hybrid for the performance section of our review, the Limited model that we drove proved to be very good at drawing attention with some folks pausing a moment to take a glimpse as we drove by. This is partly due to the new suit of clothes that Ford designers have given the truck. It doesn’t rock the boat too much, and instead builds on some of the core foundations that have made the 2020 model a strong seller. The headlights have been reworked, and the truck also features a revised front bumper. Ford claims that 11 different grille configurations are available (depending on trim level) and our tester’s large chrome infused unit is a very potent styling statement.’
Other details abound here, including the C-shaped inserts that are in the mirror housings, as well as the power operated running boards that now feature a handy kick sensor to allow them to be deployed or retracted when your hands are full. The side profile transitions out to the rear of the truck, with the tailgate here having the ability to be opened or close automatically with the touch of a button. The close feature can also be triggered by hitting your knee onto a sensor which was also made to be used when your hands are full (the availability of those two features do vary by trim.) The taillights have also been tweaked, and they maintain the familiarity that F-150 buyers expect.
When compared to rivals from Chevrolet and Ram, we think that the F-150’s mixture of familiarity and freshness will be the proverbial sweet spot for buyers, and that will translate into mountains of profit for Ford and its dealerships.
Bigger, slicker, and you can go to bed in it too
With the exterior retaining its links to the familiar traits that define the outgoing model, the interior takes a much bolder step towards making a name for itself, and we think that F-150 owners will be in for a real treat. The cabin has been heavily reworked, and was designed to appeal to a wide range of customers. Higher quality plastics and splashes of leather are scattered throughout, and Ford designers placed a high priority on improving ergonomics. This includes the all new Interior Work Surface feature that transforms the center console into a portable desk. The feature is available on all trim levels, and can even be equipped to both the base bench seat and captains chair configurations.
However, for trucks like our tester that are equipped with the floor mounted shifter, Ford had to get a bit creative to help make it work. This was achieved by making the shifter have the ability to fold flush into the rest of the center console. That allowed Ford to create a flat surface for the desk, and it’s also a good conversation starter as well. Another feature aimed at practicality are the lockable storage boxes underneath the rear seats. These novel boxes help extend the interior’s storage capacity, and can be used to store valuables as well as larger items.
Technology is also center stage here, with our tester featuring a 12-inch digital instrument cluster which is the first time a digital cluster has ever been offered in an F-150. Ford is also making a touchscreen infotainment system standard issue on very F-150 model, with even the typically bare bones XL model pitching its ancient button filled radio for a screen. An 8.0 inch screen is the standard size available, but XLT High Series and up models feature a larger 12-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Like Ram’s biggest iteration of Uconnect, owners can split the screen to control multiple functions, including Pro Power Assist, Navigation, Zone Lighting, and more. The truck is even capable of receiving Over The Air (OTA) updates, and is the first one in the segment to offer this capability.
Oh and here’s a fun fact we learned from Ford reps, did you know that there are people that actually sleep in their trucks? We didn’t, but Ford engineers managed to come up with a very clever solution to the problem of lumpy seatbacks, the Max Recline Seat. As the name implies, Max Recline allows the front seats to literally transform into a bed, and is only available on certain trims. In the case of our Limited model, the seat actually changes the amount of bolstering and support as it goes down, which enhances night time comfort. Even better, Ford reps confirmed that both the seat massage and the heat and cooling features will still work with the seats fully folded. Name a Serta mattress that can do that.
A pinch of fairy dust adds some muscle to carryover engines, new hybrid leads the way
Performance for the 2021 F-150 will be very familiar to anyone that has spent a significant amount of time behind the wheel of the 2020 F-150. Virtually all the engines have been carried over, with the 3.3 liter V6 continuing its role as the base engine. The 2.7 liter turbocharged V6 and the 3.0 liter Power Stroke diesel V6 also carry over unchanged, and you would think that things here are the equivalent of watching an old slideshow of a family vacation. Handling behavior here is largely unchanged, with Ford allowing us to sample fully loaded XL and XLT models out on a small handling course.
But don’t fall asleep just yet, because things do get a bit more interesting when you check out the 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6. This engine is where Ford’s engineers managed to squeeze out a bit more power, with the engine adding 25 more horses and 30 lb-ft of torque to its total for a revised figure of 400 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque. Meanwhile, the 5.0 liter Coyote V8 is also massaged to 400 hp, but makes less torque (410 lb-ft.) We asked Ford reps why they are still offering a V8 in the F-150, and they revealed that the engine is still very popular with people that tow trailers and boats. That’s understandable considering that the two engines are only 1,000 lbs apart from each other when it comes to towing capacity (14,000 vs 15,000 respectively.)
