Ford is making a “step up” — literally — to protect its status for the 2008 model year. The innovative Tailgate Step on its Super Duty models may seem like a gimmick, but not to anyone who has ever faced the Olympian task of climbing into the bed to load or unload items. Drop the tailgate of the new F-250, F-350 or F-450 and you'll notice that the leading edge of the now-horizontal tailgate is in three sections. You simply grasp the center part of the tailgate edge, pull it straight toward you, then let it drop, and it makes a solid half-step up to make the bed more easily accessible.

To make your move more stable, you grab a rod imbedded in the tailgate and click it to lock upright. It becomes a firm grab stick to help stabilize your step up or down from the bed. The Tailgate Step, made of rugged steel, will support up to 350 lbs.

The Tailgate Step is far from the only feature of the 2008 Ford pickups. Inside that bed, heavy-duty, plastic-coated gates fold to interlock, either extending the bed length or partitioning it off to keep things from rolling around. The gates fold flush against the sides of the bed, completely out of the way. Ford Super Duty F-series pickups also have a choice of a 6-ft. 9-in. or 8-ft. bed length. They come in Regular Cab, SuperCab or Crew Cab.

The Super Duty trucks have a bolder exterior design than the quarter-ton F-150, which annually is the top-selling vehicle in the country.

F-150

The current F-150 proves that a top-selling pickup can switch from square corners to stylishly rounded edges without losing its rugged capability.

“Conventional wisdom is that the last year of a vehicle's cycle is slow, but not for us,” says Derrick Kuzak, Ford's vice president in charge of global product development. “We could wait for the next model year changeover, but customers don't wait.”

Ford has given the F-150 several feature upgrades, including a neat Mid-Box storage bin, a versatile cargo-management section, and an interesting adaptation of the backup, rearview camera system.

The Mid-Box fits just behind the cab, accessed by side doors. One side opens to a large enclosed storage area. The other side has several sliding drawers for storing tools. The Mid-Box is double paneled, and its doors on both sides lock with the driver's door key.

The cargo-management system pops up to form little cubicles for storing and separating everything from tools to sports equipment.

Tiny rearview cameras help a driver see what he would otherwise not see when backing up. On the new Fords, that display is located as an inset on the left edge of the rearview mirror instead of on a navigation screen. The driver can back up using the mirror, while keeping an eye on a close-up view of everything he can't directly see behind the truck.

The F-150 drives smoothly, with its 5.4-liter, overhead-camshaft V8, which has three valves per cylinder — two intake and one exhaust. In FX4 trim, it hauls a 3,060-lb. payload and tows an 11,000-lb. trailer. The F-150 starts at $18,275 for the base rear-wheel-drive model, but the price rises swiftly as options are added.

Super Duty models

The F-250 half-ton also has the 5.4 V8 engine with a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission, an 8,800-lb. payload and a 10,000-lb. tow capacity. It also comes in five lengths, from 227 to 262.4 in., and five wheelbases, from 137 to 172.4 in., depending on cab style.

The heavier-duty F-350 has a 6.8-liter Triton V10 engine, with the three-valve, single overhead-cam design, turning out 362 hp and 457 ft.-lbs. of torque. Its whole front-end structure is made of high-strength steel, and payloads range from 10,000 to 11,500 lbs., climbing to 13,000 lbs. on the diesel option. The diesel is a 6.4-liter power-stroke V8 dual-stage turbo-diesel, with 350 hp and 650 ft.-lbs. of torque. It serves as the main power plant of the F-450, which has a 14,500-lb. payload and the first factory-installed trailer brake controller. Price of the all-new and biggest F-450 ranges from $22,380 to a full-boat $47,660.

For more information, visit www.fordvehicles.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 111.

Interiors of all the new Ford pickups have been updated. For example, two very secure cup holders can stow large, thermal mugs of coffee. And if you fold out a little panel just ahead of the console, it reveals two more cup holders. That gives you four full-size and secure cup holders, all located in about a 6-in. area.

But, you know, hard-working farmers can get mighty thirsty.