We test-drove a F-150 King Ranch edition the other day. The actual King Ranch, in Texas, is in the news lately, as apparently the sugar industry (which King Ranch owns a part of) was taking Florida politicians on free trips there, which is considered - and is - an illegal bribe. Florida politics! As nasty and sweaty as a tourist's swimsuit in July.
The King Ranch (and the Platinum, which is similar, without the licensed branding logos) has every available option you can get on an F-150, and the technology is impressive, if not a bit scary. As I noted before, our "fully loaded" 1995 F-150 came with such exotic options as power windows, air conditioning, and cruise control. Things like panoramic sunroofs and air-conditioned leather seats were not even thought of back then.
And a funny thing, we have these fancy new options in our Hamster, which is a low-priced "economy" car. And if you look at the fittings and display screens across different marques, you come to the conclusion that a lot of this hardware is being sourced from the same place - likely China. And that is the problem for car makers today. Assembly plants are just that - places where parts are assembled to make a car. More than half the work in "building" a car or truck takes place in parts factories, not on the assembly line.
When I worked at GM, the Sloan vertical integration system was just starting to come apart. Back then, Delco made batteries and radios. Guide Lamp made headlamps. Fisher body made body panels. New Departure made bearings. We made every part of every car except the tires and the gasoline in the tank. Over the next 20 years, GM sold off or closed these parts divisions (and Frigidaire, Electromotive, and other non-core competencies) and concentrated on just assembling cars.
Some of these spun-off divisions did well. Others, not so well. Since GM (and Ford and Chrysler) could source parts from anywhere, they did. And often this meant overseas, and increasingly, China. So if we start a "trade war" with China, we are in trouble, as the "made in America" automobile is often a collection of parts that are made overseas.
What was interesting about this truck we test drove, was the staggering amount of technology in it - and this was a 2016 model - the technology has ramped up since then. Ford invested heavily in Aluminum body technology (which went on the market in 2015), and other manufacturers have yet to follow suit. Ford took Obama's 50-mpg CAFE requirement for 2025 seriously. I guess the others felt they could lobby their way out of it. Trump had granted a temporary reprieve, but the requirement will eventually kick in, perhaps by 2030 this time. And if a far-leftist takes office in 2020, perhaps sooner.
I think other companies may follow Ford (of course Land Rover was doing this back in the 1950's, so they are ahead of the curve and learned hard lessons about galvanic corrosion). In a way, it is like Boeing and the 787. Boeing went "all in" on composite technology and Airbus sneered that it wouldn't work. Now, years later, Airbus is playing catch-up and developing an all-composite aircraft of their own.
Ford has also invested heavily in turbocharging. In the old days, you had a choice of the old 300 c.i. in-line six, or the 302 or 351 V-8's. Ford long ago chucked its pushrod engines for overhead cams. And today, they offer two twin-turbocharged V-6's (2.7 and 3.5 liters), a 5.0 liter V-8 and a 3.3 non-turbo V-6 that no one talks about. These turbo V-6's crank out a lot of power - more than the 225 HP my old 302 was good for, and even more than the 265 HP the naturally aspirated 4.0 in the Frontier makes.
Some are skeptical about these engines. Turbochargers have a long history, and in the early days, they were not very reliable. Oldsmobile offered one in the mid-1960's and then quickly pulled it from the market. High temperatures and high rpms meant that turbo life could be very short. Early turbos required oil lines from the engine to keep the bearings lubricated and cool. Shutting off the engine with the turbo at high speed could result in oil starvation. When the turbo eventually died, the cost of replacement was staggering. And back then, turbo lag was a real issue.
A lot of these problems have been solved over the years, and turbos are no longer esoteric technology. Nevertheless, it is an increased level of complexity, and when complicated things break, they can be hard for the backyard mechanic to fix - and parts can be costly as well. Ford recently re-designed their 3.5 "ecoboost" turbo for the 2017 model year. Earlier versions seemed to work well. We'll see how the new one lasts - we'll know by 2027.
