Electrifying a market giant: Why Ford’s new Lightning pickup is the biggest innovation in F-150 history
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Opinion
Nov 18, 2021
Peter Vella

For many reasons, Ford’s Lightning F-150 electric pickup truck could become a landmark in the transition to electric personal mobility in Canada. First, is its value compared to its internal-combustion siblings. Second, is Ford’s compelling history in this market sector, Peter Vella explains

Ford brings the electric vehicle model of the F-150, the F-150 Lightning (right), within a remarkably close price range to its combustion counterpart F-150 XLT (left).

For many reasons, Ford’s Lightning F-150 electric pickup truck could become a landmark in the transition to electric personal mobility in Canada. First, is its value compared to its internal-combustion siblings. Second, is Ford’s compelling history in this market sector, Peter Vella explains

Henry Ford was in his last year as CEO and chairman of the board of the Ford Motor Co. when the F-Series pickup truck was introduced in 1948. The F-Series was Ford’s first pickup truck to be built on a dedicated platform. The truck sold well, mostly to tradespeople and farmers, but wasn’t pushing Super Deluxe Tudors off showroom floors.

In many ways, Ford responded to changes in the pickup truck culture on its road to sales success. In 1961, the inclusion of four-wheel drive would serve recreational niches, such as campers and hunters. Interior refinements would trickle in with model years and with the Twin I Beam front axles (1965) the F-Series could boast a smoother ride than other pickups of the time.

Because trucks (and, later, minivans) were considered commercial vehicles they were allowed to skirt many of the automotive safety, emissions, and fuel-efficiency regulations of the 1970s and beyond. This would increase their profitability and encourage manufacturers to market trucks as daily drivers. The rugged image and practicality made a big impression on the urban consumer. Marketing executives in Dearborn, Mich., must have been pleasantly surprised (possibly shocked) at the sales numbers. By 1977, the F-Series was the best-selling truck in the United States, and by 1981 it was the best-selling vehicle overall. This was amidst stiff competition from General Motors and Dodge Ram.

Two distinct markets

With the 10th generation in 1997, Ford decided that the F-Series had to serve two distinct markets. The F-150 became more focused on attracting a car-oriented audience while its 250 sibling remained the workhorse. Early into the new millennium, Toyota and Nissan got into the full-size pickup fray looking for a piece of that enormous market. In 2001, Ford introduced the Super Crew Cab model which featured comfortable rear seats and the first four-door configuration in the half-ton pickup truck sector. This was not meant for a work crew. Bit by bit the F-150 was evolving into the upright, go anywhere family conveyance that could haul or tow. There were still pieces of the puzzle missing though.

Cars have been put through crashworthiness tests by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) Agency of the U.S. Department of Transport since 1979. Trucks were considered safe (by much of the public) by the nature of their physical (as in law of physics) advantage over smaller, lighter cars. It was true that an Escort would lose any battle with an F-150; however, without crumple zones, that rigid frame of the truck transferred lethal levels of stress to the occupants in an impact with a tree or a wall. With the 11th generation in 2004, the F-150 finally started to match the safety of its car cousins. In its present (2021) form the F-150 earns a “Top Safety Pick” in the rigorous IIHS tests, if equipped with LED headlights with curve adaptive technology. It is the only large pickup truck to earn that award.

Combining proper pickup truck power with (relatively) better fuel efficiency was the next challenge for the Ford engineers. The “EcoBoost” twin turbo engines were made available in 2009, improving fuel economy by a substantial 15 to 20 per cent. In 2015, Ford shocked the automotive world by making the entire body assembly of every F-150 out of aluminum, thereby lowering its overall vehicle weight by 700 pounds. And in case anyone was concerned that these body panels were similar to those used in fragile exotic cars, Ford made it very clear that they only used “military grade aluminum.”

Ford had been pushed by consumers, legislators, and its competitors to remain at the top of the sales figures, and the F-150 had evolved into something that respected its truck roots but was a comfortable, safe family “car.” In 2018, 1,075,000 F-Series trucks were sold globally, or 2,945 units per day. It was also in 2018 that Canada made the F-150 its best-selling vehicle. If Henry had a crystal ball back in 1948, he would have been very surprised to see that 73 years later the F-Series would not only have outlived a myriad of car projects but would in fact have replaced those cars in the hearts and driveways of many North Americans.

