Ford SuperDuties Show Power, Poise

Oct. 24, 2016

Ford Motor Co. has added a lot to its already excellent SuperDuty series of pickup trucks: more power and torque, and higher load and towing ratings, for example. But equally valuable is lighter weight by means of aluminum cabs from the highly popular F-150. Using components produced in volume lowers costs over Ford’s former practice of building slightly larger cabs for the heavier-duty models. F-150 cabs were enlarged, as well as crafted of aluminum, for the 2015 model year, so SuperDuty accommodations for drivers and passengers remain roomy. And “military grade” aluminum plays the same important weight-cutting role.

Ford marketers and engineers talked about that and many other features at a late July media ride-and-drive event in and near Denver. They handed out a booklet that touts the trucks’ features, and in it are several pages that describe how the cabs and beds are put together and what type of aluminum is employed. If you’re interested in metallurgy, you might be pleased to know that it’s a 6022 alloy. Aluminum is comparatively soft, so side panels are thick enough to be more dent-resistant than the steel previously used, the booklet says. Also, floors and sidewalls of SuperDuty beds, and the cross members underneath, are thicker than the F-150’s. Not mentioned is enhanced corrosion resistance, which is important in these days of more aggressive deicing salts scattered on road pavements. 

The booklet, and a series of presentations from engineers and marketing people, explained that reduced weight from aluminum in the SuperDuties was “reinvested” in a stronger and stiffer steel frame, plus bigger axles and brakes, a more capable conventional hitch design, and increased capacity for fuel and diesel exhaust fluid. So, while weight savings for an aluminum F-150 was billed at up to 750 pounds over a previous steel model, the aluminum cab, bed, and nose will save up to 350 pounds in a 2017 SuperDuty versus a comparable steel-bodied ’16 model. That’s still a lot of weight excised from what’s basically a rather burly truck.

And more work potential comes from the new SuperDuty’s more powerful engines, greater payloads and towing ability, and delightful driveability. V-8 engines are Ford’s own second-generation 6.7-liter (409-cubic-inch) PowerStroke diesel and 6.2-liter (379-cubic-inch) gasoline engine (which carries no name but is called “Boss” internally, Wikipedia says). I was highly impressed by the smoothness of the power trains, whether gasoline or diesel, which both run through beefed-up 6-speed TorqShift automatic transmissions. They are smooth, quiet, and gutsy. One course on a closed parking lot included a drag strip-type straightaway where we were encouraged to floor the go-pedal: At launch, the rear tires laid a bit of rubber on the asphalt and the nose lifted slightly as the diesel kicked the truck down the course as though it were a 1960s muscle car, and strong brakes pulled down speed authoritatively. Usually I’m a light-footed guy, but I went through that course several times just for the fun of it.

Much of the entire SuperDuty range was at editors’ disposal, and I drove as many trucks as time allowed. The first truck was a SuperCrew F-450, Ford’s designated towing pickup (the F-350 emphasizes bed payload); the 450 was hitched to a Gladiator Load Max gooseneck utility trailer toting eight pallets of decorative blocks. Gross combination weight was about 40,000 pounds. This demonstrated chassis strength and output of the truck’s PowerStroke diesel: a muscular 440 horsepower and 925 lb.-ft. 

Ford says the 2017 SuperDuty pickup’s new mainframe rails are fully boxed from front to rear; in the middle, where they bear weight like bridge beams, the rails are 9 inches high, or 1.5 inches taller than before. This helps make the frame 24 times stiffer than those on 2016 SuperDuties. The new frame’s weight is limited because 95 percent of it is made of high-strength steel, which is lighter than an equivalent amount of carbon steel.

Reassured that this new truck’s backbone was not likely to break in two (leaving me owning both pieces, as the old salesmen’s joke goes), I headed out of the hotel’s parking area and onto wide boulevards that climbed up and down rolling hills in the commercial (but decidedly upscale) neighborhood west of Denver. The PowerStroke diesel handily towed the trailer up the hills, some of them with grades of about 5 and 6 percent. On downhill stretches, the exhaust brake kept the rig’s speed in check, almost rendering the large disc brakes redundant. With the Tow/Haul mode switched on, the tranny automatically downshifted two or three gears to raise engine revs and maximize the exhaust brake’s retarding power. 

Later, with an F-350, I towed a two-axle horse trailer out on area highways that traverse the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. With aluminum skin and no hoofed cargo aboard, the trailer was easy to yank around at any speed. There were also several box trailers hitched to F-250s on the event premises, but I skipped them because the Ford folks had made their towability point with those larger, heavier trailers.

Speaking of towing, sooner or later every trailer has to be backed up. That can be tricky for drivers who haven’t done it, so Ford offers a new Reverse Guidance system. It displays views of the trailer in the dashboard screen via rearward-facing cameras. Graphic arrows in the color screen tell rookies which way to steer to keep the trailer heading where it should. I found this of little use because over the years I’ve learned to back trailers the old fashioned way, using the mirrors and remembering that swinging the bottom of the steering wheel right or left moves the trailer in the same direction. There are other, more useful options for the SuperDuty, such as an extra camera placed on the trailer’s rear to see what’s behind the rig, and a trailer-tire pressure monitoring system that broadcasts PSI values to an in-cab display.

I did grab a couple of SuperDuty pickups without trailers and drove them over highways in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, and found them to be absolute pleasures to operate. Most were rather fancy, with high-end trim packages including leather-covered seats and other posh touches, not to mention infotainment equipment that I didn’t try to educate myself on. But one F-250 was a base XL with an STX trim package that added chrome to the grille, front bumper, and mirrors, plus a nicer finish to the interior. Its cloth-covered seats were wonderfully supportive and comfortable. Yet the truck retained a vinyl-covered floor that will shrug off mud and other crud that will inevitably be dragged in, and shrug off coffee and Coke that will certainly be spilled by a shaky hand. That’s the SuperDuty I’d choose to go to work in.

And unless I were going to haul a bunch of people, I’d avoid a SuperCrew and get the shorter SuperCab. I’d fold up the rear bench to stow my tools and other valuables. All the stuff would be easy to toss inside because the rear-hinged (“suicide”) rear doors now open a full 170 degrees. That means they fold almost flat against the bed, instead of sticking out perpendicular to the cab, the design Ford had stuck with since it added the two rear doors to SuperCabs years ago. And another thing: All cabs include grab handles on both A-pillars, including one for the driver so he can pull himself up and into a tall cabin. Ford had omitted the driver’s handle for a while, and I welcome it back. Because with all the sophistication and advancements in the new SuperDuty series, that grab handle and those wide-opening doors were my favorite features.