Car review: 2012 Ford Harley-Davidson

2012 Ford Harley-Davidson F150. (By Ian Merritt and Cars.com)

Any time a celebrity relationship lasts more than a decade, you wonder how the couple keeps it from getting stale and if there's enough substance underneath for the relationship to continue. Maybe they're not actual celebrities, but the Ford and Harley-Davidson relationship, now in its 12th year, has definitely given birth to some amazing offspring.

Over that time, there have been 10 F-150s and six Super Duty models, with the first F-450 model in 2009. In all, more than 70,000 Harley F-Series packages have been sold since 1999.

With all those years of success behind Ford and Harley, their relationship might be showing signs of conflict. In fact, the newest Ford Harley truck in the lineup might be the most confused model to date.

The 2012 Ford Harley-Davidson F-150 is relatively unchanged from last year: It has the same 6.2-liter V-8 under the hood and more Harley-Davidson emblems than you can count. But the model now offers a new four-wheel-drive transfer case and a few new design details. As it turns out, the transfer case is largely responsible for this truck's oddly conflicted personality.

More than ever before, this new Harley F-150 is a confused combination of performance truck styling with weakened real-truck capabilities.

Last year, Ford made manufacturing the F-150 simpler by reducing the number of transfer cases available to a single unit that provides the benefits of all-wheel drive and an extra low-range gear. The new transfer case has a setting called 4A, which stands for automatic all-wheel drive. This setting puts the vehicle in full-time all-wheel-drive mode. However, it should be noted that Ford's all-wheel-drive mode is different from GM's transfer case. The Ford system does not send power to all four wheels until it actually detects some amount of slip. The Auto setting on GM's full-size pickups and SUVs sends power to all four wheels all the time, but it can vary the proportion instantaneously based on input from sensors.

One of the advantages of Ford's new transfer case is that the 4A setting effectively runs like a normal rear-drive vehicle, running more efficiently, in typical high-traction situations. But as soon as any wheel slip is detected, the front drive axle engages like a light switch until the sensors determine that front drive is no longer needed. Then the system goes back to rear drive.

This is in stark contrast to the 4-High or 4-Low settings, which basically lock the center differential and split the available engine torque between the front and rear drive shafts. The front axle is open, while the Harley package includes the normal rear-locking differential that can be engaged only in low range, which makes sense for a rock crawler but not for a sportier performance truck.

This is the first Harley F-150 to offer a transfer case with a low-range gear; all other Harley F-150s have been rear- or all-wheel drive. And, yes, four-wheel drive was offered in Super Duty Harley-Davidson models.

We drove the 2012 Harley F-150 on a road trip up Interstate 94 from Chicago to Milwaukee, the birthplace of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

The route allowed us to do some comfortable, wintertime cruising as we averaged about 65 mph on the open road, with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees. At that speed, the Harley F-150 lumbered along around 1,700 rpm, and our computer readout told us we were averaging around 17.2 mpg over our 100-mile highway cruise. By the end of the trip, with two gas fill-ups under our belt by the time we turned in the truck, we had an overall average of 14.2 mpg in the city, which included a rush-hour drive out of Chicago and an accidental tour of downtown Milwaukee, running from the Harley-Davidson Museum (see our tour story) to the company's headquarters on West Juneau Avenue, about a mile and half away.

The Harley package comes standard with the larger 36-gallon tank, allowing the big V-8 to take the F-150 somewhere between 400 and 600 miles on one tank of fuel, depending on how you drive. And just like last year, all 2012 Harleys come with 3.73:1 gears. At this time, no alternate gearing or engine options are available (which is too bad; we'd like to see a 3.55:1 EcoBoost at some point).

EPA fuel economy numbers aren't pretty for the V-8 Harley F-150: 12/16 mpg city/highway and 13 mpg combined.

Among the truck's strengths, the throaty rumble of the exhaust note is our favorite. As you might expect, the big-bore, twin-spark-plug V-8 engine makes 411 horsepower and 434 pounds-feet of torque, stuffing a lot of power through the manifolds and tubes. The 6R140 six-speed transmission was a little quick to upshift when motoring through traffic (it would be nice and clearly appropriate with the Harley edition to offer some kind of Sport mode), but we continue to appreciate the thumb-touch gearshift button that allows for quicker and more assured manual shifting. That said, we have to note this is one of the smartest downshifting transmissions of any pickup truck, which becomes even more apparent when mated to the power of this V-8. In some cases the transmission dropped from 6th to 3rd gear when we needed to put the hammer down, causing a launch worthy of any sports car's respect.

We didn't get a chance to run the new Harley F-150 on a track, but we're guessing the overall zero-to-60-mph time would be right on top of the 2011 model, which Motor Trend track-tested during its time with the truck at a scorching 6.4 seconds.

