This weekend, we took the off-road version of the new Ford F-150 pickup through the highest elevation trail in California. It’d be a test for its new turbocharged engine and its ability on dirt, rocks and sand. Could America’s best selling vehicle hack it?

10,000 feet is a border between worlds. Below it, trees grow tall and humans breath easily. Above it, only stunted pines barely cling to rocks and physical activity becomes hard work. The weather becomes unpredictable and prone to extremes; this high up, temperatures will be 35 degrees below what they are at sea level.

Advertisement

The environment up here also becomes unexpectedly fragile. It looks tough — the rocks and low shrubs and ancient, stunted pines — but what flora there is grows incredibly slowly and clings to the rocky soil tenuously. Damage it, and it’ll take an awful long time to grow back.

Why, oh why isn’t it bow season yet?!

So, access for off-roading a vehicle this high is extremely rare, for that reason. Coyote Flats is the only place I’m aware of in California where you can reach this height — 11,000 feet in some places — and probably the only place you can do it outside of Colorado and Utah.

Advertisement

To put this elevation in perspective, the tallest mountain on the East Coast is North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, which stands just 6,684 feet above sea level.

What Is It?

The 2015 Ford F-150 is an all-new truck and one that departs relatively hugely from the traditional full-size pickup format. By now, you’ll have heard that the body is aluminum and while old school, naturally aspirated engines in the form of a V6 and V8 remain in the range, the real headliners are the new, small-capacity, turbocharged motors, dubbed “EcoBoost.”

The truck you see here is equipped with the Supercrew cab, which adds full-size rear doors and hugely spacious rear seats that fold up for a flat load floor. It also has the FX4 package, which is Detroit speak for “off-road.” That brings Hill Descent Control, an electronically-locking rear diff, “off-road tuned” (read: stiffer) shocks, and skid plates for some additional protection.

One of the reasons the F-150 sells so well is a positively mind boggling ability to spec it to your individual needs. It starts with a stripped-out, $25,000 work truck with a single row bench seat and 2WD, but can be spec’d all the way up to $66,507 complete with full-length moon roof and cooled leather bucket seats. There’s almost infinite options between the two, able to turn the F-150 into anything from a work vehicle with an interior you clean out with a hose to something that rivals a Mercedes limousine on luxury.

Uniquely, the FX4 off-road package is available across all trim levels for the same $770 price. Stick it on the base XL if you want capability without the luxury price tag; it’s what we’d do.

Advertisement

The truck we tested this weekend was equipped with Ford’s new turbocharged, 3.5-liter V6. Making 420lb-ft of torque and 365 horsepower, it’s actually the F-150’s flagship motor, over the 5.0-liter V8. Not only does that EcoBoost engine provide a mountain of torque, but it doesn’t lose power as you climb; the turbocharger makes its own atmosphere.

Less dense air delivers less oxygen to the combustion chamber, reducing a naturally aspirated engine’s compression. The rule of thumb is to expect a power loss of 3% per 1,000 feet above sea level. So, up here, a non-forced-induction vehicle would be down a full 30% or so. Not so in a turbo or supercharged engine, which force air into the combustion chamber, compensating for elevation in the process.

Who’s It For?

Full-size trucks like this one are the heavyweight multitools of the car world. They do everything and do it very well, but the penalty is price and fuel economy.

Advertisement

With 43.6 inches of rear legroom, this truck (in pictured Supercab form) actually has almost 10 inches more space in the backseat than Mercedes’ most expensive luxury sedan, the S-Class. Of course, it also has a bed you can use to haul up to 3,300lbs of manure and 4WD that means you can take it off-road.

If you can justify the purchase price and fuel costs, an off-road capable full-size truck like this F-150 will be the most versatile, capable adventuremobile you can buy. One that’s able to haul more people, pets and camping equipment than anything else while also towing anything up to another full-size truck and doing all that virtually anywhere, in as harsh an environment as you can find.

Driving It

My buddy Mike is a truck guy. He founded, built and sold pickuptrucks.com before becoming the communications manager for Ford Trucks, just in time to manage the launch of this new F-150. Now that that’s through, he’s been wanting to actually find some time to enjoy “his” truck and use it to take his two kids on an adventure outside their usual comfort zone.

Advertisement

So, he and the kids picked me and Wiley up first thing on Saturday morning and we headed up 395 to Bishop. We filled the bed with tents and tables and chairs and firewood and food, then put Wiley in the back with the kids. My mountain bike just got thrown on top of all that stuff; a bed really does make hauling piles of camping crap very easy.

They don’t have a dog, so I think Mike was a bit worried about his kids sharing space with one as big and scary-looking as Wiley. That lasted about as long as it took his daughter to fall asleep in the backseat, using the mutt as a pillow.

You couldn’t ask for a smoother, quieter, easier highway experience than the F-150. You sit high up, towering over Toyota Tacomas. The long-travel suspension, big tires and long wheelbase make for a smooth ride and all that torque instantly makes on-ramps and passing things of the past.

Advertisement

Four hours in, we pulled into Bishop, turned left and almost immediately went off-road. The trail to Coyote Flats starts in the sandy bottom of Owens Valley at about 4,000 feet, before climbing innumerous switchbacks all the way up. With the going pretty easy at first, we waited until we hit the rocks before airing down, which quickly smoothed out the ride, added grip and provided a little more puncture resistance too. That last merit was necessary; Ford has not spec’d good all-terrains for the FX4, so we really had to worry about the tires over the Sierra’s sharp rocks.

