DEARBORN – As Ford Motor Co. was developing the latest version of its enormously successful F-150 fullsize pickup, it looked over its shoulder and saw the competition bearing down hard.

Chrysler Group was getting rave reviews for the Hemi V-8 that powers its Dodge Ram, and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. was winning kudos for its new Titan pickup. And Ford knew both General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. were putting plenty of muscle into their upcoming fullsize offerings.

The No.2 auto maker decided the revamped F-150 would set a new benchmark for interior comfort. The seats would be firm, the instrumentation stylish and the materials of the highest quality. The noise levels would be minimized by a new 3-valve 5.4L V-8 engine, as well as better underhood damping.

It is no stretch to say the new F-150’s cabin rivals that of a luxury car from the standpoint of material quality, styling and noise levels.

Ford’s Tony Brown says new F-150 should set benchmark for future Ford interiors.

High-quality craftsmanship and materials in a pickup don’t come cheap. Ford’s purchasing chief says it was only possible because of the hard work of dedicated suppliers that were engaged earlier than usual in the program.

“This vehicle has more features in it, and some of those features cost more,” says Tony Brown, vice president-Global Purchasing. “Certainly by working collaboratively, we’re able to more cost effectively do these types of things.”

Brown declines to say whether the new F-150’s interior costs much more than that of the previous generation. “What I would say is the level of investment that we made in the interior we think is appropriate given the marketplace,” he says.

Brown credits several suppliers for their interior contributions: Visteon Corp. (center console and instrument panel), Dura Automotive Systems (on-floor shifter), Johnson Controls Inc. (overhead “rail” storage console), TRW Automotive (restraints and airbags) and Lear Corp. (carpet/insulation and door trim panels). Ford also gets its F-150 seats from two suppliers: Lear and Bridgewater Interiors LLC, a minority-owned joint venture between JCI and Detroit’s Epsilon LLC.

Ford did retain a bare-bones version for traditional buyers who expect nothing more than a go-to-work utilitarian hauler.

“There are five different interiors, so we differentiated ourselves based on the type of consumer so we can keep things that are lower cost at a lower price for that end of the market and then move all the way up,” says Matthew O’Leary, chief engineer of the F-150. “I’d say we’ve taken the upper end even higher.”

Brown expects the F-150 to set the standard for interiors for future Ford vehicles, and he suggests some components will be commonized with other programs. “At that point it becomes affordable to start to put features like this into vehicles, given the volumes that we’ll become capable of as we move across multiple generations,” Brown says.

The ’05 Super Duty F-Series lineup is one place where the new interior strategy has shown up.

Suppliers were extremely active in component design and development for the F-150, and Brown encouraged suppliers to raise issues when identified, so the team could craft the best solution. He also met with CEOs from the top suppliers on the program and emphasized a “no shortcuts” philosophy.

Beyond interiors, he says a host of suppliers helped differentiate the F-150.

Meridian Automotive Systems, for instance, did the front and rear bumpers that contribute directly to F-150’s 9,500-lb. (4,310 kg) towing capacity. And Dana Corp. supplies the fully boxed, hydroformed frame, which is nine times stiffer torsionally and 50% stiffer in bending than the previous F-150.

The tailgate is significantly easier to lift and lower, thanks to a lift-assist system supplied by Techform Products Ltd., which Ford says is a segment first. Tenneco Automotive’s exhaust system contributes to the extreme quietness of the F-150.

The pickup has front and rear disc brakes (supplied by Robert Bosch GmbH), although GM’s next-generation fullsize pickups will have less expensive drum brakes at the rear. (See related story: GM Pickups to Brake Better)

Brown says Ford is open to a supplier that may suggest drum brakes, but that no consumer research is suggesting F-150 buyers want anything other than 4-wheel disc brakes. “Those (brakes) are not something that’s on the table for us,” Brown says.

(See related story: Ford Stands Firm on ‘Terms’)

– with John D. Stoll

tmurphy@primediabusiness.com