Ford made a billion-dollar bet on the 2015 F-150 full-size pickup, and it appears to have paid off. The F-150's switch from the steel body all previous pickups used to lighter aluminum reduces fuel consumption and increases hauling capacity. That gives Ford a couple of key advantages with truck buyers.

The aluminum body, and a new frame that uses high-strength steel to reduce weight further, reduce the 2015 F-150's weight as much as 700 pounds.

The F-150 (I give it four out of four stars) also offers a number of features other pickups can't match.

Prices for the 2015 F-150 start at $25,420 for a base model with rear-wheel drive with a 283-horsepower 3.5-liter normally aspirated V-6. All F-150s come with a six-speed automatic transmission. Four-wheel-drive models start at $30,395. Like all leading full-size pickups, the F-150 comes in a dizzying range of models: long- and short-wheelbase, two-door, a bigger cab with conventional front doors and rear-hinged back doors, and a crew cab with four regular full-size doors. Ford also offers four engines: the base 3.5-liter V-6, a 325-horsepower twin-turbocharged 2.7-liter V-6, a 365-horsepower 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6, and a 385-horsepower 5.0-liter V-8.

The model line extends from relatively basic work trucks to the luxurious, leather-trimmed 4WD $54,680 Platinum crew cab.

I tested a 4WD XLT with the 2.7-liter engine, short bed and Supercab passenger compartment, which has rear-hinged back doors and a smaller passenger compartment than the crew cab. The truck stickered at $43,160. All prices exclude destination.

The price was comparable to other manufacturers' pickups of similar size and power. The F-150's competitors include the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, Nissan Titan, Ram 1500 and Toyota Tundra.

So, if the aluminum body is such a big deal, what difference does it make when you drive the 2015 F-150? None, and that's good news: Ford's not asking pickup owners to sacrifice performance or capability for higher efficiency.

The 2.7-liter engine, which Ford expects to power about 28 percent of F-150s, is far smaller than Ford has ever offered in an F-150, but there's no penalty in performance compared with bigger engines in the 2014 model. It delivers more than adequate acceleration, a 2,160-pound payload and 8,400-pound towing capacity. The direct-injected, turbocharged engine produces far more power — including 375 pound-feet of torque — than earlier small V-6s. Add the lower curb weight — the test truck was at least 300 pounds lighter than its direct competitors — and the 2015 F-150 rewrites the book on efficiency and capability.

The EPA rates the 2.7-liter 4WD F-150 at 18 mpg in the city, 23 on the highway and 20 in combined driving. Its fuel economy beats competitive gasoline V-6 and V-8 engines, and it hauls more than the V-6s.

The celebrated Ram 1500 Ecodiesel has a higher fuel economy rating — 22 mpg combined for a 4x4 — but Ram's diesel package carries a $4,770 price tag, and diesel fuel currently costs so much more than gasoline in the U.S. that you'd literally never earn the difference back. At current prices, the EPA projects that fueling the Ram will cost $400 more a year despite its higher mpg.

The F-150 offers a lot to number crunchers, and it complements that with a comfortable, quiet ride and available features including heated and ventilated seats, blind-spot alert, adaptive cruise control and automatic parking.

Despite that, the $43,160 test vehicle lacked a number of features you might expect at that price, including memory for the driver's settings, navigation and blind-spot alert. The Sync voice recognition system responded inconsistently.

The F-150's styling is very similar to the previous model. Without the optional LED running lights, it's easy to mistake the radically new truck for its predecessor.

Despite that, the 2015 F-150's many advances put other automakers in catch-up mode.

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BEHIND THE WHEEL

2015 Ford F-150 XLT Supercab 4x4 6.5-foot bed

Four-wheel-drive four-door full-size pickup

Price as tested: $43,160 (excluding destination charge)

Rating: Four out of four stars

Reasons to buy: Capability, features, fuel economy

Shortcomings: Inconsistent voice recognition, lack of some common features

COMPETITIVE EPA FUEL ECONOMY RATINGS

(Automatic transmission, four-wheel-drive models, short beds)

2015 Ford F-150 XLT Supercab 4x4 6.5-foot bed: 18 mpg city/23 highway/20 combined. Regular gasoline.

Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LS Double Cab 4x4: 16/22/18. Regular gasoline.

GMC Sierra 1500 4x4 SLE Double Cab: 16/22/18. Regular gasoline.

Nissan Titan 4x4 King Cab SV SWB: 12/17/14. Regular gasoline.

Ram 1500 3.6L 4x4 Quad Cab Lone Star: 19/27/22. Regular gasoline.

Ram 1500 Ecodiesel 4x4 Quad Cab Lone Star: 16/23/19. Diesel.

Toyota Tundra SR5 4x4 Double Cab: 14/18/16. Regular gasoline.

—Source: www.fueleconomy.gov

COMPARATIVE BASE PRICES (EXCLUDING DESTINATION CHARGES)

(AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION, FOUR-WHEEL-DRIVE MODELS, SHORT BEDS)

2015 Ford F-150 XLT Supercab 4x4 6.5-foot bed: $37,005

Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LS Double Cab 4x4 V-8: $37,015

GMC Sierra 1500 4x4 SLE Double Cab V-8: $40,480

Nissan Titan 4x4 King Cab SV SWB: $34,640

Ram 1500 3.6L 4x4 Quad Cab Lone Star: $36,885

Ram 1500 Ecodiesel 4x4 Quad Cab Lone Star: $41,655

Toyota Tundra SR5 4x4 Double Cab: $33,110

—Source: Autotrader.com

SPECIFICATIONS AS TESTED

Engine: 2.7-liter turbocharged 24-valve V-6

Power: 325 horsepower @ 5,750 rpm; 375 pound-feet of torque @ 3,000 rpm

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 145.0 inches

Length: 231.9 inches

Width: 79.9 inches

Height: 76.9 inches

Curb weight: 4,783 pounds

Where assembled: Dearborn, Mich.

KEY FEATURES ON VEHICLE TESTED

Standard equipment: Antilock brakes; stability control; curtain air bags; front seat side air bags; keypad entry; automatic crash notification; alarm; cargo box cleats; capless fuel filler; fog lights; halogen headlights; power-locking removable tailgate; rear privacy glass; spare tire; tow hooks; power windows, locks and mirrors; 4.2-inch display in center stack; air conditioning; auxiliary input jack; color-coordinated carpet and floor mats; cruise control; tilt-telescoping steering column; 12v power point; automatic headlights; 4x4 shift on the fly; hill start assist; voice recognition; Bluetooth phone and audio compatible; trailer sway control, wiper-activated headlights.

Options: Eight-way power driver seat; rear window defrost; CD player; SiriusXM satellite radio; rear under-seat storage; power adjustable pedals; auto-dimming mirrors; rear view camera; 2.7-liter Ecoboost V-6; 3.55 ratio axle; Class IV trailer hatch; LED side mirror spotlights; tailgate step; 23-gallon gas tank; LED box lighting; XLT chrome trim; cloth seats with front center console, spray-in bed liner.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

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©2014 Detroit Free Press

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