As for our tester, it came packed with the all new 3.5 liter PowerBoost hybrid engine. Starting life as a 3.5 liter EcoBoost engine, the hybrid is paired with a 1.5 kilowatt hour battery and a 35 kilowatt electric motor. The combination helps produce 430 horsepower and 570 lb-ft of torque which makes its presence felt when you drive the truck around town. Strong acceleration is paired with silky smooth cruising, and our tester was easily capable of soaking up countless miles with little effort. However, the stop/start system is not the smoothest we have ever experienced, and there were rough transitions when the engine would turn on and off. The power is routed to all four wheels through a 10-speed automatic transmission, and our late stage prototype still retained the smooth demeanor that this transmission is known for. The hybrid also has a 700 mile driving range, but this isn’t a Prius, and unless your driving like the Lorax, chances are it will be primarily used to boost performance.
The hybrid engine also provides the juice needed to power the Pro Power On Board System (a smaller 400 watt default setup is standard.) This feature comes in three different power settings (2,000, 2,400, and 7,200 watts) and eliminates the need for a bulky external generator. This actually helps transforms the truck into a mobile generator which is a segment first. Several power outlets are located in the bed of the truck, and they can power a wide range of equipment depending on the system that’s equipped, including power saws, barbecue grills, and even televisions.
Whether its towing a trailer or going mud bogging, F-150 has you covered
But while the F-150 can certainly handle itself well on the daily commute, the ultimate test of any pickup is how well it can do… truck stuff. Ford knows this very well, and had several other trucks on hand to not only show how it can handle tough towing jobs, but also times when a bit of mud bogging and treacherous trails are the order of the day. We took this handsome red example out on the towing loop to see how it handled the rigors of towing a trailer. Our second hybrid equipped truck of the day, it proved to be a very willing steed on the course with the engine still having enough power to lug it around effortlessly. Ford also added a number of towing related goodies to help make the task easier, including extended blind spot monitoring coverage, a trailer theft alarm, and even a built in light check feature that allows owners to go through a full lighting check without leaving the truck.
Later in the day, we had the chance to go down both of MPG’s off-road courses to see how well the F-150 can handle the toughest of trails. Both of these hellish routes had the literal gauntlet of off-road obstacles and challenges, and the F-150 powered through them all, including a particularly challenging section known as Watmans loop, where big mud pits and abrupt drops proved to be a punishing test for the FX4 equipped King Ranch model that would be our steed for the informative trek through the wilderness.
The 2021 Ford F-150 has two signature tricks that aim to make off-roading less intimidating. The first is an all new Hill Descent feature which allows the driver to set a particular speed, and then the truck will gingerly make its way down a steep hill thanks to automated braking inputs at the speed you want. We had the chance to try this out on a particularly steep grade during the first half of our off-road driving adventure, and it delivered the goods. The other key feature that we unfortunately did not get a chance to try out is the all new rock crawling mode that is lifted from the Tremor Super Duty. Like the Tremor, Rock Crawl mode in the F-150 is only available in 4×4 low, and modifies select parameters to ensure that the F-150 always has optimal grip when going over rocks, especially if one of the wheels loses traction. Needless to say, smiles and a very muddy truck were had when all was said and done.
Pricing for the 2021 Ford F-150 is just as diverse as its trim levels, with a base XL model starting at $28,940. Meanwhile, the volume focused XLT and Lariat models start at $35,050 and $45,195 respectively. As you can imagine, once you reach the King Ranch trim, the pricing naturally climbs higher, with that model starting at $56,330. Moving past the V8 powered Platinum trim brings you to the range topping Limited model which has a base sticker of $70,825. Our lightly optioned test truck had a final sticker of $79,890 which is just under $80,000.
These figures are on target with the Silverado and the Ram for the most part, but a Limited grade F-150 is roughly double the price of a comparable Ram Limited model, and it also managed to be even more expensive than a $70,095 base variant of the more powerful albeit off-road centric Ram Rebel TRX. But look past this ritzy trim, and things do align more clearly, with the King Ranch and Platinum models placing themselves firmly in the crosshairs of Longhorn and High Country equipped Ram and Silverado models.
The real star of the show though is the XLT trim which is expected to continue its role as the bread and butter model of the F-150 range. These models have been a very potent spearhead for Ford, and currently have a number of advantages over the Silverado LT and Ram 1500 Big Horn in terms of technology and design.
Regardless of how you slice it, the 2021 Ford F-150 still manages to be a solid pickup entry. It still covers many of the core essentials that pickup buyers look for, but has managed to add in a number of new tricks and features to help it stand out from the rest of the pack. Familiarity can sometimes be your biggest asset, and the 2021 Ford F-150 is an example of how strategic evolution in the right places and leaving other traits alone can still produce a winner. Here’s hoping the upcoming all electric F-150 will help bring the iconic truck full circle, while also opening up new frontiers at the same time.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.