Then there is the transmission. Ford relied on a pretty durable 6-speed transmission, but in 2017 offered a ten speed (!) transmission that they co-developed with GM. GM in turn developed a 9-speed front-drive transaxle that they share with Ford. The staggering cost of development has to be shared - even among bitter rivals. The jury is out on the ten-speed, although review sites say it shifts well and performs well. But from a durability standpoint? Ten sets of clutches? Again, the more complicated something is, the costlier it is to fix. You have to hope it never breaks, as your only option at that point is to yank one from a wrecked truck or pay thousands (tens of thousands?) for a factory replacement. It is unlikely that the local transmission shop will be able to rebuild such a monster.
The gee-whiz options we ordered on the hamster are, these days, pretty common across all car lines. Like I said, my friend with the Mercedes was annoyed that the "luxury" features of his E-class were available in my lowly KIA. High-end stereo systems, pushbutton start, heated and cooled leather seats, LED and HID lighting, [panoramic sunroofs, and so forth can be had on any vehicle these days, and needless to say, the King Ranch had all of these and more.
In addition to pushbutton start, the truck had remote start and the newer ones have start/stop technology, that shuts down the engine when you stop at a stoplight (the tow mode on the transmission disables this, though). You can even program your cell phone to start the truck remotely - from anywhere in the world there is internet service. Want to make sure your battery is topped off when you park it in long-term parking at the airport? You can start the car from your cell phone - while you are in Japan - and run it for a few minutes. Of course, doing this while the car is parked in your garage might be a bad idea - unless you plan on murdering your sleeping spouse with CO poisoning (what a great plot device for a mystery novel!).
Micro-impulse radar devices are now mainstream - mostly as backup sensors. We even have this in our mid-level "SV" Frontier. I was treated to a demonstration of this technology at Lawrence Livermore laboratories back in the late 1990's. Today, it is everywhere. In addition to beeping when you are about to back over a small child, side sensors can detect when you are about to hit someone next to you. Forward sensors are used for "adapative cruise control" which will allow you to lock onto the car ahead of you for miles and miles. And if the guy ahead of you slams on the brakes, an accident avoidance system warns you and then applies the brakes if you fail to do so in time.
Toss in "lane control" which warns you if you are wandering out of your lane - and takes control of the steering wheel if you fail to respond, and you almost have Tesla's vaunted "autopilot" technology. Almost, that is. But it is getting closer and closer to the real deal.
The nice thing about the new trucks is the technology for towing. Back in 1995, the "tow package" included a class-IV load receiver, a seven prong plug, and a pre-wire for a brake controller. You also got a heavy-duty suspension and a transmission oil cooler. And some trucks had a "tow mode" which changed shift points on the transmission. Today, trucks have all of that, plus much more.
Towing anti-sway is standard even on a stripped F-150 XL and other manufactures, such as Jeep offer this as well (probably from the same parts supplier, again) If the trailer starts swaying, it corrects it electronically. I got into a sway situation once many years ago, and it is like a tail-heavy airplane - dynamically unstable. Any attempt to counteract the sway makes it worse. It is like the stealth fighter - only a computer can control it. This sway control is a nice feature to have.
Trailer Hitch Assist provides a hitch camera has a line that curves to show you how to line up the trailer with the hitch. Nice touch, although a simple backup camera, such as on the Frontier works fine for me. Backup cameras were unheard of in 1995, today they are pretty commonplace, even on mid-level optioned vehicles.
A built-in brake controller is offered on the F-150 at certain trim levels. Saves the hassle of wiring up a controller yourself, but provides even more features. You enter the data on your trailer, including weight and length, into the dashboard interface, and the brake controller is programmed with the correct settings. You can store up to 18 trailers in memory this way.
The BLIS - blind spot information system - uses micro-impulse radar transmitters in the rear taillghts to monitor whether anyone is in your blind spot - including next to the trailer - and alerts you before you change lanes. This is a really handy thing, as people love to ride next to the Casita while looking at it, and on more than one occasion, I have almost sideswiped them.
Backup Assist is kind of a lame feature, if you know how to back up a trailer. You turn a knob to move the trailer right or left, and the truck backs up slowly and steers itself (an extension of auto-parallel park). Of course, you can do the same thing by simply turning the lower half of the wheel in the direction you want the ass-end of the trailer to go.
