I love a bit of banter between automotive executives, as long as things stay between the lines. With Elon Musk, you can never guarantee that, but with Ford, you definitely can. The Blue Oval rarely oversteps boundaries when it comes to PR, but it is still much more aggressive than, say, General Motors or Volkswagen, specifically because it’s never afraid to point out where its products beat the competition. Take this latest tweet from CEO Jim Farley showing the Ford F-150 Lightning easily climbing up a hill that made a Tesla Cybertruck sweat. It’s a fair tweet, but let’s get one thing straight: The Tesla Cybertruck is almost certainly going to wipe the floor with the Ford F-150 Lightning off-road, and Elon will get the last laugh. Allow me — someone who isn’t at all a Tesla fanboy — to explain why.
Video of a Tesla Cybertruck struggling to get up a dirt grade in a California off-road park has been circulating the internet recently. Here’s a look:
Ford CEO Jim Farley decided shortly thereafter to post this video of Ford’s completed, actually-on-sale electric pickup truck coasting up that same hill with ease:
F-150 Lightning does it all. ???? pic.twitter.com/uCMUSxUIpj
— Jim Farley (@jimfarley98) November 15, 2023
It’s a totally fair tweet, and fun, in a way. But let’s be clear: The Cybertruck is going to kick the Ford F-150 Lightning’s butt off-road, and this is coming from me, someone who just wrote an article titled “The Tesla Cybertruck Is Not Going To Be ‘The Best Off-Road Vehicle’ And I Didn’t Need This New Off-Road Footage To Tell You That.”
In that article I actually checked some of the folks who seem to think the Cybertruck is going to be the best off-road vehicle out there, when the reality is that: It will not, if only by virtue of simple geometric limitations. And that brings me to the Lightning.
When I reviewed the truck back in May of 2022, I had positive things to say about the vehicle’s traction control system. The truck seemed more than able to get power to the ground despite some wheels lifting off terra firma due to limited articulation. Here’s what I had to say in The Autopian’s first ever car review, which incidentally has been cited as the longest car review ever written:
I took the Lightning off-road on a fairly mild course in San Antonio, and had a chance to climb up some hills and bomb through some mud pits. The truck did very well. The standard locking rear differential — activated with a press of a button on the touchscreen — mechanically connects the two rear tires together, and provides a significant traction advantage. Up front is an open differential, though a brake-based traction control system (often called a Brake Lock Differential) does a decent job apportioning power to the wheel with grip.
A locking rear diff and a brake-based traction control system — both relatively simple, tried-and-true off-road traction control systems — got the job done fine, whereas the Tesla in that viral video seems to still need some calibration to its traction control system to get started up that grade without struggling.
And that’s the thing: The video shows a prototype Tesla Cybertruck. It won’t take much to vastly improve that traction control system to better get the motors’ power down to the ground to propel the vehicle forward. That’s just software. Is it going to be as good as a mechanical locker? Maybe not! Or maybe Tesla will actually offer a locker for the two wheels on the same axle — regardless, even if the Ford’s traction control system is better than the Tesla’s, torque transfer is only a small part of the off-road equation. The biggest slice of the off-road pie is all about geometry, and in that area, the Cybertruck is probably going to demolish the F-150 Lightning.
Here’s what I had to say about the F-150 Lightning’s off-road geometry:
The ground clearance wasn’t too bad, but that low-slung battery, along with the long wheelbase, meant that battery subframe rubbed while I was off-road. I anticipate breakover angle being the biggest limitations to the truck’s capabilities, which again, are more than adequate [for a non off-road pickup truck].
Really, the F-150 Lightning is a far-from-optimized EV pickup truck, and I bet Ford itself would admit that behind closed doors. It’s the right truck for 2023 because it was first to market and because it’s not such a huge departure from a gasoline F-150 so as to scare away truck buyers skeptical about EVs (and it’s well executed!). But it’s probably not the right truck for, say, 2026..
I anticipate Ford’s next full-size EV pickup having a better-integrated battery that won’t hang far below the rockers, and I bet it will have air suspension. Without air suspension, you’re basically stuck with a dilemma: Do you jack up the ride height to improve ground clearance as well as approach/breakover/departure angles, but deal with the associated reduction of range? Or do you keep the ride height low in order to reduce road-loads and thus keep the range high, and just deal with the off-road sacrifices?
Tesla’s Cybertruck, like the many air-suspension vehicles out there — won’t have to make this compromise. On the highway, the truck will ride low, and remain relatively aerodynamically efficient. Off-road, though, the suspension can crank up the ride height to improve off-road geometry, which is — again — the single most important attribute when it comes to determining off-road capability.
To be clear, the Cybertruck’s geometry — even at max ride height — isn’t going to be amazing, simply by virtue of it being a pickup that needs four doors and a bed, but there’s no way it’ll be as bad as the F-150 Lightning’s, so when the time comes for a head-to-head, I have no doubt that the Lightning will be left in the dust. But for now, while Tesla is still working on the Cybertruck, it’s Jim Farley — who runs a car company that sells an EV pickup truck that you can buy today at a dealership — who fairly gets to have a bit of fun on Twitter.