Capacity War

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Makers of heavy-duty pickup trucks vie for best-in-class payload and towing ratings; exhaust brakes and cab technology rival the big rigs.

September 20, 2010
In August Ford up-rated the 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel just introduced in Apr

In August, Ford up-rated the 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel just introduced in April.

In August Ford up-rated the 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel just introduced in April to wrestle most-powerful-pickup bragging rights from General Motors’ 2011 Duramax. It was a revival of almost Cold-War-style one-upmanship that illustrates the lengths to which the Big Three will go in the battle for buyers of Class 2 and 3 trucks: the heavy-duty pickups.

Buyers of Class 2 and 3 pickups, the 2500-series or F-250 and larger pickups, have a job to do; loads to haul. That fact is not wasted on Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (the only makers of Class 2 and 3 pickup trucks), and they strive every year for “best-in-class” specifications to help sell their trucks.

Auto marketers find the same “uncompromising attitude” that sells Class 2 and 3 work trucks to contractors also attracts upscale consumers who shop these classes for vehicles to pull boats, horse trailers and the like. This confluence of business buyers and expensive-toy haulers has pitched U.S. truck makers into a headlong capability war.

The escalation has been phenomenal. For example, Ford’s Power Stroke diesel has grown 60 percent in both horsepower and torque since 2000.

The heavy-duty pickup segment’s foundations are shaking in this 2011 model year from the upheaval among the all-important diesel engines. Diesel is the icon of work-truck capability. This is the first model year in which GM and Ford will comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 on-road diesel emissions restrictions (they sold from 2009 inventory until the 2011 models were on dealer lots).

The Ford Power Stroke and GM Duramax diesels will likely be many construction companies’ introduction to selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems that require users to maintain a reservoir of diesel emissions fluid (DEF). GM says the Duramax should run about 5,000 miles between DEF refills. As a counterpoint, Chrysler chose to meet diesel emissions limits with its 2010-model-year trucks using a diesel particulate filter and oxidation catalyst. The exhaust filters require no additional fluids but add a diesel-fueled, digitally controlled regeneration system to the Rams’ Cummins Turbo Diesels. (Chrysler had not yet introduced 2011 Ram heavy duties at press time.)

Ford and GM have gone to extraordinary lengths to overshadow the inconvenience of having to replenish a second fluid tank. Ford took over production of the Power Stroke from Navistar International, which had been building the diesel and lending the blue oval its heavy-duty mystique since the early 1990s. Ford spins its complete redesign of the 2011 Power Stroke, literally, under the heading “If You Want Something Done Right, You Have to Do It Yourself.”

The initial 2011 Power Stroke was a 6.7-liter V8 turbocharged and intercooled to 390 horsepower and 735 pounds-feet of torque. When Ford introduced the 2011 Super Duty on March 5, the company claimed the most diesel power and torque in the heavy-duty class.

Not surprisingly, GM responded by crowing about the 1.3 million Duramax diesels that have gone into Chevy Silverados and GMC Sierras since 2000. But since Cummins has produced more than 1.7 million diesels for Ram trucks since 1989, GM needed to up the ante. On March 10, the company released figures for the redesigned 2011 Duramax. The 6.6-liter V8 edged out Ford’s Power Stroke for the new best in class with 397 horsepower and 765 pounds-feet of torque, a remarkable advance of 32 horsepower and 102 pound-feet over the last Duramax.

The SCR users had not only bested the Cummins-powered Ram’s 350 horsepower and 650 pounds-feet of torque, but they also confirmed the coveted lead in payload and towing capacity. Ram 3500 (regular cab, 4WD, long bed, with six-speed automatic transmission and 4.10 rear end) carries 5,130 pounds of payload and will tow fifth-wheel loads of up to 17,600 pounds. The Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra 3500 delivers 6,335 pounds of payload and tows 20,000 pounds. Ford tops heavy-duty pickup capacity even if you eliminate the F-450 for lack of competition. A comparable F-350 squeaks by GM with a payload capacity of 6,520 pounds and authoritative fifth-wheel-towing limit of 21,600 pounds.

With August’s revision of Power Stroke power, Ford proved how valuable specification dominance is to the company. Increasing the 6.7-liter diesel to GM-tweaking 400 horsepower and 800 pounds-feet of torque requires no hardware changes. The software modification changes the fueling schedule and transmission shift schedules.

Those who bought 2011 Power Stroke version 1.0 can receive a free upgrade from their dealer in half an hour. It’s probably worth it. Because the power train can shift gears faster and holds in highway-cruising gear ranges longer, Ford says the up-rated diesel Super Duties will be 2 percent more fuel efficient than with the first version of the 2011 and 20 percent more fuel efficient than the 2010 6.4-liter Power Stroke by Navistar. A 19-mile-per-gallon 2011 Power Stroke F-250, in an average year driving 28,800 miles with diesel at $2.75 per gallon, saves about $780 over a 16-mpg 2010 model.

Shifting some emissions-reducing work from the combustion chamber to the exhaust system downstream from the EGR valve has improved the tunings of SCR diesels, benefiting both GM and Ford fuel economy. GM says the new Duramax is 11-percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor and adds that its economy advantage jumps to 28 percent when driving under heavy loads.

