By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN Business
The Ford F-150 Lightning may be the best pickup truck the company has ever made. All it took was making it completely electric, something that, not long ago, might have seemed off-brand for a traditional truck company like Ford.
Newer automakers have so far led the way on electric trucks. Tesla in 2019 revealed the prototype for its futuristic, electric Cybertruck but still hasn’t put it into production. Rivian came out with its electric pickup, the R1T, which won the 2022 MotorTrend Truck of the Year Award. But the electric pickup truly hit the mass market last month when Ford started production on the F-150 Lightning at its famous Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan.
It’s quick and powerful, and it drives better than any F-150 I’ve been in before. All that, and it does stuff you never imagined a truck would do, like provide workspace that also functions as a drinks cooler under the hood. (The front storage compartment is watertight and has drain plugs.) It can even power your entire home for days if you need it to.
This is a real truck, not a toy for campers and not a weird design exercise. It’s now in production by a company that already knows how to produce vehicles in big numbers. Ford has plans to make 150,000 of these trucks a year, which is equal to about 20% of all the F-series trucks Ford sold last year. The Ford Lightning is an all-electric version of the best-selling truck in America. To learn what truck owners really want and need Ford had only to talk to its own customers. This wasn’t delving into foreign territory. I recently got to drive several versions of the truck under vastly different scenarios at a two-day event around San Antonio, Texas.
In the fundamentals, this new F-150 doesn’t veer too far from its siblings. At a glance, if you don’t notice the charging port on one front fender and the fake charging port on the side, you might not notice it was anything but another F-150. Besides that, it has some extra lights running across the nose of the truck and across the tailgate, plus the grille has no holes on it. As I drove through the south Texas countryside I wondered how many people in the all the other pickup trucks around me realized how different this one was from theirs.
The F-150 Lightning has no engine in the front. Its huge boxy hood instead covers a massive storage space. To drive home the point, at the event in Texas, Ford representatives filled one with ice and served cold drinks from it. There are plugs in the storage space to power and to charge electronics, along with more plugs in the bed of the truck.
With one electric motor driving the front wheels and another the back, full-time all-wheel-drive is standard in every version of the Lightning. That includes a stripped down work truck with few amenities, a range of 230 miles, 426 horsepower and 775 pound-feet of torque, and a starting price around $40,000. That isn’t very different from the price of a four-wheel-drive V8-powered F-150 XL work truck which has a similar 400 horsepower and only 410 pound-feet of torque.
This is a real work truck that isn’t positioned as a luxury piece of camping equipment like, say, the Rivian R1T. As with other F-150 models, of course, the Lightning can be had with luxury levels of amenities and prices reaching six digits.
I spent some time in Lightning pickups towing heavy trailers and carrying heavy loads on highways and on narrow curving country roads. The truck does these things very well and can, in fact, accelerate up a highway on-ramp pulling a 5,000-pound trailer with remarkable ease. (The truck can tow up 10,000 pounds, according to Ford.) Electric motors provide instant response with smooth acceleration and are, of course, virtually silent.
The thing that surprised me the most, though, was just how much more nicely the Lightning drives than gas-powered F-150s. That’s largely due to the improved weight balance that comes having heavy battery packs spread out between the front and back wheels rather than a big engine under the hood. The Lightning also has independent rear suspension, rather than a stiff solid rear axle like other F-150s do, so a bump on the side doesn’t immediately affect the other side. This, combined with the smooth power delivery of electric motors that never need to shift gears, make the Lightning a remarkably civilized highway cruiser. It’s also very quick — especially for a full-sized truck — when the accelerator is pressed.
Off-road, climbing perilously steep, muddy trails, the Lightning proved, again, remarkably capable. That may not be surprising given that the trail was one selected by Ford to show off the truck but, to Ford’s credit, the truck I drove clambered up slippery rocks with the same tires as the ones I drove on the Interstate. Electric motors, with their smooth and quick power delivery to whichever wheels can use it, are ideal for slippery work.
Besides doing all the things gas trucks can do but better and faster, the Lightning offers a number of bonus capabilities. First, there’s that huge “frunk,” or front trunk, with plugs and lights inside. Then there’s the fact that, when plugged into a home charger, it can automatically provide back-up power to the house if there’s an outage. That’s in addition to the fact that it can also run power tools at a worksite.
Of course, towing and hauling (and accelerating hard while towing and hauling) uses a lot of electricity. Without hauling a heavy load, an F-150 Lightning can go 230 or 320 miles on a charge, depending on what size battery pack the customer orders. Hard work eats into the truck’s range by about the same amount that it depletes a gas truck’s driving range, according to Ford.
However, gas trucks can go farther on a tank to start with — the V6-powered F-150 can go up to 520 miles, according to the EPA — and filling a tank takes less time than recharging a battery. That will be a serious issue for some buyers. Most pickup owners probably drive much less than 200 miles on a typical day, though, and could easily recharge overnight. The only problem now is that The Lightening will be tough to get for customers who did not previously place an order. Ford has stopped taking orders from retail customers due to high demand.
Much of what’s great about the F-150 Lightning will probably also be great about future EV trucks, like the Chevrolet Silverado EV and the Ram 1500 EV. The smooth performance and ample power are largely inherent to electric drive systems. But the F-150 Lightning marks a real turning point in America’s long love affair with pickups.
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