2015 Ford Power Stroke Diesel Storms the Hills

July 25, 2014

The Power and Torque War raging among the Big Three pickup-truck builders since the early 2000s continues, and this time it’s Ford Motor Co. leapfrogging ahead of the competition with a new rating for its Power Stroke V-8 diesel: 440 horsepower, up from 400, and 860 lb.-ft., up from 800. What’s that mean besides bigger numbers and bragging rights? Power to pull and haul heavy loads, company representatives said at a mid-summer ride-and-drive event for trade-press reporters in West Virginia.

Ford’s second-generation 6.7-liter Power Stroke V-8 diesel and the SuperDuty chassis have the highest rating in the Class 2 through 4 segment, and so are the resulting towing capacities, according to Doug Scott, Ford’s truck marketing manager. He and others briefed a bunch of reporters before turning us loose on a small fleet of 2015-model pickups. The highest tow rating is 31,200 pounds for a diesel-powered F-450 pickup with dual rear wheels, a 4.30 axle ratio, and bed-mounted fifth-wheel hitch pulling a gooseneck trailer.

Add tare weight of about 9,500 pounds, plus people and whatever’s in the bed, and the approved gross combination weight rating for an F-450 is 40,000 pounds. “That’s half an 18-wheeler,” Scott said.

Could an F-450 substitute for a heavier, more expensive tractor to carry and deliver loads in that low Class 8 weight class? This was tried by “hotshot” haulers of the late ’70s, I recalled from my early days as a truck writer. It didn’t work because the 1-ton dually pickups of the day weren’t up to the daily grind. I wonder how long even today’s higher quality and more capable pickups could hold up. A better idea would be a true medium-duty model, like the F-650 or F-750, which some operators went to back then.

Ford’s 2015 diesel gets its extra power and torque from new injector tips that can spray more fuel into the cylinders, and a larger turbocharger that compresses and moves more air, engineers said. As before, the Power Stroke’s block is cast in compacted graphite iron, which is stronger and lighter than grey iron, and cylinder heads are aluminum. A reverse-flow layout puts the air intake manifolds on the outside of the heads and the exhaust system inside the engine’s Vee, along with a new, larger turbocharger. Engineers said this means a short run for exhaust gas to the turbo, preserving heat energy and cutting response time.

The 2015 F-450 chassis has commercial-grade 19.5-inch wheels and tires, and upgraded rear U-joints and suspension components, including new leaf springs, shock absorbers, and front and rear stabilizer bars, engineers said. The steering system has stronger gears, and linkages and the fifth-wheel/gooseneck have increased towing capacity. The hydraulic disc brakes, shared with Super Duty chassis-cab models, are larger and have new antilock calibration for enhanced performance.

At this press event, reporters drove F-250, F-350 and F-450 crewcab pickups, most hitched to sizeable two-axle box, camper and flatbed trailers weighing about 9,000, 12,000 and 29,000 pounds, respectively. The heaviest combinations were reserved for a handful of writers who held commercial driver’s licenses, including me. The towing exercises with the heaviest trailers were on a stretch of Interstate 64 north of Daniels, W.Va., that included a 5-mile, 7-percent grade that most heavy semis struggled with. In some cases, the Fords were matched against Chevrolet and Ram pickups in comparable weight classes, and bested them, as we expected in this type of event. But all performed well.

On the 5-mile downgrade, the Power Stroke’s engine brake—a function of redirecting vanes in the turbo—helped keep us at safe speeds, within or close to the posted 45-mph limit for trucks, if we wanted. When prompted by stabs at the brake pedal, the Ford 6-speed TorqShift transmissions automatically downshifted to as low as 3rd gear to boost retarding power. This sent the engine spinning at the no-load maximum of 3,900 rpm to control road speed with little use of service brakes. Under power, the redline was 3,500, though peak power and torque occur at 2,800 and 1,600 rpm, respectively. A thumb switch on the column-mounted selector lever allowed down (-) or up (+) shifting while in Drive or Manual mode, which is fun but seldom necessary, especially while cruise control is set. With CC, the truck tries to stay at the set speed no matter what. 

Heavy pulling with the F-450s saw GCWs from 36,000 to as high as 39,000 pounds, with much of that on each pickup’s axles. Each truck pulled a LoadMax steel flatbed gooseneck trailer carrying nine 2,200-pound pallets of concrete block, and there were 500 pounds worth of bagged concrete mix in the bed behind the cab. Heavy loading and stiff suspensions meant more use of the service brakes on the downgrade and a choppy ride in the F-450s and a Ram 3500 there for comparison. The choppiness is hard on people and equipment, which is why I believe that a heavier model would be a better choice for constant use at such high combination weights. Beefier chassis can take a daily pounding and their engines are rated for sustained output. For 2016, the F-650 and 750 will also use the Power Stroke V-8 diesel, but at lower horsepower and torque levels.

High power-to-weight ratios with these SuperDutys enabled us to climb the stiff grade at rapid highway speeds: 50 to nearly 60 mph with lighter trailers and 45 to 50 or so with the heavier ones. Many customers want this, but do they need it? Well, it goes along with a high standard of living, which we are fortunate to enjoy. And blowing the doors off heavy semis in the far-right lane, or some chump’s lesser trailer-towing pickup, is more fun than crawling along behind them.

Was it fair to compare the F-450 to a Ram 3500? Ram says no, but Ford says yes, because each truck’s gross vehicle weight rating is 14,000 pounds. And the Ram’s tow rating is 30,000 pounds compared to an F-450’s 31,200 (and an F-350’s 26,700). So here the numbers in a specs table are more important than a model badge..

In these demos, the Ford diesels were the quietest, with the GM Duramax diesels a close second. The Cummins Turbo Diesels emitted a low growl that some might consider loud but that my driving partner and I found pleasing. While starting out from a stop with the heaviest trailer, the Cummins droned somewhat annoyingly between 2,100 and 2,300 rpm, but that’s a range it otherwise was seldom in. In all cases, all the diesels were smokeless and odor-free, thanks to their builders’ monumental engineering efforts to meet federal emissions limits. Ram still offers a 6-speed manual transmission with the Cummins in 2500 and 3500 pickups, but Ford and GM are standard with automatics because a big majority of customers prefer them, engineers said.  

Before we started out in the morning, Ford spokesman Mike Levine asked us reporters to observe the comfort of SuperDuty pickups. Sure enough, seats were wide and supportive, with plush leather coverings. The featured F-450 had the top-of-the-line Platinum trim package (see photos), but my favorite was the King Ranch trim, which for 2015 gets a finer grade of leather compared to the thick, baseball glove-like hide used previously, and is dyed a deeper shade of brown. Seats front and rear can be heated and cooled, as in luxury cars. Simpler XL or XLT trim is available for work trucks.

Now a word on electronic controls and infotainment equipment: We frequently adjusted the HVAC controls, which consist of two big temperature knobs (for driver and passenger) flanking a center panel; the panel uses nine buttons for climate settings, where a simple twist knob with labeled detents would be simpler to see and use, at least for me. Higher-end SuperDuty pickups come with Sync packages. For instance, Sync in all the trucks offered to connect with someone’s smartphone. Ford’s 2015 systems will include “redundant manual controls,” said William Mattiace, another Ford spokesman. “Every radio will have a power/volume knob and a tuning knob.” There will still be voice-actuated functionality, and he gave me a lesson on tuning the radio with voice commands that almost made me a believer. But I’d still use those knobs!