As we noted earlier, among the more significant changes in the 2012 Harley F-150 is the transfer case, which has permanent all-wheel-drive capability and part-time low-range capability (a new addition for higher trim levels such as Lariat, King Ranch, Platinum and Harley). We especially appreciated this new feature when about 6 inches of snow fell overnight in Milwaukee, causing some questionable conditions on all the roads through and around the city. Being able to flip the transfer case dial into all-wheel drive gave us the sure-footedness needed to keep the truck under control and moving with traffic, even with very erratic grip conditions on the road.

We even got to pull out a late-90s front-wheel-drive Honda CR-V that was parked nose-in into a downhill curb at the Harley museum. Snow plows had wedged a pile of snow behind the back tires to the point the front tires couldn't push them up and over the berm. The passengers were standing there in the snow with a strap in hand when we almost drove by. We probably could have tugged the CR-V in 4A or 4-High, but we opted to pull it out gently in low range, pulling the vehicle through the snow mounds.

Unfortunately, it was during the snow flurries when we discovered the Harley front-end styling package does not allow for a tow-hook option. So we wrapped the strap around the lower control arm -- certainly not the best choice, but standing in the Wisconsin cold, we weren't going to delay -- and gently tugged the CR-V to better ground. Who would have thought that high-profile Pirelli Scorpion Zero tires had so much grip in snow? For the rest of the day, as we drove around the neighborhoods and city streets of Milwaukee, we had a great deal of fun driving in 4A with traction control turned off.

Other minor changes for the 2012 Harley F-150 include interior and exterior designs -- one we like, the other not so much. Whereas the 2011 model was offered with brushed aluminum inserts, this year there are several more stylish leather snakeskin accents throughout -- on the seats, steering wheel and center console. At first glance, it's subtle enough to miss, but once your eye catches the inlayed texture and color changes when contrasted with the formal black dashboard and trim pieces, the snakeskin pieces look very cool and tie into the Harley mystique quite well.

Outside, the design changes don't work so well. The new Harley F-150 graphics package almost looks like some windblown clothing or material is stuck onto the side of the truck. Also, if you look closely, the snakeskin design also appears on the exterior graphics package. Interesting for sure, but the leather look on the outside of the truck doesn't work as well as inside. They missed it with that one.

Likewise, the new rims have a "wavy gravy" look that doesn't seem masculine or aggressive -- it's sort of odd that they look like they're melting or losing their shape. Add to that the fact that the high-profile 275/45R22 tires look like rubber bands on a four-wheel-drive truck, and we begin to pick up on some odd personality conflicts with this truck. Calling this Harley F-150 schizophrenic would be an overstatement, but combined with the real four-wheel-drive transfer case, it does seem to lack some design and engineering consistency. Is it a performance truck, or does it want to be a real truck? Trying to be both means it's likely not to do either very well.

As to the "truck-ness" of the new Harley F-150, except for the years they were based on the Super Duty platforms, these partner packages have never really been hard workers. The gross vehicle weight rating of our test truck -- a short-bed SuperCrew -- was 7,350 pounds, and the as-tested weight was 6,240 pounds, leaving a total payload weight of 1,110 pounds. That's certainly not horrible, but only if you're comparing it to an F-150 SVT Raptor (which, we might add, seems to be a much better example of a clearly executed design and engineering exercise).

However, if you compare these figures to other SuperCrew 4x4 F-150 models, you are losing almost 700 pounds in payload and more than 3,000 pounds in towing capacity. (Our 4x4 could tow up to 7,300 pounds). For payload, if you add a few passengers to the Harley, you're looking at the bed capacity being about 700 pounds, about half the capacity of a Honda Ridgeline -- not so good for a full-size pickup. (We know criticizing the truck for these types of shortcomings might be a little like criticizing a Porsche 911 for not offering a DVD entertainment system for backseat passengers, but it's worth pointing out.)

In terms of overall value, we fully expect Ford to sell every Harley package it makes. But with a base price of $52,990 (including a $995 destination fee), you can imagine that not much is left on the options list for a customer to choose. Among our favorite details, the 8-inch touch-screen integrates the voice-activated navigation system, climate control and SiriusXM satellite radio.

We continue to be huge fans of the 4.2-inch LCD productivity screen, which sits between the tachometer and speedometer. It gives us access to all sorts of information about fuel economy, towing performance and even four-wheel-drive advice. Other standard features include a power moonroof, rearview camera, rear heated seats, ambient lighting, remote start, 110-volt power inverter and more. Our test unit came with a bed extender ($250) and a tailgate step ($375), giving us a grand total of $53,615.

What's the bottom line here? This is clearly an impressive vehicle, and Ford continues to be the best in the industry at executing these types of themed vehicles. But this particular Harley-Ford pairing might be trying to do too much. Sure, you get a lot for your money, but what kind of truck, and the resulting tradeoffs, are you really getting? To put the most positive spin on it, this is a great sport truck that also offers real four-wheel-drive capability. But to put a more realistic spin on it, you're getting much less capability for your money and paying more, too (and you have to ride on 22-inch rims).

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