Say you’re hunting for a pickup, but you have no particular brand loyalties. Today’s full-size crop is almost absurdly comfortable and capable (and gargantuan — more on that in a bit). How do you choose a truck?
Until the next quantum leap in truck engineering arrives, manufacturers have to make do with new features like extra tech or fancy up-level trims to lure buyers. There’s something to it because when I was prepping for a weeklong expedition to fetch a long-neglected boat from storage in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I specifically asked to borrow a new F-150.
Why? While your typical crossover could have pulled the boat without breaking a sweat, I’m hopeless when it comes to backing up trailers. For a few years now, the F-150 has offered a setup called Pro Trailer Backup Assist. It’s supposed to make the process more manageable for us idiots. I wanted to test it out.
Just learn to back up a damn trailer, you’re screaming at me from across cyberspace. I get it, but I’m only an occasional tower. Some of you might be in the same boat as me, so to speak, and you know exactly how a typical towing episode plays out: You’re trying, and failing, to shove the rig up your driveway. Suddenly, cars are backing up 20-deep both in directions on your normally quiet street. Someone shows up and tries to help, but they’re only making it worse (Just crank it left! No, wait! The other left!). Tensions are rising; this is the sort of thing that destroys relationships.
Trailer setup is virtually, but probably not entirely, idiot-proof. Take a series of trailer measurements, enter them into the truck’s computer brain and you’re basically good to go.
Therein lies the appeal of Pro Trailer Backup Assist. It’s an option that can be had on F-150s and Expeditions for as little as $395; in the case of this 2018 F-150 4X4 Supercrew King Ranch, it was part of a $1,295 max trailer tow package (incidentally, the twin-panel moonroof cost exactly the same amount).
The setup is simple: Take a few measurements — the distance from the license plate to the ball hitch, the distance from the tailgate to the axle, etc. — and apply a sticker to the trailer aft of the tongue. Enter the measurements into the Pro Trailer Backup system. It may need a moment and a bit of straight-line driving to calibrate itself, but after that, you’re good to go. You can enter and save details for 10 different trailers.
When the system is engaged, you take your hands off the wheel and steer the truck using a knob on the dash. You have to work the accelerator and brake, but, at least in theory, the truck does the hard work of keeping the trailer moving in the direction you point it. Here’s a video that breaks it down:
Modifications to your trailer consist of … a small black and white sticker that the truck’s backup camera spots. And that’s it.
When it works, Pro Trailer Backup Assist is almost wizardry. Novice trailer backer-uppers like myself have a tendency to panic and overcorrect; the system does an excellent job of smoothing out the operation, deftly handling most of the necessary corrections. Turn the knob to point the trailer where it needs to go and let the truck do the rest.
It takes a big chunk of the stress out of backing a trailer into tight spaces — so long as those tight spaces aren’t at the end of narrow, winding paths. When I had to back it up a curving, narrow, tree-lined gravel path with drainage ditches on either side (and, consequently, little room for error), though, I was back in the weeds.
So it has its weaknesses, which present themselves in extreme edge cases like the one I encountered. I chalk this up to a few things.
First, there is a learning curve here; it’s not quite as steep as learning to back up a trailer unassisted, but you’ve got to take the time to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of the system to get the most out of it. With enough practice, you can squeeze a trailer into just about any spot. With significantly less practice and Pro Trailer Backup Assist, I’m confident you’ll be able to do the same in short order.
Second, it’s lacking some of the functionality of Land Rover’s similar system. Dubbed Advanced Tow Assist, it projects the trailer’s estimated path on the rearview screen. It’s a big help in constrained areas, especially when you can’t count on the F-150’s winglike mirrors to spot the trailer wheels (I had to fold them against the truck at times because of brush). Because of that, I’d give the edge here to Land Rover, slightly.
Finally, the pickup is just plain massive. This supercrew with a 5.5-foot bed isn’t the longest F-150 on the market, but there’s still a lot of truck to keep track of. This is less of a problem in, say, a parking lot leading to a boat ramp than it is on a wooded trail or on a street with parked cars, but it’s a problem I dealt with firsthand. I suspect that, as with backup cameras and parking sensors, systems like Pro Trailer Backup Assist are going to become ever-more prevalent in order to compensate for trucks’ increasing size.
You may be wondering about the truck I used for the trip — a loaded King Ranch with heated and cooled seats, extra-macho Texas-inspired leather accents, and yes, a gigantic glass moonroof for all the times you’re alone on the range and just want to gaze at the twinkling stars without leaving the comfort of those heated seats.
It’s exactly as nice as you’d expect a $60,255 truck to be, but the essential capability doesn’t change if you slide into a more basic truck for under $30K. It simply didn’t notice the trailer behind it, and after 1,573.4 miles of truckin’, about 500 of which were done with boat in tow, I averaged 19.2 mpg from the 3.5-liter turbocharged V6. Respectable!
Back to Pro Trailer Backup Assist, which is what drew me to the Ford in the first place. The system can do many things, but it can’t tell you where you need to put the truck at the start of the backup procedure — that’s something only experience can teach — and it can’t shrink the truck’s footprint.
Even so, it performs as advertised and adds additional value to a vehicle that is already a proven workhorse. It might not be enough to challenge a diehard Chevy guy’s brand loyalties, but on the other hand, the Bowtie would be foolish not to invest in tech with similar capabilities.
Ultimately, a backup assist system is, much like the pickup it is attached to, a tool for helping you get stuff done. And when it comes to maneuvering a trailer, a lot of us are desperate for all the help we can get.
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $56,320
As Tested Price: $60,255
Drivetrain: 3.5-liter DOHC turbocharged V6; 4WD, 10-speed automatic transmission
Output: 375 hp @ 5,000 rpm; 470 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
Curb Weight: 4,917 lb
Fuel Economy: 17/23/19 mpg(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Observed Fuel Economy: 19.2 mpg
Options: Twin panel moonroof ($1,295); Pro Trailer Backup Assist, Max Trailer Tow package ($1,295); 3.5-liter V6 Ecoboost ($600); Spray-in bedliner ($495); Power telescoping and folding mirrors (250)
Pros: Pro Trailer Backup Assist takes most of the stress out of towing, most of the time.
Cons: It’s not foolproof, and it can’t magically shrink this truck’s massive footprint.
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