Despite the incessant chatter about “polishing the Ford oval,” no bauble in the auto maker's global lineup is more treasured than the next-generation F-Series. Ford's fullsize pickup is the best-selling vehicle in automotive history, tallying more than 27 million unit sales since 1948.

“You're playing with the crown jewels here,” Ford Motor Co. President and Chief Operating Officer Nick Scheele tells Ward's. of launching an all-new F. “I mean, this is the most successful vehicle in the world.”

But without a setting, a gem is naked. The new F-150's underpinnings are as important as its updated appearance. Ford paid as much attention to driving dynamics as it did to styling.

In the never-ending battle to combat NVH in its light-trucks, Ford has taken a particular shine to hydroforming of frame components. And there is no shortage of this technology in the '04 F-150.

Facing stiffer competition in a segment it's led in the U.S. for 26 years, Ford responds by strengthening the frame — switching from the traditional “C” rail frame design to one that is fully boxed with hydroformed front rails. Dana Corp. produces the F-150 frame at its plant in Elizabethtown, KY.

Ford says the new architecture offers torsional stiffness that is nine times greater than the current F-150, and that the ladder-type frame is 50% stiffer in bending than the current skeleton.

Hydroforming is used for sections of the frame rails that bear the loads of the coil-on-shock, long-spindle, double-wishbone front suspension. Crossmembers are welded — not bolted on.

Hydroforming not only increases stiffness, it creates stronger attachment points for the brackets that unite the pickup's frame with its body and suspension. New body and engine mounts improve isolation. The result, Ford claims, is reduced shake and shudder on rough roads. The extra rigidity, however, may have come at a price. Ford admits the new F-150 is about 500 lbs. (227 kg) heavier than its predecessor.

The double wishbone suspension incorporates a lighter weight, cast aluminum control arm at the front and 3-in. (7.6-cm) leaf springs (0.5 ins. [1.3 cm] wider than the outgoing model's) and solid axle at the rear.

The production model's unveiling ends, once and for all, harebrained speculation that the workhorse would — like its SUV cousins, Explorer and Expedition — feature independent rear suspension (IRS). An IRS has yet to be adopted for any volume-produced pickup in the U.S.

F-150's Hotchkiss-design architecture boasts rear shocks located outboard of the frame rails — a first for the segment. Ford says the design reduces body roll, while allowing softer shock settings for a smoother ride.

In addition, the rear shock configuration promises “better control of axle ‘skipping’ and ‘skating’ that can happen on washboard-type surfaces,” the auto maker adds.

Adding to improved handling is a friction-resistant rack-and-pinion steering system that replaces the current model's recirculating ball design.

Taking its bow at the recent Detroit auto show, the new F-150 will be built at U.S. plants in Norfolk, VA, (June); Kansas City, MO, (fall 2003) and Dearborn (mid-2004).

Ford expects about half of F-150 sales to be the mid-level XLT version. Prices haven't been set, but insiders say it is expected to stay within its current band of $18,000-$38,000, despite the $1,000-per-unit increase in cost to produce the new model.