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Friday, April 19, 2024

Ford’s F-150 Lightning Is a Refined Beast

It is hard to overstate just how big a deal it is that Ford has electrified its F-150 pickup. The F-Series family to which it belongs has been the best-selling vehicle in America for 45 years, with Ford shifting almost 2,500 of them every single day. Or about 103 per hour. F-Series truck sales generate $40 billion in annual revenue; if the line was made by an independent company, it would be bigger than McDonald’s or Nike.

In a perfect world, the battery-powered F-150 Lightning would grasp the baton and run with it as quickly as it launches itself to 60 mph (4.5 seconds, and we’ll be sure to come back to that later). But electric vehicles are not born into a perfect world.

They instead have to shift consumer mindset, conquering justifiable fears over range limitations and their true, life-long environmental impact. Electric trucks must then put in a double shift, quashing product-specific worries over cargo space, towing performance, and their ability to power everything from tools to camping refrigerators. 

In other words, the F-150 Lightning has to be a top-notch EV, while also continuing to be a world-class, best-selling truck—a seamless shift from internal combustion to electrification. With the weight of a company the size of Ford resting on its cargo bed, there seemingly cannot be compromise.

Our first drive of the F-150 Lightning begins in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a fitting location, given the that the state accounts for 20 percent of all Ford truck sales. 

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This British writer’s first impressions of the sheer scale of an F-Series truck will be superfluous to American eyes, but, still, the F-150 Lightning is vast. It’s a cabin to be climbed up to instead of stepped into. But once inside, the view is familiar, thanks to the same 15.5-inch, portrait-orientation touchscreen display as in Ford’s electric car, the Mustang Mach-E

It runs the company’s own Sync 4A operating system with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Alexa, but for 2023 the Lightning will instead be fitted with Google’s Android Automotive—a superior system in our view, and the 2022 model’s inability to be upgraded will surely be disappointing to early adopters.

As in many trucks, the cabin is packed with thoughtful conveniences. The tailgate has integrated rulers and clamps for sawing wood, plus a pen holder, bottle opener, and a deployable step and grab handle. These are small details, but nonetheless evidence of a product that has sold more than any of its rivals for nearly half a century.

One of the Lightning’s biggest features is power connectivity. Base models can output up to 2.4 kilowatts, while midrange Lariat and flagship Platinum models output 9.6 kW, with 2.4 kW of that available from outlets in the front trunk. Or in Ford parlance, the Mega Power Frunk. A huge benefit from the compactness of electric motors compared to internal combustion engines, the frunk is huge, with a capacity of 400 liters and the ability to carry up to 180 kg. It’s weatherproof, and there’s even a drainage hole so it can be filled with ice and used as a mobile drink cooler.

A simple concept—and although now the largest, far from the first frunk on the EV market—the creation of the Mega Power Frunk is described by Darren Palmer, vice president of Ford’s electric vehicle program, as “epically difficult, one of the most difficult things we’ve done on this truck.” Palmer is referring here to the relocation of ancillary systems like radiators, suspension, and the fact that this supposedly represents more than just the use of space left by the removal of the engine. 

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The cabin is equipped with two 120-volt outlets, six USB ports, and a wireless phone charger, while the frunk has a pair of 120-volt outlets and two USB ports, and the bed has four further 120-volt sockets and a 240-volt outlet. These can be used to power circular saws, air compressors, generators, drills, and flood lighting—or televisions, music systems, small refrigerators, or even a hot tub when camping or tailgating.

Powering tools, laptops, and camping gear is only half the story when it comes to the Lightning’s electrical capabilities. Ford offers a home charger, called the Charge Station Pro, that fills the battery using AC in the normal way, but can also take power from the truck over a DC connection. This happens automatically when there’s a power cut, restoring power to the home in about 45 seconds. Ford claims the Lightning can run an average US home for up to three days when equipped with the larger 130-kWh battery pack, or up to 10 days when the home’s electrical demands are rationed accordingly.

In the future, Ford intends to offer a system where a home’s power supply will switch between grid and truck depending on whatever is most cost-effective.

Much of the five-seat interior is carried over from the internal-combustion F-150, including how the gear shifter can be hidden away and covered by a table that folds out from the center arm rest, acting as a surface on which to complete paperwork, place a laptop, or eat lunch. It’s a small thing, but evidence of the degree to which Ford thinks about what its customers want and how these trucks are used.

