I’m not a truck guy, which makes me the ideal candidate to check out the F-150 Lightning, the first Ford truck to run on batteries instead of gasoline.
That’s because the $93,000 F-150 Lightning Platinum doesn’t feel all that much like a truck. It boasts a lavish interior that’s quiet as a confessional, a ride as smooth as a cruise ship, and the merciless acceleration of an IndyCar. All this, plus a trailer hitch.
And yet the inherent failings of all electric vehicles — limited range and lousy recharging options — ensure that you probably won’t see too many Lightnings doing the toughest tasks on farms or at construction sites. Look for them instead on recreational duty at campgrounds and tailgate parties.
Even so, it’s an impressive ride, and an important one. Ford’s F-series trucks are as mainstream as they come. They’re the most popular vehicles in the US for four decades straight. If Ford loyalists put thousands of battery-powered F-150s on the road, millions of sedans and SUVs can’t be far behind.
The early signs look promising. With a starting price of about $40,000 for the most basic version, Ford’s planned first-year production of 150,000 Lightnings has already sold out. Linda Zhang, chief engineer of the F-150 Lightning, told Bloomberg in late May that half of the reservations to buy one were placed by people who’d never owned a truck before.
Still, Lightning sales are just a fraction of the 726,000 F-series trucks that Ford sold last year. And the Lightning won’t supplant gas-fueled pickups for years to come.
And yet, those who opt for a Lightning Platinum are in for a wonderful ride. It isn’t faster than a standard F-150, but it feels that way, thanks to the most famous trait of today’s electric cars: their insane acceleration. Ford promises a zero-to-60 time of four seconds. I settled for zero-to-40 down Ash Street in Brockton in about two seconds, and almost felt my eyeballs flatten.
The Lightning’s 563 horsepower comes from a pair of electric motors mounted underneath the truck, between each set of wheels. So there’s nothing under the electrically operated front hood except 14 cubic feet of extra cargo space, enough room for cases of beer or sacks of cement. I also found standard household electrical outlets for driving power tools and USB ports for recharging smartphones. Ford calls this wonderful compartment a “frunk,” and I drew appreciative crowds whenever I popped it open.
At the opposite end, the five-foot rear bed also features an electrically powered gate and a bank of power outlets, including a 240-volt connection that could run your electric oven. In fact, Ford boasts that a fully charged Lightning can provide electricity for an entire house for up to 10 days — if you first pay $4,000 to install the necessary wiring in your house.
My borrowed Lightning promised 291 miles of carbon-free driving. I set out on a series of longish excursions, to Braintree, to Boston, to Providence. Whatever it took to kill a few kilowatts. I’ve never had more fun draining a battery.
My companion on one ride, Ronnette Taylor, owns Boston-based Fire Code Design, which installs and maintains sprinkler systems throughout the city, including the Boston Police headquarters building. Taylor drives an F-150 every day, and found a lot to like in the battery-powered version.
There was the instant acceleration, of course, but also a suspension system that floated with uncanny smoothness over the worst roads Greater Boston has to offer.
“It’s like being on a cloud,” Taylor said. And there was the near-silence of the Lightning at startup. No cranking, no revving, just the subtle purr of electromagnetic power. “It’s kind of challenging,” said Taylor, “because you don’t remember the car’s on.”
Taylor was less impressed with BlueCruise, the system that lets the Lightning drive itself on Interstates and other major highways, similar to Tesla’s Autopilot system. When activated, BlueCruise keeps the truck in its lane, steers around curves, and keeps a safe distance between you and the car ahead. But BlueCruise sets off alarms if you take your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel. So Taylor wondered, what’s the point? You might as well just drive.
Taylor griped about the Lightning’s bewildering array of pushbuttons. But I’d say there weren’t enough. Too many functions are controlled via a huge touchscreen display. It’s superb for displaying a navigation map, but a lousy way to adjust the air conditioning. I’d find myself looking at the screen instead of the road. Not good. More physical buttons, please.
But the biggest challenge lies in recharging the battery. A quick Google search turned up plenty of charging stations. There are even a batch in the parking lot beneath the Encore Casino in Everett where you can plug in for free, then go upstairs and gamble. But most car chargers are small and hard to spot, and unlike gas stations, there’s never a big “Charge Here!” sign posted along the road.
Worse yet, the great majority are “Level 2″ chargers, which can take forever to deliver a decent charge. One that I found in the parking lot of a Brockton Walgreens told me it’d have my car at 100 percent power in about nine hours.
But on a trip to Providence, I came across a high-speed Level 3 charger run by Electrify America, a company owned by Volkswagen. It boosted the Lightning’s battery from 40 to 83 percent in half an hour, which my 10-year-old son and I spent browsing a nearby Walmart. The bill came to $25.37, but I didn’t have to pay because Electrify America is providing free charge-ups for new electric Fords.
When will electric cars enter the mainstream? When there are chargers as fast or faster than this on almost every street corner — and not before.
For three days, the Lightning and I had been traveling light. At last, I put it to work. At a Brockton U-Haul, I rented the biggest trailer they had, a six-by-12-foot box that weighed a ton when empty. Then it was off for a spin down Route 24.
The Lightning was up to it. Instead of fierce acceleration, the electric motors delivered smooth, decisive power as I merged into traffic. The climb to 60 miles per hour was effortless, and the ride remained stable and sedate.
And then I checked the battery level. Before hooking up the trailer, it showed enough power for another 219 miles of driving. But with 2,000 pounds hanging off the rear end, predicted mileage dropped to 119 miles. And that was with an empty trailer. If I’d been actually hauling something, it would have been worse.
This might be tolerable for those who only haul heavy loads over short distances, and have easy access to a rapid charger. But for more demanding users, it looks like a potential deal-killer. Also, I tested the Lightning in summer conditions. How will it perform in a nor’easter, with a foot of snow on the ground and the cold draining the battery? (You can’t even use the Lightning to pick up some extra bucks clearing your neighbors’ driveways. There’s no plow package available.)
Which perfectly sums up my Lightning experience: It’s more show horse than plow horse — luxurious, sophisticated, and deliciously fun to drive, the perfect vehicle for somebody in the market for a bigger, tougher Tesla.