The most important EV of the decade? We drive the F-150 Lightning

Enlarge / At first glance, this could be any other Ford F-150 pickup, but the aerodynamic wheels and nose treatment mark it out as the all-electric F-150 Lightning. This is the top-spec Platinum trim.Jonathan Gitlin

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS–Simply put, the Ford F-150 Lightning is the most important new electric vehicle we’ll drive for some time.

Auto journalists can be accused of using that cliche all too readily, but in this case, I think it’s defensible. Americans love pickup trucks more than any other four-wheeled vehicle, and when it comes to pickup trucks, they love Ford’s F-series enough that it has been the nation’s bestseller for almost as long as I’ve been alive. Making a fully battery-electric version of its favorite pickup therefore seems like a good way to spur adoption of electric vehicles in a country that’s lagging behind Europe and China.

But only if the truck is any good. Part of the reason Ford sells so many F-series trucks is that many of them are put to work, pulling trailers or hauling heavy loads in their beds. And it’s just as important to decarbonize those trucks, which means that a stripped-down electric F-150 has to be able to cut it on the job site just as much as in the role of a suburban dad’s fully loaded commuter pickup.

To a casual observer, there’s little that marks the F-150 Lightning as being anything other than just another F-150 with a super crew cab and a 5.5-foot bed. Instead of an open grille, there’s a more aerodynamic treatment at the front, plus some distinctive daytime running lights. The alloy wheels’ surfaces are more disc-like than you’d normally see.

And if you look carefully, you’ll spot the occasional lightning bolt. The cab is light and airy thanks to large glass moonroofs, and there’s plenty of room in the back for large adults.

The most important EV of the decade? We drive the F-150 LightningEnlarge / The F-150 crew cab’s back seat is a spacious place.Jonathan Gitlin

The powertrain between the rails

All of that may lead one to underestimate the amount of work that Ford’s engineers and designers have put in over the past few years. The body might look like most F-150s, but that’s the beauty of using a body-on-frame construction.

And unlike the other electric pickups we’ve driven in the last few months, this one is resolutely body-on-frame. That’s where a lot of the hard work has gone. The battery pack, encased in its protective shell, is isolated from the frame rather than just being bolted in–better to resist the shocks and vibrations that may occur, according to Ford’s engineers.

Redesigning the frame rather than just taking out internal combustion bits and shoehorning electric ones in their place means that Ford hasn’t filled the nose of the truck with the air conditioning parts and other ancillaries we too often find in European BEVs. Rather, there’s an impressively useful frunk, big enough for sets of golf clubs or a bunch of carry-on suitcases, which can be locked away from prying eyes. The F-150 Lightning can be ordered with a choice of batteries.

The standard-range pack offers a useable capacity of 98 kWh, which is sufficient for an EPA-estimated range of 230 miles (370 km), and carries an onboard AC charger that can accept up to 11.3 kW and output 10.5 kW. The battery pack also dictates power output; choose the smaller pack, and the front and rear permanent magnet electric motors will output a combined 452 hp (337 kW) and 775 lb-ft (1,050 Nm). The extended-range battery provides 131 kWh of useable capacity, which should allow for between 300-320 miles (482-515 km) between charges, depending on the trim.

The larger pack also supplies more power to the motors–580 hp (433 kW) in this case. Torque is identical to the standard-range pack, but in addition to the larger-capacity pack, Ford also fits an onboard AC charger that can accept up to 19.2 kW and output 17.6 kW.

  • A closer look at the Lightning motor’s stator. Note the use of hairpins instead of copper wire.Jonathan Gitlin
  • This is the Lightning motor’s rotor.Jonathan Gitlin
  • The Lightning’s power electronics are compact.Jonathan Gitlin

The motors are built by Ford at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant, with the packs assembled at Ford’s Rawsonville plant.

The cells are supplied by SK Innovation, although Ford and SK are in the process of setting up a pair of battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee, which should supply Ford with 129 GWh of domestic battery production when up and running. Charging times are also a product of the pack’s capacity, but not entirely in the way you might think. Connected to a 240 V, 32 A mobile charger, you’ll have to wait 13 hours to charge the standard-range pack from 15 to 100 percent, or 19 hours for the extended-range pack.

With Ford’s connected 48 V charger, these times drop to 10 hours and 13 hours, respectively. But if you have access to Ford’s 80 A Charge Station Pro–it comes standard with the extended-range truck and allows you to use the truck as a backup battery for your house–the extended-range pack will go from 15 to 100 percent in eight hours. The standard-range pack still takes 10 hours to charge, even with the uprated amperage of the charger. (The Charge Station Pro uses a CCS plug, using the two DC pins to send power from the truck to an inverter that is wired into your home.)

