The long relationship between big, thirsty V-8s and pickups, one of the last bastions for the engines, is showing signs of cracking. A new breed of V-6s is getting better gas mileage while not compromising on towing and hauling power. • V-8s still top the overall new-pickup market. But the country's bestselling vehicle, the F-150, is leading the six-cylinder assault. In May, for the first month since 1985, more F-150s were sold with V-6s than with V-8s.
Ford, which makes the pickups in Kansas City and Chicago, restored a standard V-6 to its model line in November. But an enhanced V-6 that it started selling early this year is fueling the surge in sales. It is fitted with the automaker's EcoBoost package, which includes turbochargers and direct fuel injection. Those enhancements keep some of the smaller engine's better mileage while boosting performance.
Higher gasoline prices have made car and truck shoppers look for better mileage, but Ford executives have been surprised with how quickly the V-6 pickups' sales have grown.
By April, the V-6 engines accounted for 50 percent of F-150 sales and in May were 56 percent. In the Kansas City area, F-150 buyers are picking the smaller engines 61 percent of the time, the second-highest rate in the country.
"Who would have thunk it?" said George Pipas, Ford's sales analyst.
Automakers, pushed by tougher federal efficiency standards, have offered more hybrids and a few electric cars — and they have been especially aggressive with improvements to gasoline engines.
But selling fuel economy gets trickier when it comes to larger vehicles such as SUVs and pickups, where engine size and power have been so important in attracting buyers.
Jim Kliesch, research director of the clean-vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, recalls approaching Ford in 2003 about making its Explorer SUV more fuel efficient. He had a similar package in mind, using smaller turbocharged engines with other upgrades.
Ford dismissed the approach then but has embraced it now. New Explorers all have V-6 engines now, and a souped-up four-cylinder engine soon will be offered.
"It's not rocket science; it's auto engineering," Kliesch said. "Ford is recognizing that consumers can have their cake and eat it, too."
But pickup drivers are a special challenge, in part because of some testosterone demographics. Even Toyota, with its reputation for fuel efficiency, made sure to offer its Tundra pickup with a couple of V-8 options.
Most pickup drivers, it turns out, do have real hauling needs beyond carrying a few bags of mulch home from the gardening store. Just 15 percent of F-150 buyers don't use them at all for business, according to Ford. About 35 percent use them only for business, and 50 percent a combination of business and leisure.
To overcome doubts about its new V-6, Ford launched a national tour of the vehicles, complete with test drives. Leath took one for a spin and became a convert, buying a new F-150 with the EcoBoost V-6.
F-150 buyers can choose from two V-6s and two V-8s. The V-6 without the turbocharging and other upgrades is cheaper and has a slight mileage edge over the V-6 with EcoBoost.
But the EcoBoost version has more horsepower and torque — giving it greater towing capacity and ability to carry heavy loads similar to or better than the two V-8s.
Chevrolet is taking a different approach, using efficiency upgrades on its V-8 engines. As a result, Chevy says, its 5.3-liter V-8 has fuel economy competitive with the V-6 EcoBoost.
And Ford isn't declaring that the V-8 has been dethroned, or that there will be a day when the V-8 isn't offered. But a place for the V-6 also seems assured now in the F-150 lineup.
"We think the trend will continue up," said Pipas, the Ford sales analyst. "We're not by any stretch done with developing that engine."