This 4x4 Supercab F-150 has relatively limited ground clearance, at least compared to smaller, dedicated off-road vehicles. Approach is 25.8 degrees, departure is 26.1, breakover is just 21.1 and the actual clearance is only 9.4 inches. Still, that was more than enough tackle this intermediate trail; we only got close to the approach angle on a single obstacle.

Like other new trucks, Ford has added a rubber “lip” to the bottom of the front bumper. This is responsible for an extra mpg or two on the highway and can fold out of the way if you brush it against something off-road. While the lips on trucks from other manufacturers feel like they’ll tear off if you scrap them, my informal grab-n-tug methodology demonstrated impressive resilience. So, add a degree or two to the effective approach angle.

Advertisement

The rest of the trail was handled without drama. The kids continued to drift in and out of sleep while Mike and I took turns bouncing the truck over rocks and hopping out to snap pictures. We eventually crested one of last ridges on the Flats only to find a snow storm raging just ahead, so rather than camping at the top, we turned around and found a little aspen-filled valley with a nice stream back down at 8,500 feet and camped there. Wiley chased the kids, we made Carne Asada fajitas over the campfire then, the next morning, I pulled my bike out of the F-150’s bed and got 5,000 feet of free vertical descent.

The Good

  • Massively spacious interior makes luxury sedans feel cramped. My 85lbs dog had room to spread out on the flat floor of the rear cabin between the front and rear seats.
  • Makes hauling camping gear ridiculously easy. “Should we bring that?” It’s no longer a matter of, “Can we fit it in?”
  • The 6-speed automatic transmission is perfectly tuned to the 3.5-liter, turbocharged engine. You don’t feel the shifts and it doesn’t even hunt, you just get shoved forward.
  • Torque from the 3.5 Ecoboost is massive. The 5.6-second 0-60mph time used to be the stuff of sportscars and is positively ridiculous for a full-size truck, yet that doesn’t even give you a real idea of just how easily this truck pulls up hills or above legal speeds for passing.
  • Doesn’t lose performance at altitude.
  • Towing capacity for the turbocharged 3.5 starts at 10,800lbs and goes up to 12,100 with optional differentials.
  • Up to 732lbs lighter than the last generation.
  • Makes easy work of light off-roading in stock form. Massive aftermarket means additional capability is only a question of how much more you want to spend. Even a set of big, burly tires will really help.
  • The FX4 off-road package is available across all trims; you can add capability to any combination of options you want or need.
  • In contrast to rival systems, the F-150’s Hill Descent Control is seamless, smooth and quiet.
  • Forward vision is surprisingly good while climbing obstacles off-road; far better than, say, the smaller Toyota Tacoma. You can make it even better too, but spec’ing the optional forward view camera that mounts in the Ford’s grille.

The Bad

  • This trip was about 600 miles in total, starting in the city, slogging along the highway, then taking in 40 miles of slow off-roading. While our 16.5mpg average fuel economy is very impressive for a full-size pickup, that’s still a lot of money spent on gas. Figuring $4/gallon, taking this trip in the F-150 cost $50 more than it would have in my 2015 Subaru Outback, in which we average 25mpg for similar driving.
  • The truck we pulled from the press fleet this weekend was fitted with Ford’s “Sport Appearance Package” that brings 20-inch wheels and sport truck tires. Less sidewall, a lighter carcass and a tread pattern chosen for appearance over performance reduce off-road capability. Tires are the most important component on any vehicle. If you want to go off-road, fit the smallest diameter wheels possible for a taller sidewall, then fit a quality set of all-terrain tires. Stick with the FX4’s regular 17-inch wheels.
  • It doesn’t seem to stop people buying these things, but holy crap do options take the price up quickly! As tested, the truck you see here is about $50,000 and it doesn’t even have leather seats or a bedliner.
  • Full-size trucks are now truly massive. You will be unable to own one if you live in a city and park on the street and even some driveways and garages will be too small. That size also impairs its ability off-road; we were scraping branches on both sides through some tight squeezes on this trail.

Should I Buy It?

If I had $50k to burn on a truck, I wouldn’t even have to think about what to buy. It’d be a used Ford Raptor. That vehicle achieves pretty much every benefit this new FX4 has, while adding an other worldly amount of off-road capability. The Raptor version of this all-new model will arrive fall of 2016.

Advertisement

But, if you’re simply shopping for a full-size truck for its utility and would like to gain some off-road ability, the FX4 will add that to any sub-model within the F-150 family.

If that was me, I’d stick with the base XL trim level in six-seat Supercrew 4x4 format. Steel wheels, cloth benches and rubber floors keep a nice level of utilitarian not-having-to-care-too-much, while still bringing a comfortable 33.5-inches of rear legroom. With 17-inch wheels and taller sidewalls, that trim level should also ride better off-road and on. Unless you have a yacht to tow, we’d also scale down to the 2.7-liter turbocharged V6. Its 325bhp and 375lb-ft still deliver an impressive 6.5-second 0-60 while upping average fuel economy to 20mpg. So equipped, “our” truck would be a much more reasonable $38,275. Still expensive, but you won’t find a more versatile new adventuremobile.

Advertisement

IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Click here to view this kinja-labs.com embed.