The F-150 Lightning will accept a DC fast charge at up to 150 kW; connected to such a charger, you can expect to go from 15 to 80 percent state of charge in 44 minutes with a standard-range pack and 41 minutes with the extended-range pack. But if you can only find a 50 kW DC charger, the standard-range truck will be stationary for a shorter time–91 minutes versus 122 minutes for the extended-range truck when charging from 15 to 100 percent.

Four trims

In addition to the two different pack sizes, there are four trim levels to choose from. The cheapest and most basic is the commercially focused Pro, which starts at £39,974 before any federal or local tax credits. (Ford is still currently eligible for the full £7,500 IRS 30D tax credit, although once it sells its 200,000th plug-in vehicle, that will begin to sunset.)

  • The Ford F-150 Lightning Pro gets a plainer front treatment than the more expensive trims.Jonathan Gitlin
  • Note the lack of running boards.Jonathan Gitlin
  • Vinyl seats and a smaller infotainment screen are the order of the day in the Pro.Jonathan Gitlin
  • The cheapest Lightning rides on 18-inch wheels.Jonathan Gitlin
  • The Pro proudly announces itself on its charging doors.Jonathan Gitlin
  • The truck bed will accept all the same accessories as any other 5.5-foot bed F-150.Jonathan Gitlin

The Pro obviously does without some bells and whistles.

There are no running boards, and it runs on 18-inch wheels. The seats adjust manually and are wrapped in vinyl rather than cloth or leather, and the infotainment system is the same 12-inch Sync 4 system you might find in other F-150s. Ford will also build extended-range F-150 Lightning Pros at £49,974 before tax credits, but only for fleet customers.

The XLT trim is the entry point for non-commercial customers. A standard-range XLT Lightning starts at £52,974 before tax credits and goes up to £72,474 for the bigger-battery, longer-range version. This, too, rides on 18-inch wheels and uses the 12-inch Sync 4 system, but you get cloth seats (the driver’s seat has power adjustment), running boards, and a handy work surface that can fold down over the center console.

Next up is the Lariat, which is £67,474 for the smaller pack and £77,474 for the larger pack. The most obvious changes are larger wheels and heated and ventilated front seats, which are trimmed (like the rears) in leather. You also get the 15-inch Sync 4 infotainment system that will be familiar to anyone who has been in a Mustang Mach-E.

The Lariat comes with a slightly more advanced driver assistance package than the XLT (available as an option) or Pro, which adds adaptive cruise control and connected navigation to the alphabet soup of blind-spot monitoring, collision warnings, emergency braking, and so on.

The most important EV of the decade? We drive the F-150 LightningEnlarge / BlueCruise is Ford’s advanced hands-free driving system.

It’s similar to GM’s Super Cruise, although it’s not quite as polished in terms of sticking between the lane markers.Jonathan Gitlin

King of the electrified hill is the F-150 Lightning Platinum, which is only available with the larger battery and starts at £90,874. It’s fitted with 22-inch wheels, which is why the range drops to 300 miles compared to the 320 miles that the other extended-range Lightnings will travel on a single charge. £90,000 is a lot for a pickup truck, and Ford has loaded it with stuff–better seats, the hands-free driving assistance system BlueCruise, and the towing package as standard, plus all the bells and whistles you’d find on the Lariat.

The most important EV of the decade? We drive the F-150 Lightning

Make it work

A truck that’s expected to work for a living needs to be able to handle a payload or two.

The added weight of the Lightning’s battery pack reduces its maximum payload compared to the internal combustion engine models, but the standard-range electric truck will carry up to 2,235 lbs (1,013 kg), which you can split between the 14.1-cubic foot (400 L) frunk and the truck’s bed (which has a volume of 52.8 cubic feet (1,495 L).

  • The F-150 Lightning has a very useful locking frunk with inbuilt power.Jonathan Gitlin
  • A closer look at the empty frunk.Jonathan Gitlin
  • You can get quite a lot of stuff in the frunk, as this photo shows.Jonathan Gitlin
  • The bed is available with a liner.Jonathan Gitlin
  • Being able to carry 8×4 sheets of plywood is a must.Ford
  • In truth, I barely noticed the fact that this F-150 had a fully laden bed while on the move. But 775 lb-ft will have that effect.Jonathan Gitlin
  • The Lightning can be configured with a bed scale.Jonathan Gitlin

Because the extended-range pack weighs more, it cuts into the truck’s payload by 238 lbs (108 kg) for a maximum of 1,952 lbs (885 kg). Handily, if fitted with the towing package, the Lightning’s bed includes a scale, so you know how much you’re carrying.

This information is probably more relevant to the truck, which factors in the data when calculating range. Things are reversed when it comes to towing, however, courtesy of the greater power available to the extended-range truck. A stock standard-range Lightning can tow up to 5,000 lbs (2,268 kg), although don’t expect to carry a maximum payload at the same time.