Ford Lightning F-150 EV versus ICE comparison

The Ford Lightning F-150 is much more than the electrification of a sales giant. It is an innovative EV unto itself. Best of all, though, is how it stacks up to its internal combustion powered sibling. My comparison of specifications and price was made easier by the fact that I could similarly equip an EV and ICE version on the Ford Canada website.

In Canada, the base Lightning is a “well equipped” XLT model with an MSRP of $68,000. That amount is not pocket change but should be put into context. The Lightning that I will be referencing has the smaller (standard) 370-kilometre range battery though there is a larger (extended) 480-km battery as an optional upgrade. The range figures are Ford’s estimate, based on the EPA testing format. That EPA format tests the Lightning with a 455-kilogram (1,000-pound) payload. All Lightnings come equipped with all-wheel drive and four doors, so I specified those features into the ICE version. With Ford’s EcoBoost engine (with start-stop technology) and the options that (I felt) would make the vehicles comparable, the gasoline-powered F-150 XLT would have an MSRP of $64,999.

This comparison gives the ICE version a price advantage of $3,000. However, the Lightning has several substantial advantages that cannot be replicated in the gasoline version.

For example, this is the only F-150 ever with an independent rear suspension.

Secondly, the vacated engine bay is now a storage area of 400 litres and 181-kilo (400-lb) capacity. It also houses four 120-volt outlets. Frunkzilla is not an overstatement.

Thirdly, the EcoBoost V6 engine produces 400 bhp (brake horsepower) and 500 ft-lb of torque. The Ford Lightning F-150 quietly delivers 430 bhp with the standard battery and 563 bhp with the extended battery. Both make 775 lb-ft of torque. The extended-powered truck is faster than the last Ford Raptor which sold for $87,000.

The ICE version I specified had the Power Pro option with a capability of supplying 7.2 kW of electrical energy with the truck’s engine running. The Lightning (with its standard Pro Power System) has the capability of supplying 9.6 kW without any tailpipe exhaust. That energy can be accessed by 10 120-volt outlets and a 240-volt outlet. Yes, you can take your clothes dryer to the campground.

All trim levels of the Lightning get the LED headlights with curve adaptive technology. You would have to jump to the “King Ranch” trim level ($77,000) in the ICE version for that added visibility feature. Only the Lightning has regenerative braking, advanced driver/vehicle interface technology, software updates and more. The Lightning also offers unexpected pluses like camping without a generator or propane thereby further reducing the use of fossil fuels. Once again consumers will explore the capabilities.

The compromise of going electric involves payload and towing capacity. The Ford Lightning F-150 has between 1,800 and 2,000 lbs of payload and a 10,000-pound towing capacity. The ICE version is specified as 3,250 and 14,700 respectively. This may be a deal-breaker for some truck users.

Interestingly, the Canadian XLT version comes better equipped than its American cousin. We get the Co-Pilot 360 (driver) Assist 2.0 system, the Power Pro System, heated seats, 20-inch wheels, a trailer hitch, and rain-sensing wipers as standard equipment.

It is worth noting that my EV-to-ICE comparison was done with no mention of government incentives.

Once and future king

If the optional extended battery on the XLT trim is chosen, then Ford’s Intelligent Backup Power (IBP) System becomes available. With this system, the truck’s battery can be used to power a home for three to 10 days. Think of a battery powerwall with wheels. The total cost of IBP (including the extended battery) can still compare favourably to the cost of a home battery or generator system. The truck’s battery can also store electricity generated from solar panels during daylight hours. In the U.S., Ford has partnered with Sunrun Solar which will supply and install compatible panel-to-vehicle (P2V) transfer systems. Let’s hope, eh?

The next phase of the gentrification of the American full-sized pickup truck might arrive via the elimination of its emissions. I believe that the majority of the massive F-150 cult will stay with the blue oval when it is time to bid farewell to their local gas stations. Yet, Ford has secured its status as the once and future king of pickup trucks by morphing its product to new audiences, and the Ford Lightning F-150 has to be seen as the biggest innovation in the F-Series’ decades of evolution. Competitors (both new and established) are in the wings. Some will surpass the features of the Lightning, but it is still to be seen if any can match its value.

In the chronology of EVs in Canada, the Ford F-150 Lightning could be heralded as the first electric vehicle that (at least at one trim level) matched or surpassed a similarly equipped ICE vehicle of the same purchase price.

That sounds like grounds for a tailgate party to me.

Peter Vella photo

Peter Vella calls himself a car nut with a conscience, and has found his enthusiasm for things mobile revitalized by the electric vehicle movement. He travels extensively to most any electric vehicle symposium, international car show or car museum he can get to.

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