Ford's F-150 is a silky brute

WAW's offices are not inhabited by an overwhelming number of pickup afficionados. So when Ford Motor Co.'s gregarious 5.4L SOHC "Triton" V-8 won a spot on 1997's Ten Best Engines list, it was with some grousing about having to have a truck to get at the Triton.

Halfway into its year-long torture test with us, and with just more than 18,000 miles accrued, all we can say is that we couldn't have been more wrong. The 5.4L Triton's a gem, the F-150 is about the smoothest thing this side of Dannon yogurt - and darn it all, we love this truck. Crank up the Conway Twitty and let's make it official.

The F-150's 5.4L V-8 has taken everything we can throw at it - from boat towing to house moving to backroad roostertailing - and has asked for nothing in return apart from the regularly scheduled maintenance.

Well, almost nothing. There is the little matter of the 1,147 gallons (4,341L) of unleaded we've thrown down the beast's gullet. But 16 mpg (14.7L/100 km) so far seems a small price to pay for the 5.4L's grunt .

In the meantime, the F-150 has presented not one problem. Everything fits, everything works and it's all screwed together to an astonishing standard that looks and feels like it's designed to last a lifetime. Oh, yeah: We do wish we'd ordered the power seat.

What an engine, what a truck.

Take a vacation, but not on the Riviera

How do we say this nicely? We're not happy with Buick's Riviera. Yes, the 3.8L supercharged OHV V-6 is everything we've thought it to be in naming it one of our Ten Best Engines three years running. The 3800 is powerful, delivers tons of torque down low and cruises in a most relaxed - and economical - fashion.

But the engine, one of the industry's best examples of longevity and a testimony to the idea of continually improved design, is let down by the build quality of this car.

We've learned to live with the halfhearted fit of the interior trim and the wobbling rearview mirror. We endure the squeals-at-speed passenger-side window molding and the sometimes-they-work sideview mirrors. But when the car strands you, it's hard to be generous.

To be sure, Buick's roadside assistance was quick to show up. Once towed, the dealer traced the problem to a bad alternator. Yet considering all the other fit/finish and durability letdowns, we have no recourse but to see this problem as symbolic of the Riv's overall build quality. This is not how $35,000 vehicles should impress.

We've also had problems with the brakes: two rotor turnings and pad replacements in 20,000 miles (32,000 km) isn't a ringing endorsement. A GM source says the company has been "playing with" a variety of brake-pad compounds in an effort to fix the problem. The latest fix seems to be of a more lasting nature. O

Diesel express keeps rolling

Already gone is half of our year with Volkswagen AG's Passat TDI and we're already ruing the day we've got to hand it back.

To say the Passat's 1.9L direct-injected turbodiesel I-4 has been a wonder is understatement. Sure, fuel is cheap, but there's still a definitive smugness to moving along with 90-mph (146-km/h) traffic and knowing nobody on the road is doing that speed and getting 40 mpg (5.9L/100 km) to boot.

You do have to realign your driving style a tad. The TDI's 149 ft.-lbs. (202 Nm) torque peak is delivered at just 1,900 rpm - so when all-out acceleration is required, it's hard to resist the urge to wring out the gears; instead, one must upshift early to produce the strongest acceleration. It feels odd, but the reward is the solid pull of low- and mid-range torque that's absent in typical 16-valve gasoline 4-cyl. engines. Overall fuel economy has improved as the miles wear on: a startling 42.4 mpg (5.5L/100 km) to date.

Little has gone amiss. The Passat is well built and displays typical Germanic solidity. The rear defroster button doesn't like to engage and the central locking system mystifies the uninitiated, but that's about it. Can't complain about VW's no-cost maintenance, either, but replacing a windshield cracked by a boulder from Michigan's moonscape roads set WAW's budget back more than $400. Oh well, we're making it up on fuel...