KINGMAN, AZ — The word “dude” carried a decidedly different connotation in this part of the country 125 years ago.

It meant “dandy” — the noun, not the adjective. And except for Bat Masterson, the Old West was a lonely place for any man saddled with that label.

Sporting a debonair derby, TV's Masterson (played by Gene Barry from 1958-1961) walked softly and carried an elegant cane with which he deftly dispatched every desperado who crossed his path. Sometimes with one hand, and hardly breaking a sweat.

If today's fullsize pickup segment were 19th century America, west of the Pecos, Ford Motor Co.'s redesigned F-150 would be a dude in the Masterson mold: refined but rugged. Whether or not it can slay the competition with the aplomb of Barry is fodder for that running horsepower opera we call the auto industry.

Sheetmetal comparisons of the segment's players are a draw — except for GM's now-dated fullsizers. The Dodge Ram and upcoming Nissan Titan blend muscularity, stylishness and brand cues on a par with the '04 F-150. But a closer look shows Ford raises its pickup design to a new level — literally. The truck's high, continuous beltline gives rise to a tall, confident appearance. Combined with the distinctive and functional door cutouts inspired by the current F-Series Super Duty (why did this element take so long to migrate?), F-150 is a notch above its competitors.

And with sides that stand 2 ins. (5 cm) higher than those of the outgoing model, Ford ups the bed-volume ante to a best-in-class 81.3 cu.-ft. (2.3 cu.-m). A pioneering torsion bar feature, which comes standard, makes for dude-friendly tailgate operation.

Interior comparisons have the rest of the segment outgunned. For instance, F-150 is the only fullsize pickup that features four doors throughout the lineup. There are five trim levels: from workhorse XL to the top-end Lariat.

Consider the stunning instrument panel in the penultimate FX4. Framed by sturdy leather seating that contrasts rich finish with bold stitching, it features a strong vertical orientation softened by circular vents — same as found on the Ford Expedition, minus the chintzy satin-steel control rings.

Most striking are the FX4's chic metallic accents, anchored by a macho floor shifter on the optional “flow-through” console, also available on the top-end Lariat.

Meanwhile, the F-150's modular overhead storage system does for occupants what the Titan's inventive “Utili-track” system promises for payloads. The two features delineate the auto makers' respective strategies.

While Nissan thinks inside the box with its common-sense solution to cargo chaos, Ford goes to the seat of the definitive pickup problem: ride comfort. They may be work trucks, but pickups needn't be laborious to drive, the No.2 auto maker maintains.

And F-150 doesn't disappoint. Rack-and-pinion steering replaces tired recirculating-ball hardware to provide point-and-shoot responsiveness, without nagging recoil.

Ample brake rotors — 13 ins. (33 cm) in front and 13.7 ins. (34.8 cm) in the rear — are sandwiched by calipers that are larger and 60% stiffer than the previous model. The result is smooth, predictable stopping.

A special tip of the 10-gallon goes to the F-150's standard antilock braking. Hard braking reveals tuning that doesn't coddle, activating ABS only when appropriate.

And be assured Ford doesn't shoot from the hip when it boasts about the F-150's fully boxed frame. Nine times stiffer than the '03, it lends considerable stability — particularly when towing. And speaking of towing, the truck's new 3-valve Triton SOHC V-8 makes 365 lb.-ft. (495 Nm) of torque for a best-in-class tow rating of 9,500 lbs. (4,318 kg). The revised Triton's 300 horses — still the main bragging point for pickup-drivin' dudes and workhands alike — is surpassed by the Ram's 345-hp Hemi V-8 and the 300-plus horses promised from Titan's 5.6 DOHC V-8.

Driving off into the sunset, even on a winding trail at wicked speeds, the horizon line remains remarkably level. In comparison, the Silverado, Toyota Tundra and (to a lesser degree) Dodge Ram, roll like tumbleweed.

When conditions demand you kick up a little dust, F-150 stands its ground because of the inspired decision to locate its rear shocks outside the frame rails. This helps the F-150's body to settle down in a hurry.

While refinement is F-150's greatest strength, it may be the truck's greatest weakness. Its noise, vibration and harshness qualities rival many cars for cabin quiet.

But cracking the whip on the new, ultra-smooth 300-hp Triton is like riding in the relatively civilized confines of a stagecoach. Put the spurs into a Hemi-equipped Ram and it responds with visceral snorts and heart-pounding hoof beats. And early drives of Titan mules (no pun intended) show its V-8 has the rear tires laying down black marks that would do a muscle car proud.

Bat Masterson left the OK Corral before the shooting commenced. But when the '04 pickup showdown begins, the F-150 likely will draw the most fire because the F-Series is the segment's perennial sales leader.

And when the smoke clears, don't be surprised to see Ford still standing. Because with 26 possible cab, box and trim combinations — 11 more than Silverado — the F-150 isn't a lone rider. It's a posse.