DETROIT – Ford Motor Co.’s next-generation Ford F-150 fullsize pickup unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit today boasts a new exterior and a more spacious, flexible and refined interior.

With three cab styles, four box options and seven trim levels, the new F-150 comes in 35 different configurations. Trim levels include the XL, STX, FX4, XLT, King Ranch, Lariat and new Platinum series, which Ford describes as the "most luxurious F-150 ever."

The new model also offers 13 different wheel choices for a greater degree of personalization, the auto maker says.

"It’s the most competitive time in the (fullsize pickup) segment," says Mark Fields, president-The Americas. "We have to listen, understand and take action."

As Ford’s best-selling product – car or truck – for the last 26 years, the auto maker took no chances during the development of the ’09 version.

In all, more than 1,000 engineers, designers, researchers and other personnel contributed to the truck’s development, addressing every aspect in order to retain its segment leadership.

Before work began, Ford turned to its customer base for tips on how to improve its stalwart pickup.

"We continued the conversation with people who use these trucks every day for work and play," says Matt O’Leary, chief engineer. "We went to their ranches, their job sites and their homes, making sure we crafted features that would improve their ownership experiences and, really, their lives."

While the ’09 F-150 rides on the same platform as its predecessor, engineers went to considerable lengths to strengthen and improve it.

"The advantage for us is we’re building the new ’09 F-150 off the already strongest frame in the business," says Todd Eckert, trucks marketing manager. "It would have been easy for us to say, ‘we’ve got the strongest frame, lets leave it at that.’

Instead, "We looked at tweaks and (other) changes we could make off an already strong and solid foundation to continue to deliver on the needs of consumers."

Engineers increased the use of high-strength steel and reinforced the cross beams to upgrade the frame, resulting in a 10% improvement in torsional rigidity, the auto maker says.

The ’09 F-150 offers a bevy of safety features, including: side-curtain airbags; roll-stability control; trailer-sway control, rearview-camera assist; and Ford’s AdvanceTrac electronic stability enhancement system.

Inside, designers paid particular attention to so-called "smart" features, while at the same time piling up technological accruements.

The truck has more than 30 storage areas, including a bin on the top of the instrument panel. Ford’s new in-vehicle multimedia system, Sync, also is available, as is Sirius Travel Link, a next-generation navigation system unveiled on the Lincoln MKS sedan at the November’s Los Angeles auto show.

Developed in conjunction with Sirius Satellite Radio, Travel Link provides up-to-the-minute information on current gas prices, traffic, coast-to-coast weather conditions, sports scores and movie listings. There also is a "jukebox" feature that allows up to 2,400 songs to be stored on an internal hard drive.

The new F-150’s exterior design borrows cues from Ford’s Super-Duty line, says Pat Schiavone, design director-trucks and SUVs, with improved aerodynamics and a "Powerdome" hood.

A new F-150 logo also was designed, because "competitors ripped off the old one," Schiavone says. Perhaps the most noticeable design difference is the flair at the top of the tailgate, which serves as both a design cue and aerodynamic enabler.

Under the hood, the ’09 F-150 is available with a choice of three V-8 engines – a 5.4L, 3-valve Triton, 4.6L, 3-valve and 4.6L, 2-valve. Customers can also choose between a 4-speed and 6-speed automatic transmission.

Ford says the all V-8 lineup delivers a fleet-average 1-mpg (0.4 L/100 km) improvement in fuel economy vs. the outgoing F-Series.

The new F-150 in 2010 will offer an optional diesel or EcoBoost engine, Ford’s direct-injection and turbocharging technology that increases the power of a small-displacement engine.

The ’09 F-150 will be built at Ford’s Dearborn, MI, and Kansas City, MO, truck plants and is slated to arrive at dealerships this fall.

bpope@wardsauto.com