Ford F-15 offers cowboy luxury, sports-car speed

Driving through Manhattan in an oversized Ford F-150 SuperCrew pickup, my major concern is not decapitating any hapless cyclists.

There might be any number of reasons why a pickup and the Big Apple might seem at odds - Wall Street versus Main Street and all that. My issue is with the gargantuan side mirrors. Boulder-sized chunks of glass and heavy plastic, they hang out extremely far on either side.

Fine, perhaps, when you're towing a big boat and need to see the universe behind you. Not so helpful when your main concern is avoiding the bobbing heads of delivery men.

Once I clear the city without having claimed any urban scalps, I find myself marveling at this asphalt-bound tug boat. The size, the price, the technology. This $52,000 Ford is not the truck of my youth.

Putting aside fears that all my city friends would suddenly ask me to help them move - a real complaint among pickup owners - I recently bought a used 2002 midsize Nissan Frontier. It's perfect for ferrying dirt, rocks, lumber and furniture around a property in rural Pennsylvania.

It has 4X4 and oversized tires, a leather interior and it's pretty nice to drive. It also has an antiquated CD player and only two airbags.

I wanted to see what the latest pickups had to offer. The Ford F-150 is consistently the nation's best-selling truck, and the luxury version I tested was resoundingly modern. The leather seats are heated and cooled, the steering wheel electronically tilts and telescopes. There's a (much needed) back-up video camera. It has a power moon-roof, satellite radio and a 4.2-inch screen with navigation.

The beast is also huge. Intimidatingly so. Ford calls it a "SuperCrew." And with four full doors and plenty of room, it could easily fit the kind of guys who either favor hard hats and steel-toed boots or ten-gallon Stetsons and spurs.

It has a bed that it 5.5 feet (1.7 meters) long, ample for carrying a queen-sized mattress or half-cords of firewood, and you can opt for one that's a foot longer.

Even without actually towing something behind you, a novice truck driver has to get used to driving something this long and bulky. This is no two-door sports car threading its way through traffic. It's a 19.3-foot-long, 5,100-pound rhinoceros which shoulders its way in.

Once I get past the size, I begin to appreciate the elegance of Ford's EcoBoost motor. Yes, elegance. Rather than the brutish 5.0-liter V-8 of the standard F-150, the SuperCrew packs a twin-turbo, direct-injected V-6.

Rated at 365 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, it's a slick piece of technology displacing only 3.5 liters, this engine has far more in common with a hot sports car.

The result is better gas mileage, relatively speaking; 15 miles per gallons city, 21 highway versus 14 and 19 for the regular 5.0-liter V-8. The V-6 also gets 40 more foot-pounds of torque than the bigger engine, providing the kind of muscle you need to power up hills while pulling a barge or trailer. For any sagacious truck guy, that's a bonus. (The V-6 costs about $900 more.)

It also means that power comes on quickly and seamlessly. The F-150 is peppy and powerful, depending on how you want to drive it. The handling is good. My wife Miranda drove and loved it. The size didn't bother her one whit.

The price set me back on my heels. The base price of this 2011 model was around $46,000, with more than $5,000 of options and a destination charge of almost $1,000. All in it carried a $52,075 price tag.

For my current lifestyle, a compact or mid-size truck is better. So I spent a week driving the 2012 model of the Nissan Frontier 4X4. With a price of $29,085 as tested, it was a four- door model with a V-6 engine. Its SV trim wasn't much more luxurious than my 10-year-old model. It had cheap-looking cloth seats and, oddly, included no optional navigation system.

The body style is newer and larger. Nissan has added important safety additions like traction control and better brakes, as well as side impact and curtain air bags. But the drive was only nominally better than the older Frontier, because the automatic transmission is only a five speed, and the 4.0- liter V-6 gets only 261 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque. At 14 mpg city and 19 highway, mileage is poorer than the larger Ford.

While standard wheels are puny 16-inchers, a $1,190 sport appearance package allows you to upgrade to 18 inchers. It would have looked great with even bigger wheels. If I was buying a new Nissan, I'd opt for a locking rear differential and skid plates.

The truck wars are fierce, and Ford has embraced a mix of the old and new in a compelling way. Meaty and modern, it's the one I'd pick up.

- Editors: Two photos (AUTOS-TRUCK) available at www.wpbloom.com.

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