For those who’ve somehow missed all the headlines, including the splashy debut of the Lightning last night at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, this is the automaker’s second long-range battery-electric vehicle and, when it actually goes on sale a year from now, it will enter a highly competitive market segment including the Tesla Cybertruck, the GMC Hummer and as many as eight or nine other BEV pickups.
In contrast to Tesla’s radical entry, the Lightning adopts a relatively familiar shape, largely retaining the look of today’s gas and diesel F-150 line. That’s not because the automaker lacked imagination. The goal was to send potential buyers a clear message: unlike so many other battery-electric vehicles, Lightning retains most of what you expect from a classic pickup truck while adding some critical new features.
It can tow a hefty trailer, traverse tough off-road courses, carry plenty of cargo and passengers, and stand up to the sort of abuse commercial users are likely to put Lightning through, Ford EV chief Darren Palmer said during my visit to the Proving Grounds.
At the same time, it slashes energy costs, eliminates most routine maintenance chores, like oil changes and tune-ups. It has a positively huge hidden storage compartment, or “frunk,” and it can serve as a mobile generator, delivering up to 9.6 kilowatts of power, whether at home, work or campsite.
A whole new experience
So, anyway, goes the Ford talking points. We’ll have to wait until roughly this time next year to truly put Lightning through its paces. But, if the morning I spent riding along with members of the Lightning development team is any indication, this truck has a lot to offer.
My first indication of its capabilities came as I climbed into the shotgun seat with the program’s chief engineer, Linda Zhang. She drove the electric F-150 out onto the test center’s high-speed oval track and slammed the throttle. I immediately sank deep into my seat while watching the digital speedometer flash from 0 to 96 mph.
All versions of the Lightning will come with twin electric motors, one on each axle, yielding what’s known as through-the-road all-wheel-drive. There is no driveshaft linking front and rear, something that pays off in the form of a flat load floor.
The standard-range, 230-mile version of the Lightning makes 426 horsepower, the extended-range package punches that up to 563. Torque, with both models, comes in at 775 pound-feet.
According to Ford, the beefier version will get you from 0 to 60 in an impressive 4.5 seconds. Nonsense. Comparing notes with a couple other outsiders who also managed to hitch rides, the general consensus is that Ford’s electric pickup, at least in prototype form, is hitting 60 somewhat closer to 3.5 seconds. That would handily exceed the performance of the old, gas-powered F-150 Lighting muscle truck of years past.
Dealing with curves, bumps — and trailers
Unlike the original Lightning, the battery-based pickup appears to be more than just a straight-line rocket. It actually has a handling advantage over an F-150 with an internal combustion engine with a lower center of gravity. And, rather than being nose heavy, it has something closer to 50/50 weight distribution thanks to mounting both motors and the battery pack below the load floor.
That layout was also apparent when I subsequently joined another Lightning team member for a few laps of Ford’s long and steep towing track. Behind us, the pickup was hitched to a 6,000-pound trailer. The immediate torque offered by Lightning’s twin electric motors immediately got us into motion, no initial grunt and grind. But as we looped the course, speeding up and slowing down, and managing grades of 20% or steeper, there was another apparent advantage.
Hefty trailers can yank the lighter back end of a conventional pickup to-and-fro. It helps that the Lightning, like other F-150s, offers electronic Trail Sway Control but, even with it off, the pickup remained solidly planted, lap after lap.
The third challenge took us out on the Proving Grounds’ rugged off-road course, a deeply rutted route I’d experienced only months earlier with a conventional F-Series.
One of the downsides of battery power is that lithium-ion cells don’t like to be abused. Perforate them and you do risk a fire, though that’s a relatively uncommon experience. Nonetheless, the Lightning team decided to protect not just the pack but the entire underbelly with aluminum skid plates. And they were more than up to the task, my driver intentionally making his way over hills, moguls, ruts and loose gravel as aggressively as possible.
Here, the torque of the electric motors again comes into play. Even at rock crawl speed, the motors deliver maximum torque as soon as they start spinning, rather than having to rev up. There’s no need for a low-range gear set, though the Lightning does offer a locking rear differential to enhance traction in truly tough situations — such as having one wheel come off the ground.
Admittedly, my time in the new Lightning was relatively limited. And I didn’t get to experience the truck hands on. That said, there was no mistaking the competence the electric F-150 showed in all three situations.
Normally, at this point, product developers are still working out the kinks and bugs. And, no doubt, there’s still plenty of work to be done before we see the final product roll into showrooms in spring 2022. But my initial foray was clearly promising, all the more so considering the standard range Ford F-150 Lightning will start at just $39,974 — before up to $7,500 in federal tax credits.