The 2004 Ford F-150 pickup truck has to carry a heavy load—the fortune and perhaps the future of the Ford Motor Company. “Since the F-series represents about 23 percent of overall company sales—and it has been the bestselling full-size pickup in the U.S. for the past 26 years—it’s very, very important,” says Nick Scheele, Ford’s president and COO. “Nothing is ever make or break, but this probably comes as close to it as you could imagine.”

Ford sold 813,701 F-series pickups in 2002. That’s more than the total U.S. sales of Nissan or the sales of Mercedes, BMW, and VW, combined. And the F-series, which also includes the larger F-250 and F-350 trucks, added $2.6 billion to Ford’s bottom line, according to an analyst cited by the Wall Street Journal. It’s not surprising, then, that the company spent a reported $1.8 billion to develop the 2004 F-150.

Ford took a back-to-basics approach in designing the new F-150. The soft-contoured truck it replaces, although it sold well, was derided by some for being too, well, feminine. Ford took note of the knock. There’s nothing girlish about the new F-150. It bulges with muscular contours and exaggerated features; even the nine-inch-wide blue Ford oval on the tailgate is oversized. Compared with the prior F-150, the base version of the new truck is 4.6 inches longer and has a denser silhouette, with a high beltline and lower-to-the-ground bumpers. The cargo box is 2.3 inches deeper, the cab is nearly flat-sided, and the windows are more vertical than before. It looks big and is big—gorilla big.

But bigger means heavier. “We’ve added about 500 to 575 pounds to the vehicle,” admits Frank Davis, the F-150’s chief program engineer. He maintains that the extra poundage is “actually a beneficial element,” explaining that about a third of the mass is for safety (more frontal structure for better offset-impact protection), a third to quell noise and vibration, and the rest is divvied up among numerous detail refinements, the most significant being a box-section chassis (the prior truck has C-section rails) that he claims is about 50 percent more rigid in bending and nine times stiffer torsionally than before.

Given a new frame, Ford took the opportunity to rethink and rearrange the suspension. The rear dampers were moved outward to better control roll and lateral movement, the width of the rear leaf-springs grew a half-inch to 3.0 inches, and a new coil-over front suspension with cast aluminum lower control arms was designed. Gone are the four-wheel-drive trucks’ front-torsion-bar suspension and the recirculating-ball steering box, which has been replaced by a rack-and-pinion setup. And there are larger (13.0 inch front and 13.7 inch rear) four-wheel disc brakes. The cumulative effect of all this new hardware can be felt in the F-150’s ride and handling. It corners fairly flat, rides with comfort, and brakes without undue nose dive. The most noticeable improvement is in steering response. You don’t need to horse this pickup around; it responds instantly to steering inputs and tracks plumb straight with the steering wheel on-center. Although it’s not as agile as a Mustang, it’s no lumbering Percheron, either.

The goal for designers of the past few generations of full-size pickups has been to make them more carlike. The trick is to do it without (a) mushing up the suspension so much that a load of lumber pushes the cargo box down on the rear axle or (b) seriously diminishing the trucks’ pugnacious personalities. With the F-150’s 2900-pound-maximum-payload and 9500-pound-towing-capacity ratings, plus a comprehensively redesigned interior that borders on Town Car luxury in upscale models, Ford has struck a workable compromise between comfort and utility. We should see F-150s in showrooms by summer’s end.

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