But the technology doesn't end there. There is a "parking assist" system that allows you to push a button and the truck parallel parks itself. This is nothing short of magic. Of course, this feature has been out a few years now, but it is still freaky to see the steering wheel take on a life of its own.
The truck also had 360 degree cameras - which lets you see all around the truck. Combined with a backup camera on the trailer, and well, you can see everything. Again, this is not "new" tech today - I saw this on a KIA 900 sedan a few years back. It is nice, but not really necessary.
The King Ranch is distinguished by its retractable running boards - something that Cadillac uses on its SUVs as well. Oddly enough, there is no sensor on these running boards, so if your leg, a rock, or a small child is next to the truck when you open the door, they will get whacked by the running boards, and I saw no way to disable this feature. As a test, I extended my leg under the truck and opened the door, and the retractable step shot out and nearly broke my tibia.
I could go on and on. Electronic locking rear axle. Anti-lock brakes. Traction control. Airbags everywhere, including in the rear seatbelts. All the usual toys and things one expects these days - voice activated navigation, high-end stereo, bluetooth connection, USB ports everywhere, a power inverter with two 110V outlets (for what, I don't know), massaging seats with 10-way adjustment and three memories, adjustable brake and gas pedals, memory steering wheel position (leather and heated, naturally) spotlights and puddle lamps in the side mirrors, which also have turn signals behind the glass - and so on and so forth.
And of course, the heavy King Ranch leather - heated and cooled seats - as well as armrest, and real wood trim, panoramic sunroof, and more buttons and switches than a small airplane has. It is an amazing display of technology at work - in pickup truck no less. It wasn't long ago that the idea of a "luxury truck" was laughed at. In the 1950's, Dodge got a lot of flack for making a pickup with smooth bed sides and wheel covers and whitewalls. Who would in their right mind buy that? But within a few years, every manufacturer offered "fleetside" pickups and "luxury" features like cigarette lighters and a sun visor on the passenger side.
So, with all this technology, what could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot, it seems. And that gives me pause. The truck we test drove was a "CPO" trade-in with 25,000 miles and a super-clean CarFax. Other than a scratch here and there (and the disintegrated remains of a tonneau cover which was inexplicably left on the truck) it was in good shape.
Others, less so. I mentioned before the odd 2017 model I saw for sale - an early 10-speed version, serial number 80 off the line. It was shipped to the dealer in the fall of 2016 and sat for two years on the lot, only to be titled as a fleet vehicle (perhaps to the dealer itself) in the fall of 2018 (months ago!) and then auctioned off just last month and offered for sale (and apparently sold) at a Florida dealer. What gives with that? Was it wrecked in transit or during a test drive? Or did the new 10-speed transmission give it fits?
After looking at the King Ranch, we saw another one for sale in Florida. The dealer was up-front about the condition, displaying the CarFax and explaining that the truck has been bought-back by Ford as a "lemon law" recall. I almost cried reading the CarFax report - it seems the owner brought the truck back for the same problem almost every month he owned it. You can imagine the frustration the original owner felt owning this truck:
and shipped to original dealer
|09/25/2015||9||Pre-delivery inspection completed|
Wheel locks installed
|10/04/2015||Vehicle offered for sale|
|12/04/2015||Titled or registered as|
|12/11/2015||Vehicle purchase reported|
|12/28/2015||516||Exterior trim checked|
|01/15/2016||Title issued or updated|
First owner reported
Loan or lien reported
Vehicle color noted as Red
|01/29/2016||3,039||Engine/powertrain computer/module checked|
Engine electrical system checked
|06/17/2016||6,265||Engine/powertrain computer/module checked|
|09/22/2016||9,742||Engine/powertrain computer/module checked|
Exterior trim checked
|10/05/2016||10,433||Engine/powertrain computer/module checked|
|10/28/2016||Registration issued or renewed|
Loan or lien reported
Vehicle color noted as Red
|09/27/2017||21,881||Electrical system checked|
|11/13/2017||Registration issued or renewed|
Loan or lien reported
Vehicle color noted as Red
|02/26/2018||23,047||Title or registration issued|