With gasoline engines, capacity superiority has changed only slightly. In most construction configurations—crew cab, long-bed, four-wheel drive ¾-tons—Ford’s standard 6.2-liter V8 makes 385 horsepower and 405 pounds-feet of torque (up from 360 pounds-feet with last-year’s 5.4-liter engine). The F-250 with towing rear-end gears only carries a 2,210-pound payload but will tow 15,000 pounds on a fifth-wheel trailer, the most in its class. The 6.0-liter V8 in GM’s 2500HDs will carry 3,375 pounds of payload (best in class by a wide margin) but only tows 13,800 pounds. And although the 5.7-liter Hemi makes an impressive 383 horsepower and 400 foot pounds, the Ram 2500 HD 4x4 maxes out at 2,450 pounds of payload or 10,500 pounds on a gooseneck.

The Big 3 have pretty much made six-speed automatic transmissions standard work-truck equipment with diesel engines, and towing packages push the six-speed into gasoline-powered work trucks as well. Only Chrysler’s Ram HDs can still be had with a five-speed auto. In its HD pickups GM offers the six-speed Hydra-Matic 6L90 mated to its Vortec 6.0-liter gasoline engine. The revamped six-speed Allison 1000 goes with the Duramax.

Ford has gained some production efficiencies by paring down its product line to fewer models and fewer options, and one result has been the elimination of manual transmissions in the Super Duty and universal use of the 6R140 TorqShift six-speed automatic. Ford says the new TorqShift, “is specifically designed to handle the increased torque produced by the all-new . . . Power Stroke . . . and also will be mated to the all-new 6.2-liter V8 gasoline engine.” Ford engineers insist that a TorqShift built for the diesel has no trouble performing with either engine, despite the 2,500 rpm difference between their rated speeds, primarily because the much-higher-speed gasoline engine produces relatively mild torque.

Six-speeds offer smaller steps from gear to gear and a wider span from first to sixth so engine speed can remain in its performance and efficiency sweet spot through a broader range of driving conditions. The new six-speeds are smarter, too. Electronic range select features are universally available, allowing the driver to manually limit the gear choices to those appropriate for hauling loads over steep terrain. The new transmissions also allow manual shifts with the tap of a button or toggle. Tow/haul modes reduce shift cycling and automatically anticipate the need for downshifts to control loads better and improve cooling.

Exhaust brakes have become standard equipment on diesel-equipped work trucks thanks in part to variable-geometry turbochargers used to manage emissions. Electronic controls interfaced with digital cruise control apply exhaust brakes automatically at intensities that respond to the load, speed and attitude of the trucks. As in big rigs, exhaust brakes reduce brake fade, prolong service-brake life, and improve safety when hauling heavy loads.

Domestic truck makers’ capacity competition seems to have encouraged some who do not sell Class 2 or 3 trucks to encroach on the lower end of the work trucks’ range, hoping to attract some fence sitters with their light pickups, the so-called half-tons. The standard 5.6-liter V8 in Nissan’s full-sized Titan, for example, makes 317 horsepower and 385 pounds-feet of torque; slightly more torque than the standard gas engine in GM’s 2500 and 3500 heavy duties.

With slightly more than 2,000 pounds of payload capacity, the Titan will carry more than the domestic extended- or crew-cab 4x4 half-tons, although 87 inches is as long as the bed comes. Maximum towing capacity of 9,400 pounds with the $950 utility package is light, but within 1,100 pounds or less of GM and Ram 1500s.

Toyota Tundra’s Double-Cab, long-bed 4x4 with a 5.7-liter V8 very nearly matches the power of Ram’s Hemi. Tundra will carry 1,540 pounds—more than Ram—and its 10,100-pound tow rating is within 400 pounds of Ram and GM.

Fuel- and environmentally conscious light-truck buyers will find the GM Silverado/Sierra Hybrid an interesting possibility, as long as their use is limited to the more traditional workers-and-toolbox transportation. The most fuel-efficient full-size trucks on the market, these gasoline/electric hybrids are EPA rated at 21 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. The 4x4 GM hybrids will carry 1,473 pounds in their short bed (no long bed available), but they will only tow 5,900 pounds. Those who can wait might find more capable, more fuel-efficient trucks in the coming model years as automakers rise to the more stringent new fuel-efficiency standards recently imposed on light vehicles by EPA and the U.S. DOT.

Ford recently revealed its 2011 F-150 engine line-up, featuring a 20-percent fuel-efficiency improvement across the board. The addition of a 3.5-liter V6 EcoBoost gasoline engine might attract some attention. Ford remains cagey about the exact numbers, but they do suggest it can increase fuel efficiency “up to 20 percent versus 2010 model year F-150 5.4-liter V8.” The 2010 V8 4x4 was rated 14 mpg city and 18 mpg highway, so the EcoBoost might rate at 16.8 mpg city and 21.6 mpg highway.

The only EcoBoost performance number available at press time is a towing rating of 11,300 pounds. That matches the rating given to the 411-horsepower 2011 F-150 with the top-of-the-line 6.2-liter V8.

The spending power of upscale buyers and demands of bosses who conduct everyday business from the cabs of their trucks has also elevated the state of pickup truck extras. This year marked the arrival of the first Denali HD from GMC, an ultra-luxury cab combining most of the technology arsenal that has been creeping into the work-truck category in recent years.

Ford developed an in-dash computer powered by Microsoft Auto that provides wireless high-speed Internet access via Sprint Mobile Broadband Network and navigation by Garmin. It’s the first broadband-capable in-dash computer in production. The system allows users to print invoices, check inventories and access documents stored on remote computers from the truck cab.

Interior features may well become deciding factors for work-truck buyers as, when viewed from outside the competitors’ camps, it begins to appear to more and more buyers that specification escalation has created three more-than-capable lines of heavy-duty pickups.

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