Auto review: Ford F-150 Lightning EV pickup trickles out to dealers. Rivian should be nervous

The most popular vehicle in the U.S. is going electric, and it’s coming to dealers across the country.

The first demo models of the Ford F-150 Lightning, an electric version of the best-selling pickup truck, have begun trickling out to dealerships, and a few vehicles have been delivered to the first customers on a very long waiting list.

Starting at $40,000, the F-150 Lightning might steal some thunder from Rivian, the EV truck manufacturer that stumbled out of the gate with a slow production ramp-up. More broadly, the Lightning is being heralded as a potential game-changer for electric vehicles, incorporating the nascent technology into a utilitarian truck that can haul cargo and rival the speed of a Porsche.

“It’s just as capable as our current trucks, and it’s the fastest F-150 we’ve ever made,” said Jasen Turnbull, F-150 Lightning marketing manager at Ford. “This is huge for us.”

The Lightning launched production in April at the Rouge EV center in Dearborn, Mich., and job one for Ford is fulfilling preorders for the truck. Ford cut off online reservations in December after receiving nearly 200,000 preorders. The automaker plans to increase annual production to 150,000 vehicles by next year.

The Lightning’s $40,000 starting price is the same as the comparable commercial gas-powered F-150, with premium versions costing upward of $90,000. The price is offset by a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles, and many states provide their own incentives. Illinois buyers, for example, are eligible to apply for a $4,000 state EV rebate beginning in July through the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in September.

Production lagging

EV sales, which made up 2.6% of the U.S. auto market in 2021, are projected to nearly double this year to a 5% market share, according to Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights for car shopping website Edmunds. Demand has been boosted by spiking gas prices, but lagging production makes it hard to gauge how fast EV adoption will progress, she said.

“We definitely see people shopping more electric vehicles,” Caldwell said. “The thing with EVs is that you really can’t get your hands on a lot of them.”

Caldwell said supply chain issues, including the global semiconductor shortage, might continue to roil auto production into next year. But as automakers prioritize the transition to electric vehicles, production could accelerate at EV plants, she said.

Rivian, the startup EV truck manufacturer that launched production of its R1T pickup truck in September, has struggled with a slower than expected ramp-up from a converted Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill.

The company, which is building an R1S SUV and two electric delivery vans for Amazon, has produced about 5,000 vehicles as of May 9. The plant has the capacity to produce 150,000 vehicles annually, but is projected to build 25,000 EVs this year, hampered by supply chain issues.

California-based Rivian, which went public in November, is sitting on $17 billion in cash and had 90,000 orders for its R1 consumer EVs as of May 9. Rivian is also building 100,000 electric delivery vans for Amazon, an early investor in the company.

While Rivian has a head start on EV truck competitors, its first mover advantage may be evaporating as both Ford and General Motors accelerate production of rival pickups, Caldwell said.

In addition to the F-150 Lightning, truck fans got their first in-person look at the 2024 Chevrolet Silverado EV pickup truck at the Chicago Auto Show in February. The truck, which starts at $40,000, is expected to launch in fall 2023.

“It’s been such a long ramp-up for Rivian, and now you have these mainstream automakers that have more brand recognition and way bigger marketing budgets coming out with these vehicles,” Caldwell said. “The F-150 is definitely going to have more mass appeal.”

Taking a test drive

The 200,000 customers who reserved a Lightning are being asked to convert to a firm order, which can be placed online but will be delivered through a local dealer. Turnbull said it will take until mid-2023 to build and deliver those vehicles, so new customers are relegated to a waiting list to even begin the ordering process.

Those potential customers can, however, get behind the wheel of a Lightning this summer at many Ford dealers. Ford is delivering 2,400 demo versions of the EV truck to dealers across the U.S. by July, Turnbull said. The demo vehicles will be on the lot for six months before the dealers can sell them, giving Ford time to ramp up production.

“We really thought it was important to get test drives,” Turnbull said. “So anyone can walk in and talk to a local dealer for a test drive.”

