Don’t trust anyone over 31.

It’s not that we’re bad people, we’re just different. You see, my ancient cohorts and I remember what it was like to live in a country where the Ford F-150 wasn’t the best-selling pickup truck in America. It was a strange place where gasoline cost 65 cents a gallon, a nuclear peanut farmer was president, and "Star Wars," disco and punk rock were locked in a culture war battle royal. I’m still not sure who won.

Since then, the F-150 has ruled the roost every year and even became the best-selling of all vehicles in 1991, another streak it still maintains.

Things could change soon.

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After hitting peak sales of 940,000 in 2004, Ford will be hard pressed to reach 600,000 this year. The troubled economy and volatile fuel prices have knocked our truck-loving nation so out of whack that in May, the F-150 was actually No. 5 in sales, behind compact and mid-size cars from Honda and Toyota. It scraped its way back to the top spot the next month, but now the current North American Truck of the Year, the Chevy Silverado, is hot on its heels, and could snag the championship belt before the end of the year.

Ford thinks not, and like a seasoned mixed martial arts fighter, the F-150 has been working on all kinds of new moves to hold on to its title. Ford calls the 2009 F-150 the most capable pickup truck available, and backs up the claim with some impressive specifications.

First and foremost is the golden grail of light trucks: towing capacity. Ford has upped the ante in a big way with a maximum rating of 11,300 pounds, 500 more than its closest competitor, the Toyota Tundra, and verging on heavyweight territory. It can also handle the largest payload, at 3,030 pounds, and there is a version available with the best fuel mileage in the full-size class.

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The Superior Fuel Economy (SFE) package is rated at 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway, which is the same as Chevy’s high-mileage Silverado XFE model. The Ford can tow more, though, and doesn’t use a special chin spoiler under the front bumper that has to be removed before going off road like the Chevy, nor does it need an aerodynamic bed cover in place to achieve those figures.

Ford accomplished this feat by trimming weight off of the F-150, combining a new three-valve, 292 horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 engine with a 6-speed transmission, swapping in a taller rear-axle ratio for better highway mileage, and adding an aggressive fuel shut-off that cuts the gas going to the cylinders immediately when you step off of the accelerator. The entire F-150 range gets an average increase of 1 mpg, about 8 percent more than before. GM and Chrysler have hybrid pickups on the way next year that will be tops in fuel economy, but will carry a huge price premium if their current full-size Hybrid SUVs are any indication.

•Click here for a list of the Top 5 Most Fuel Efficient Pickups currently on sale.

In all, the F-150 is available in 35 different combinations of body style, bed size and trim level, from the bare bones XL to the full-zoot luxury four-door Platinum. The latter gets 20-inch chrome wheels, power running boards, extra soundproofing and top-quality materials throughout that wouldn’t look out of place if there was a Lincoln badge on the grille.

I had the chance to drive several versions of the F-150 at the company’s proving ground in Romeo, Mich., back to back with examples of the Silverado, Tundra and new Dodge Ram for comparison.

Tough stuff aside, the Ford has the best interior of the bunch, and seems to be the quietest by a long shot. This is the legacy of all of those “image” buyers who beefed up sales in recent years, but didn’t want to give up the comfort of a car to look cool. Construction workers and off-roaders should appreciate the refinement just the same.

Ford’s Sync voice-activated phone and MP3 system is available, as is navigation with SIRIUS Travel Link services including live gasoline prices and weather. Upscale models offer a Sony stereo with a kicking subwoofer jostling occupants from under the rear seat.

Ride quality and handling are excellent, and as good if not better even than the 2009 Dodge Ram, which switched from a truck-traditional leaf spring suspension to more car-like coils this year in an effort to improve comfort, giving up some toughness in the process. The gamble probably didn’t pay off, because part of the reason the Ford is so composed is thanks to the stiff, fully boxed frame that helps gives it all of the heavy-duty attributes.

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On a handling course with 850 pounds of cargo in the bed, the F-150 felt the equal of the Ram in lane changes and slaloms, though the engineers on hand conceded that the Ram may have a slightly better ride when empty. If you like to drive your F-150 like it's a Mustang, go for the 20-inch wheel option on the Ford, the 18s are not up to the task.

Bounding down the durability test track with empty beds, the F-150 was again best of the bunch, tracking straight and true while plodding over inches-high cobbles and a washboard surface.

The one place the F-150 does come up short on the rest is in the power department. Despite offering three V-8 engine choices — two 4.6 liters and a 5.4-liter flex fuel unit — the F-150 is lowest in maximum horsepower at 320 horsepower, though it fares better on torque with 390 pound-feet. Still, with a 7,000-pound trailer attached even the 5.4 liter felt the most challenged off the line, but made up for it with intelligent transmission programming that keeps the engine in its sweet spot more often than the competition.

In tow/haul mode on downhill sections of a 2-mile road circuit, the F-150’s 6-speed downshifted instantly with a light tap on the brakes. An optional integrated trailer-brake controller and trailer sway control give it a surefooted ride at high speeds.

Since Ford offers an SX4 off-road model, we had to get a little dirty. No comparison driving here, but the SX4 was as nimble as a fat mountain goat on a dirt track with some serious ups and downs. It only got stuck once in a particularly deep mud bog — courtesy of a deluge the night before — that even the new electronic-locking rear differential couldn’t do anything about.

Prices start at $20,343 for a two-door, two-wheel drive XL, and go up to $40,440 for the Platinum. The new F-150 is clearly better than ever, and should sell well, if there is anybody out there to buy it. There are, just not as many.

But while overall auto sales get worse with every passing financial report, lower gas prices appear to be causing an uptick in market share for pickups and SUVs. Lucky for Ford, being No. 1 is relative, because it’s going to be a long time before the days of record sales return.

FOX Car Report does not accept travel and lodging consideration when attending manufacturer-sponsored product-launch events.


2009 FORD F-150

Base price: $20,343 to $40,440

Type: Front-engine, rear or all-wheel-drive, 2 to 6 passenger pickup

Engines: 4.6-liter 2-Valve V-8/4.6-liter 3-Valve V-8/5.4-liter 3-Valve V-8

Power: 248 hp, 294 lb-ft torque/292 hp, 320 lb-ft torque/320hp, 399 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 4 or 6-speed automatic

MPG: 14-15 city/18-21 highway

What do you think of the F-150?

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