We head out of San Antonio and drive north to Boerne. On a freeway packed with gas-powered trucks the Lightning blends in, only its redesigned LED light bars, discreet Lightning branding, and lack of a tailpipe setting it apart. This is no doubt an intentional bid by Ford to not rock the best-selling boat with a bolder design that could risk alienating loyal customers. Inside, the ride is refined and quiet, but with more wind noise than might be expected from the $90,000, range-topping Platinum edition we’re driving.

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The seats seem nearly infinitely adjustable, but playing a major role in boosting comfort across the entire F-150 Lightning spectrum is the battery pack, and how it not only shifts the centre of gravity down but also rearwards. It’s such a shift that this is now a pickup truck with what Ford describes as “a rounding error away from” the perfect 50:50 weight distribution. It feels composed, compliant, and not utilitarian in the slightest, with a comfortable and surefooted ride. Such is the torque on offer, towing a heavy trailer made no real difference to how the Lightning drives, and Ford’s optional towing technology pack helps with hitching, powering, braking and—crucially—reversing a trailer.

There isn’t much in the way of steering feel, but that really isn’t the point with a vehicle like this. More importantly, the F-150 Lightning is easy to drive, with good visibility, intuitive controls, and, should you choose to enable it, a one-pedal driving system that is beautifully calibrated to the point that the brakes are hardly needed. Motor noise is almost nonexistent, although there is an optional augmented sound effect, which is the very same as in the Mustang Mach-E.

Being an EV, the F-150 Lightning is naturally rapid. There are two battery options available at launch, a 98-kWh model producing 452 horsepower, and a 130-kWh model that kicks out 580 hp—making it the most powerful F-150 ever. Both produce 775 pound-feet of torque. Ford isn’t committing to an exact 0-60 mph time for the most potent model of Lightning, but says it is somewhere in the mid-four-second range. And yes, a full-size truck launching to 60 mph in around 4.5 seconds is somewhat absurd, but that’s just the deal with high-powered electric vehicles.

Driven more sedately, the Lightning has an EPA-estimated range of between 230 and 320 miles, depending on trim level and battery size. Naturally, what the truck is hauling or towing will also have affect those figures. Ford says the Lightning can tow up to 10,000 pounds with the extended battery, and the maximum payload rating is 2,235 lbs. To ensure you don’t go over that limit, a smart scale system shows how much weight is being carried on the dashboard display, and there’s a separate reading for the frunk too.

Ford hasn’t equipped the Lightning with an 800-volt system architecture, as used by some EVs, like the Porsche Taycan and Hyundai Ioniq 5. Instead it uses the more common 400-volt system, and DC fast charging is limited to 150 kW, which Ford says will fill either battery from 15 to 80 percent in about 40 to 45 minutes. Most home chargers will refill the battery from 15 to 100 percent overnight, with Ford’s own 80-amp Charge Station Pro getting the job done in eight to 10 hours.

Lastly, the Lightning can be used to recharge other EVs, at a rate of around 30 miles per hour. The system can be daisy-chained too, so a truck plugged into a home charger could have its battery filled while also topping up a second vehicle.

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It is quickly becoming apparent how electric drivetrains turn serious off-roading into child’s play. With off-roading mode selected, the driver can then enable or disable an electronically activated mechanical locking differential … and that’s it. One-pedal driving is disabled in off-road mode, so old-fashioned use of the foot brake is needed to control hill-descent speed. Otherwise, it’s just a case of the car shifting power between the two axels to find the most traction, and individual wheel braking is used to ensure smooth, steady progress.

In practice it isn’t as sophisticated as a Land Rover, but it gets the job done with endearing simplicity. Our test route saw steep inclines and descents, water, mud, rock crawls, and a surface with holes deep enough to need help from the locking differential. Later, the traction control is disabled and we’re let loose on a short gravel rally circuit, where the Lightning’s torque has us sliding around with an appropriately large grin on our face. It sure is weird to drive a near-silent EV like this, but don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t fun.

For many people, the F-150 Lightning will be the ultimate do-anything vehicle—from hauling and towing to powering a camping trip, sharing electricity with a fellow EV driver, or even keeping your home online during a power cut.

WIRED will have a full review of the F-150 Lightning shortly, once we've had more time in the EV.

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