The Lightning goes from zero to 60 mph in four-plus seconds, has 10,000 pounds of towing capacity, a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds and a range of up to 320 miles fully charged. But its true test may have been how it performed navigating potholes, construction work and the rugged urban terrain of Chicago’s North Side.

At first glance, the F-150 Lightning looks similar to the ubiquitous combustion engine F-150 trucks. But in the front, where the engine would be, is a large, easy-access storage trunk, commonly referred to as a frunk. The dual inboard electric motors are located at the front and rear axles.

The cabin likewise feels familiar, but a large touch screen in the middle of the dash includes features such as propulsion sound, which replicates engine noise for those unaccustomed to the quiet power of an EV, and 1-pedal drive, which makes the brake pedal a seldom-used appendage — depressing and releasing the accelerator is enough to handle most stop-and-go city driving.

After getting behind the wheel of a $93,000, top-of-the-line Platinum Lightning, we set off, air conditioner blasting movie-theater cold. The Lightning maneuvered through orange cones and heavy construction equipment, excelling on a de facto city obstacle course.

Next, we headed to the Kennedy Expressway, looking for some open road to unleash the 580 horsepower Lightning. Heavy midmorning traffic kept a lid on the zero to 60 mph acceleration test. A few momentary bursts, however, generated sudden G-forces and curious stares from other drivers, who apparently didn’t expect a Ford pickup to pass like a Ferrari.

Exiting the interstate, we turned onto Central Park Avenue, a narrow, quintessentially Chicago residential street lined with three-flats and badly parked vehicles. Switching into off-road mode from the touch screen, we plied the rugged path with inches to spare, traversing speed humps, buckled pavement and gaping potholes like a rock crawler.

After an hour on the road, we returned the Lightning to the Fox Ford dealership in the Bucktown neighborhood, with nearly 300 miles of range left and nary a scratch on its Atlas Blue finish.

Trading up

Ford is looking to reach 2 million EV sales by 2026, and is counting on the Lightning to propel the automaker to that target, Turnbull said. Customer deliveries began last month, with the first Lightning in Illinois going to Ken Stepps, a landscape designer and handyman who lives in suburban Wheaton.

An EV enthusiast, Stepps traded in his 2017 Tesla Model 3 to buy the $80,000 Lightning Lariat at Hopkins Ford of Elgin, Ill. He and his husband got to the top of the 200,000 preorder list through careful planning and execution.

“We knew Ford was going to be announcing the F-150 Lightning, and so we had our laptops open and ready on the reservation page,” said Stepps, 42. “And we were able to place our reservation before (Ford CEO) Jim Farley even announced the truck.”

Stepps said he kept his place at the front of the line by watching the production process “like a hawk.” As soon as he received an email from Ford inviting him to customize and place the order, he did. Stepps then reached out to the dealer to make sure the order was processed promptly.

The couple had previously reserved a Rivian R1T pickup truck, but shifted to the F-150 Lightning when it became available. Stepps, who recently sold his gas-powered F-150, thought the Ford EV would be more practical in his line of work, questioning whether he wanted to be “hauling mulch” in the back of a Rivian.

“What I love about the Lightning is that it’s a no-compromise vehicle,” Stepps said. “It comes with all the power that I was used to in the Tesla and all the capacity I was used to in our former F-150.”

Stepps also cited the large frunk, electrical outlets to plug in his tools and a soon-to-be-installed home charging system to enable the Lightning to provide home backup power during extended outages as advantages to the electric version of the F-150 over the gas version.

In an April interview at his Normal production facility, Rivian CEO and founder R.J. Scaringe said the evolving EV truck segment was not a winner-take-all competition. But the arrival of the F-150 Lightning on dealer lots might certainly heat things up this summer.

“I really deeply believe that the perspective that there’s a single winner just isn’t an accurate representation of the space,” Scaringe said. “I think that Lightning … can be wildly successful, and so can we.”

Buyers, meanwhile, “have no choice but to wait” for EV truck production to catch up to demand, Caldwell said.

Stepps, who switched his Rivian truck order to the R1S SUV as a “family hauler,” received an email from the automaker in early June pushing the delivery window back, once again, from April-May to August-September.