Ford's fullsize pickup truck is not as much a household word with the public as the Ford Explorer sport/utility vehicle (SUV), or as well publicized as the Ford Taurus sedan, but like other trucks, the F-150 is gaining momentum as a vehicle of choice over passenger cars for everyday use.

Ford's entire F-series line has become a virtual lock as the best-selling vehicle annually in the U.S. With redesigned renditions coming in January for an early '97 model-year inumuction, Ford intends to enhance and take further advantage of the truck's standing.

A constant second to leader General Motors Corp. in total sales, Ford Div. truck sales alone now outsell all GM divisions combined. The next sales coup for Ford could be F-series outselling the combined forces of Chevrolet (C/K Series) and GMC Sierra) fullsize pickups. Through the first eight months of 1995, F-series pickup U.S. sales lagged behind C/K/Sierra by some 12,000 units (454,696 vs. 442,528) compared with a 111,000-plus shortfall a year ago. F-pickup sales so far are pacing 13% ahead of last year and should easily top entire 1995's count of 616,593.

Through savvy advertising and marketing -- including generous lease deals, fleet sales and unabashed use of buyer rebates and dealer incentives -- plus some good products, Ford works hard to keep its sales titles. The F-series figures prominently in those claims.

Including the heftier F-250 and F-350 models -- which have redesigns coming next year -- the F-pickups will be the bestselling light-vehicle line in the U.S. for the 14th straight year in 1995 (even longer as the top-selling truck). Other Ford claims include five of the Top 10 selling vehicles -- with Taurus on the verge of being the best-selling car for the fourth consecutive year, and Ford Div. establishing itself as the perennial leader in sales by brand.

But Ford's bigger strategy with the F-150 is to continue taking advantage of the North American market's move from cars to trucks (pickups, SUV's and vans) as the vehicles of choice for everyday use. Also Ford wants to expand use of the new F-chassis, which has a new suspension clearly designed for everyday chiving, to SUVs. (There still will be specific packages for off-road drivers, with the 4x4s having a distinctive grille to differentiate it from the 4x2.)

The F-Series redesign is its first from the bottom up in two decades. The entire phase-in of the line will take two years, with the F-150 coming first. It represents roughly two-thirds of the line's sales and is the most popular with personal-use buyers. Ford will start an ad blitz during Super Bowl weekend at the end of January when the '97 model hits showrooms -- alongside '96 models that will stay in production until July -- to make sure die line stays on top.

"By far, the '97 F-150 is the most thoroughly researched product Ford Motor Co. has ever brought to market," says Thomas D. Baughman, chief program engineer on the F-Series. "Where we used to test our fullsize pick-ups to seven-year levels, the new F-150 was tested to reach 10 years of dependable service."

"We raised our durability test standards half-again as much. Our old standard was 100,000 miles of equivalent customer durability. The standard for the '97 F-150 was a whopping 150,000 miles."

He adds that recommended tune-up intervals including oil changes will be 100,000 miles.

To better accommodate the personal-use buyer, Ford has improved ride and handling, created a more user-friendly interior, added a third door on the passenger side of the SuperCab (extended cab) models, expanded behind-the-seat space, made passenger-side air bags standard, and greatly increased visibility with an un-trucklike non-angular, sloping hood. The truck also marks the debut of Ford's new, more efficient Triton engine family. The new engines to be introduced over the next two years are 4.6L and 5.4L V-8s and a 6.8L V-10 10 (to be offered only on the F-250 and 350), eventually phasing out Ford's current truck V-8s. Standard is a new 4.2L V-6 derived from Ford's 3.8L engine with splitport fuel injection added to increase horsepower without hurting fuel efficiency.

The trucks feature a new electronically controlled 4-speed automatic transmission -- a tweaked version of an automatic used on Ford's Lincoln luxury cars -- and retain the Mazda-built 5-speed manual.

To enhance sales, Ford is increasing production capacity of its SupctsrCab, its extended-cab body style. Extended cabs are gaining popularity among full-size pickup buyers, and Ford figures it has lost sales because of limited capacity. Only one plant makes SuperCab models, now. But for '97, all four of the F-150 plants in the U.S. and Canada will be able to build SuperCabs.

Adding to to the SuperCab allure will be the standard passenger-side third door, which Ford expects to increase its conquest sales. "Pickup owners wanted two things," says Mr. Baughman. "More room behind the front seat and easier access to that space for passenger and cargo."

"Others wanted to move into the truck segment but were unwilling to give up a car's back door to access their children, pets or belongings."

Meantime, overall length of the '97 F-150 standard short wheelbase model has been increased 5.1 ins. from the '96 to 202.2 ins. (203.7 ins. on the 4X4); long wheelbase models are increased 7.5 ins. to 220.8 ins (240.9 ins. on the 4X4). Wheelbases also have been increased to 119.9 ins. on base 4X2 and to 138.5 ins. on the 4X4.