Considering the influx of Ford Edges, Toyota Land Cruisers, Nissan Patrols (etc, etc) in the region, it seems that new off-road vehicles in the UAE will just walk out of their respective showrooms.
Probably. Possibly. Maybe…
Whilst SUVs and 4x4s in the Middle East may sell like proverbial hot Hariseh, pick-up trucks through one reason or another have struggled to cement their own niche in the GCC quite as successfully as they have in America. Ford though believes that its updated F-Series can turn that around, and the American powerhouse has good reason to be confident.
For 30 years the F-Series has been the best selling vehicle (not truck, vehicle) in America, and the best-selling pick-up for a further five on top of that. And Ford has gone to great lengths to make sure the latest version is even better. This year, for instance, marks the most significant upgrade for an F-Series powertrain in 63 years.
Appropriately therefore the launch of the new F-Series takes place in the Hajar mountains, an environment ideally suited to underline the event’s tagline: Built Ford Tough. All around there’s only rocky terrain, sand, mountain passes, burning heat, and occasional stretches of tarmac. And the F-Series will have to face the lot.
We’ve just arrived at the starting point – quirkily termed ‘Boot Camp’ – and the boys and girls at Ford have clearly got their game faces on. Large plinths – upon which stand demonstration models of the F150 performance packages – are dotted around, each with an explanatory sign: ‘most torque’, ‘most horsepower’, ‘most payload’. The softly softly PR approach is clearly on sabbatical today, and this is not the last time the F-Series’ accolades will be brought to our attention.
One of the more teasing additions to the throng is the new high-speed Ford SVT Raptor, the striking presence of which has already lassoed our interest. Unlike the rather sensible aesthetics of the new F-150, a collection of air scoops and aggressively designed body panels gives the Raptor a much shoutier persona. Plus, currently hibernating under the bonnet is a 6.2l V8, one of three powerplants Ford has developed for the new F-Series, including the all-new 3.7l V6. In the Raptor, the 411hp produced by the 6.2l engine stomps on the 360hp thrown out by the 5.0l V8 in the models we’ll be driving today, and one wonders whom Ford will ask to test drive this beast in the Middle East. [cough] hint [cough].
Ogling complete, we crack on with the first challenge: Towing. And truth be told I’m a little nervous, since I’ve neither hitched nor towed anything in my life. Those same butterflies are spooked a little more when one of the trailers we are introduced to is nearly twice as long as the F-150 itself. Gulp! “Mind if I take the pop-up camper?”
The weapon of choice for our three-strong convoy is the F150 King Ranch, one of the higher spec editions of the range. Getting comfortable behind the wheel is pretty straightforward, even if the array of dials, pressure warnings and instruments immediately in front of me is a trifle overwhelming straight off the bat. All settled, our convoy begins to roll and I hit the throttle, expecting a somewhat lethargic getaway given the extra weight at the rear.
But no. There’s little hesitation between the power being fed in and the wheels biting, the anticipated sounds of squirming tyres on dust and laboured engine revs nowhere to be heard. Instead, the combined weight of nearly two tons is up and away without so much as a snort of contempt. That rather throws me.
The surprises continue as our convoy hits the road. No sense hiding the fact that the F-150 is a big machine: ‘dainty’ and ‘nimble’ aren’t really part of the repertoire. And yet at speed, feel through the front wheels is encouraging and the weight to the steering is solid. Driving the pick-up feels no more difficult to driving a normal saloon. Almost. The faint voice in the distance behind my right ear from one of my two passengers demonstrates just how much room there is to manoeuver in the cabin, and only the enormous raised centre console in the front presents something akin to a cocooned driving position. With little road noise buffeting the cabin, the drive is – rather interestingly for a pick-up – civil.
What really sends the eyebrows rocketing though is the throttle. The road under our group begins to climb, a steep section appearing almost out of nowhere, right pedals accordingly being pushed rather more insistently than before. So far the V8 has been idling, exerting just enough oomph to keep the momentum up. Now though the automatic six-speed drops down two gears, the odometer needle pings up to the 5/6000 revs mark and the truck launches forward. Attack mode doesn’t last very long though as a whopping 380lb-ft of torque takes over, 4000revs and fourth gear(!) more than enough to get us up the steep incline. Very impressive.
With both the truck and driver now warmed up (my left elbow has taken its rightful place on the open window frame) it becomes worryingly easy to forget about the trailer following in our Pirelli marks. Yes, the complete lack of rear visibility is a good clue, but very little of the drive in the King Ranch hints at any extra weight. That is until I press the brakes. They’re responsive certainly, but the front wheels squirrel a little as the weight balance shifts forward. It’s only of mild concern, but it gets the message across nicely.
Having conquered the steep bits the convoy is now on its way back down, and we’re all rather keen to keep the weight of the pursuing trailers in check. Tapping the brakes (yes, it does rather go against instinct, doesn’t it?) engages the Hill Descent Control. Speed and gear changes are now being controlled automatically, leaving me free to concentrate on the steering. This, plus the Trailer Sway Control – which automatically tempers the power feed to the driver’s side wheels in the event of a fishtail – makes towing decidedly straightforward.
Fortunately we are already on our way back to base camp before I – now with a full twenty minutes of experience under my belt – can convince myself that I have the skills to tow anything. The clock’s just struck 11am, and there’s still an afternoon of thrashing the F-150 around the Hajar mountains to come.