Adding the Max Trailer Tow Package increases the towing limit to 7,700 lbs (3,493 kg). That’s the same as the stock extended-range truck, but if you add that extra towing package to one of these trucks, the limit goes up to 8,500 lbs (3,856 kg) for the Platinum trim or 10,000 lbs (4,535 kg) for the others. Towing a trailer with any kind of truck will seriously affect efficiency–there’s simply no avoiding the physics involved in towing something heavy and drag-generating.

The scales play a role here, too. They calculate how much load the trailer is adding to the truck, and once you input some data into the towing section of the infotainment system, Ford’s cloud will refine your range estimate.

  • Ford had a variety of towing loads for us to test, from this boat…Jonathan Gitlin
  • … to this Airstream trailer.Jonathan Gitlin
  • The F-150 Lightning’s tow mode.Jonathan Gitlin
  • You enter basic information about your trailer and, together with the onboard scale, the Lightning will recalculate your range.Jonathan Gitlin
  • The tow mode backup camera.Jonathan Gitlin

This giant battery on wheels can do more than just haul stuff, though, as you can also tap into that energy store to power other things. For the Pro and XLT, that means there are two 120 V outlets in the cab, another two in the bed, and four more in the frunk, with a total available power of 2.4 kW.

A total of 9.6 kW of onboard power is standard on the Lariat and Platinum and as an option on the Pro and XLT. So equipped, it features two 120 V outlets in the cab, four in the bed, another four in the frunk, and a 240 V outlet in the bed for more powerful equipment. You can even use the 240 V outlet to charge another EV at up to 9.6 kW, and the truck is intelligent enough to warn you if you’re getting close to 30 percent state of charge (or will soon be out of range of a charger) so you can keep some reserve in the pack to drive.

The most important EV of the decade? We drive the F-150 Lightning

The first drive

Ford arranged a wide variety of Lightnings for us to test over an afternoon and morning, including unladen trucks, ones with a full payload, and Lightnings with trailers attached.

We also got to do some off-roading. The most immediately noticeable thing on the highway is just how quiet everything is at speed. Both wind and tire noise are better than in some other EVs I’ve driven recently, which is no mean feat given the size and shape of a pickup truck.

On the flip side, you’ll hear the occasional rattle that would be drowned out by an internal combustion engine. Unlike every other F-150, the Lightning makes use of fully independent suspension, with double wishbones at the front and trailing arms at the rear. In the past, manufacturers have rejected this form of suspension for pickups, claiming that it’s less robust, but a more likely reason is probably the added cost of putting in an independent rear suspension over much more simple leaf springs. (Similarly, the electric Ford Transit makes the same switch.)

The payoff is a smoother ride for the battery pack–and the truck itself. You might expect much sharper handling as well, but despite the Lightning’s power, don’t expect it to handle like a Raptor. Between the coilover springs and dampers and the low center of gravity, there’s not much body roll, but the first time you turn into a tight corner, you’ll also realize there’s not a huge amount of front grip on offer from the low-rolling-resistance tires.

Slow and steady is the order of the day unless you want to understeer into the oncoming lane, and potentially a hedge. That lack of front grip also translates into a decent dose of torque-steer if you mash the throttle at a traffic light.

  • It’s not an adventure truck per se, but it’s plenty adventurous.Jonathan Gitlin
  • Unlike every other F-150 truck, this one has fully independent rear suspension.Ford
  • Ford even set up a little rallycross course for us to try. It was fun.Ford

Although the Lightning isn’t an adventure truck like the Rivian or Hummer EV, it can handle some off-roading.

The battery pack is armored, but the biggest limitation is the 8.4-inch (213-mm) ground clearance. Ford sent us over a relatively challenging off-road course, which the truck handled with aplomb. Like the aforementioned electric adventure trucks, there’s an off-road mode that recalibrates the throttle map, but there’s no hill-descent control function.

In an unladen F-150 Lightning Platinum, I averaged about 2.5 miles/kWh on the roads and highways around San Antonio, which suggests that the claimed 300-mile range should be easily achievable. Towing a 5,000 lb trailer for half an hour in Texas’ hill country saw this number drop to 1.4 miles/kWh, but I also saw as high as 3.5 miles/kWh in a Lightning Pro with two full wine barrels in the bed. Perhaps the biggest problem with the F-150 Lightning will be getting a hold of one, at least in the near term.

Ford stopped taking reservations once it hit the 200,000 mark, and the demand caused the company to nearly double its planned production rate to 150,000 electric trucks per year at the Rouge vehicle plant in Michigan.

Having learned from the Mustang Mach-E rollout, Ford is staggering preorders while it increases production capacity.