Ford's F-series full-size pickups have been the best-selling pickups in the U.S. over the last 19 years. In 1995, Ford sold 662,410 F-trucks, only slightly less than the 675,000 General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet and GMC0 divisions sold combined. Tinkering with success should not be taken lightly, as witness the slow start for Ford's radically re-designed 1996 Taurus and Sable models. In developing the first all-new F models since 1980, Ford for '97 chose to make a good thing better -- but without jolting its giant following. Yes it's more aero, but no it's not less macho. Three WAW staffers recently drove the new F trucks. Here are their impressions:

Even the base is very un-trucky

You can easily forget you're driving a truck when you put Ford's 1997 F-150 full-size pickups through their paces.

I tried four different versions over a variety of driving conditions in and around San Antonio, TX. Even the base regular cab series powered by the standard 205-hp 4.2L V-6 mated to a floor-mounted 5-speed manual gearbox was un-trucky: The engine seldom labored, even on steep hills, and when it did the shifter took over without complaining.

Things only got better when I tried an up-level three-door Supercab with Ford's first modular truck engine, the 210-hp 4.6L V-8 linked to a 4-speed automatic (an up-powered 5.4L V-8 comes this fall). My strategy : Keep a sharp eye out for Texas state troopers.

It's tough to choose one reason why the new F-trucks come off as far superior to the models they replace.

I'd put ride and handling at the top of my list, preceded by the word "smooth." I didn't even notice the highway cracks.

Some Fordites reportedly had strong reservations about scrapping the "Twin I-Beam" front suspension system first adopted 30 years ago. Used relentlessly in Ford advertising, "Twin I-Beam" was supposed to connote ruggedness in the "Ford Tough" tradition.

By dropping the Twin I-Beam's swing axles under the engine, Ford designers were able to provide a lower, more aerodynamic hoodline and increased driver visibility, adding to more solid road feel. Replacing the old suspension is what Ford calls "an all-new twin-forged upper short and long arm (SLA)" system that also improves steering control. I can't vouch for its ruggedness, but the new F-trucks go where you point them even while flip-flopping in tire-warming exercises.

Ford makes a big deal of the new SuperCab "third" door feature, and rightly so. I tried hopping in and out of the back seat and found it to be no sweat at all. It's not surprising that Ford opted for all sorts of creature comforts in the '97 Fs: Four out of five are sold to individuals, only 20% to commercial fleets.

Trucks until now have largely escaped the sticker scrutiny that prevails on the car side of the business. Ford may test that with the '97 Fs: Reflecting in part added standard content such as dual air bags, the base model starts at $15,045, up $280; the up-level XLT 4x2 long wheelbase version begins at $19,726, up $805; and the same XLT layout in the Supercab line runs $21,966, up $1,305. -- Dave Smith

Maybe it belongs in the Luxury segment

Ford clearly had personal-use buyers in mind when it redesigned the '97 F-150 pickup. Exterior styling changes and powertrain enhancements aside, the new truck drives more like a luxury vehicle than any pickup and most sport/utility vehicles on the road.

It handles smoothly over rugged terrain and cruises fluidly down the highway. The suspension and steering alone should convert more car buyers than any other of the pickup's notable attributes. Ford dealers definitely should put test drives on the top of their list for wooing customers.

Turning radius is excellent and there's very little of the bulky feeling still apparent on most pickups and truck-based SUVs. In fact, the new F-150 handles much better than Ford's own Explorer.

The interior is more user-friendly than most cars. The only problem is the power lock buttons: Resting one's arms on the armrest inadvertently unlocks or locks the door.--Haig Stoddard

The power beckons, but pedals are a stretch

Not a single press release photo does justice to my first glance at Ford's 1997 F-150. What seems bulky and nondescript in two dimensions screams at me from where it's illegally parked, a hulking yet refined cobalt-blue beast challenging the hydrant it butts up to. Taking the keys and climbing (literally) into the cab, my head tells me to just quietly park it for my boss, but my gut urges me to take it for a spin, just around the block. I can almost hear her begging me to try her on for size.

I love this truck; it makes my 1991 Ranger feel like a shockless Matchbox car. But all is not well between this monster truck and me. Standing at 5'4", 1 don't consider myself short, but evidently the Ford designers aren't expecting many women to buy their base-models. With recent hype about gearing the full-size truck to meet the needs of an ever-increasing female buyer base, they overlooked the fact that women require the seats to be a tad closer to brake and accelerator. I can barely touch them with the seat pulled all the way forward. Of course, power seats would solve the problem quite nicely, but I hate to think that I need to buy an expensive options package just to reach the pedals.

I have an overwhelming need to find this truck flawless. After all, its cab is cavernous, the engine is mean and I can see all 360 degrees of the horizon. To top it off, there's a noticeable lack of the trademark bone-jarring ride of a Ford truck.

C'est la vie. Just scoot up in the seat and enjoy the break, I say to myself The twice-around-the-block jaunt ends with the blue beast's nose tucked neatly against the parking garage wall. I sneak back into work, ecstatic for the most part, and only slightly disappointed.--Natalie Neff