|06/13/2018||23,472||Maintenance inspection completed|
Tire condition and pressure checked
Oil and filter changed
|07/15/2018||Tire condition and pressure checked|
|09/26/2018||Manufacturer Customer Satisfaction Program issued|
Program #18N03 DOOR LATCH FREEZING CONCERNS
Locate an authorized Ford or Lincoln Mercury dealer or call 866-436-7332 to obtain more information
|11/06/2018||23,473||Listed as a manufacturer vehicle|
Manufacturer buyback disclosed by seller
Vehicle sold at auction
|11/12/2018||Vehicle offered for sale|
|11/16/2018||23,476||Vehicle inspected for prior damage|
Minor damage reported
Cosmetic repairs found to: rear-end
View the complete ProView Report
Not only was there some "drivabilty" issue, it appears that in November of 2017, the dealer wrecked the truck while test-driving it. It was rear-ended apparently - not a serious accident. Nevertheless, this is a shitty CarFax report - if you ever tried to sell this truck, anyone reading it would give pause, particularly if you tried to unload it within a few years of buying it. The 12-month warranty offered by Ford is reassuring, but on the other hand, if the issue isn't resolved, you could end up like the original owner - frustrated. The discount in price offered isn't that great, considering the risk the potential buyer is taking and the scarlet letter CarFax that accompanies the truck.
The dealer is up-front about the condition (unlike the FSBO guy I almost bought from) but says the issue was a "display" that Ford replaced. I am not sure how a display related to drivability and engine control issues. I would like to see the service records and exactly what was done to "fix" the problem (and why the original dealer couldn't fix it over a period of two years).
I doubt I would buy that truck, unless it was heavily discounted and I had a grasp of what the problem was (and the solution). Bear in mind that sometimes "lemon law buybacks" have less to do with the car being a "lemon" than the buyer having remorse. I recall more than a decade ago, going for a drive with a friend in Vermont who bought a fully-loaded S-class Mercedes. Back then, things like pushbutton start and massaging seats were novelties limited to German cars. Today, they are in pickup trucks and hamsters.
It was a nice car, but staggeringly expensive. And I think he realized after buying it that it was more car than he could comfortably afford. So he raised a stink about how it was a "lemon" by claiming faults with the car and hiring a "lemon law" lawyer to write threatening letters. The company bought the car back, and he got out from under the payments.
And I suspect a lot of these "lemon law buybacks" are along the same lines. After all, there is no such thing as an unfixable car. An inexperienced mechanic may have trouble diagnosing problems, and there may be teething problems with some new technology. But the idea that a car is so unfixable that it has to be scrapped is pretty ludicrous, unless of course, the cost of repairs exceeds the value of the vehicle. And I expect that will be the case when a lot of these 10-speed pickups are 15 years old and the transmission loses a gear or two. They just won't be worth fixing, and that aluminum body will have a greater value as scrap than as daily transportation.
But what this CarFax illustrates is that this technology can be wonderful, but potentially turn into a nightmare. If your cell phone goes beserk, you can buy a new one (or a used one) fairly cheaply. If the Hamster or the Frontier throws a rod through the side of the block, I can afford to walk away from the vehicle - they cost only $25,000 each and are likely worth half that today.
When people buy $70,000 pickup trucks, though, well, it is a different story. You have to hope this stuff works and works well. As I noted in my "Why You Don't Want a BMW" posting, you can spend twice as much on a fancy car like a BMW, and get half the value out of it. It not only won't last twice as long as a more plebian Toyota, it likely won't last nearly as long as a more plebian car. Old BMWs get expensive to fix, which is why a 10-year-old 7-Series can be had for a song. No one can afford to repair all those broken toys that such cars come with.
And the problem with electrical gadgets is not that they break, but that they get flaky over time and do weird things. That, and they become obsolete in very short order. Bluetooth connectivity seems really cool today, but in a decade, could be as outdated and quaint as the cassette decks in my BMWs.
Maybe a better bargain is a stripped down XL with a towing package....