First Drive: 2017 Ford F-Series Super Duty

 

DENVER, Colorado – I’m at the helm of a new Ford Super Duty pickup, attempting to perform an exercise simulating a gooseneck trailer hookup. A little like threading a needle – backwards – through the rearview mirror, it’s a maneuvre that usually requires a whole lot of skill – and a little luck.

Ford’s just thrown down the gauntlet, again, with 925 lb-ft of torque, and a 32,500 lb max tow rating.

Today, however, I’m able to get it on the second try. Much as I’d like to claim bragging rights, the credit rightly belongs to the Ford engineers and their brilliant integration of cameras and sensors.

The level of technology that arrives with the 2017 Ford Super Duty pickup is impressive, but it’s only part of the story. The rest centres mainly on numbers.

Make no mistake, heavy-duty pickup trucks are embroiled in an all-out numbers war. It’s been a neck-and-neck race, with one taking the lead only to have the other come back with another record-smashing display of torque and max tow rating. Last year’s back-and-forth torque smackdowns saw Ford pull slightly ahead of Ram, laying down 860 lb-ft to Ram’s 850. But Ram bounced back with a stupefying 900 lb-ft of torque and 31,210 lb tow rating. And GM, who up until now, had been content to watch from the sidelines, munching popcorn, while Ford and Ram battled for heavy-weight supremacy, has just entered the ring with the announcement of a new 6.6L Duramax diesel boasting 910 lb-ft.

Surely, heavy-duty trucks had reached their capacity.

Apparently not. Ford’s just thrown down the gauntlet, again, with 925 lb-ft of torque, and a 32,500 lb max tow rating. Once upon a time, 1,000 lb-ft from a heavy-duty pickup truck sounded completely implausible – now it’s just a matter of time.

Of course, there’s a lot more to producing this much capability in a truck than simply giving it more power. Ford’s heavy-duty lineup hadn’t seen an overhaul in 18 years – as a segment leader there really wasn’t much motivation for change. For 2017 they’ve been re-engineered from the inside out. At the core is an all-new frame, developed to handle massive loads while providing strength and stability.

The fully boxed steel frame is 24 times stiffer and 100 lb heavier than the previous open C-channel unit it replaces. The frame rails themselves are massive – nearly 2" taller than previously, and there’s a 10th crossmember added to trucks equipped with gooseneck or fifth-wheel towing package. A noteworthy innovation is the new integrated tow hitch system, made from high-strength steel and built right into the frame so that weight-equalizing bars for heavy loads are no longer necessary.

Equally as newsworthy is that Ford’s Super Duty trucks, just like the F-150 half-ton, will now come with all-aluminum bodies. Developed alongside the F-150, the Super Duty is virtually the same from A-pillar to C-pillar, aside from beefier fenders, squared-off front end and more engine space under the brawny hood. Both trucks now share the same cab, a logical development creating the same familiar environment across the lineup, and one that’s easier to upgrade and keep pace with new technology. Aside from the extra bank of heavy-duty switchgear, and lockable storage space under the rear seats in crew cabs – the cabins are identical, right down to the 170-degree-opening rear doors – a segment exclusive.

The beds feature the same usability as the F-150, with the BoxLink E-Track clip and tie-down system – but the walls are slightly lower and the aluminum load floor is stronger. Redesigned tailgates now come with damping, remote locking and unlocking, and the hideaway tailgate step has been simplified. Overall, the Super Duty body is now 350 lb (158 kg) lighter, which the engineers “reinvested” into the frame, improving the truck’s centre of gravity.

The engines, two gasoline and one diesel, are a carry-over, but have been tweaked to produce more power or better emissions. The 6.7L Power Stroke turbo-diesel now produces 440 hp and 925 lb-ft of torque, and the 6.2L gasoline V8 puts out 385 hp and 430 lb-ft. There’s also a 6.8L gasoline V10 available for F-450 and chassis cab trims, with 288 hp and 424-lb ft – an actual drop from 368 and 457 thanks to emissions compliance. All are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Fifty percent of Canadians who buy a Ford Super Duty choose the 6.7L Power Stroke turbo-diesel for its prodigious towing capacity. Payload increases to 7,630 lb, and max towing is now 21,000 lb – which increases to 27,500 for fifth-wheel and 32,500 lb with the gooseneck setup.

We towed four-horse gooseneck trailers loaded with 6,000 lb of rubber stall mats through the foothills outside of Denver. This is ranch country, and indeed, we were stopped by two horsemen in an older F-250, who peppered us with questions about our rig.

Only those with valid commercial licenses were permitted to haul the 30,000 lb colossus and our load presented little challenge for the F-250 we drove. Thanks to the stiffer frame, with its low centre of gravity, the truck felt planted on the road, and solid enough to manage a large trailer without feeling ungainly. Optional adaptive steering, which changes weight according to speed, also works with the transmission’s tow/haul mode, reducing sensitivity and greatly improving driver confidence when towing a heavy load.

Like the F-150, the Super Duty is now equipped with a staggering array of available technology, from adaptive cruise control and cross-traffic alert to the “Ultimate Trailer Tow Camera System” consisting of seven cameras to make hooking up and backing up easier.

There are a couple of reasons why the high-tech Pro Trailer Backup Assist system that debuted with the F-150 isn’t available here: Ford believes that large truck owners tend to tow more, and therefore less in need of such aids and perhaps proud to do without. The Super Duty also uses a more robust hydraulic steering system that can’t be adapted to work with the back-up and steer tech the way the F-150’s electronic system can.

However, there are the optional Trailer Reverse Guidance and Backup Guidance, which use the cameras to gauge the trailer’s positioning, then display steering prompts without actually controlling the steering wheel as does the F-150. The info system allows owners to store up to ten trucks, and also monitor their use and tire pressure.

Our day finished up with some off-roading through the rocky sagebrush, where cameras mounted in the side-mirrors gave us a wide-angle view on the display screen of obstacles in our blind spot. In the real world, this technology could save a rancher expensive body work – or fence post repair.

Overall, the new Ford Super Duty is a beast of a truck. Its sophisticated steering and composed handling provide an enjoyable driving experience – while at the same time outclassing its competitors in terms of capability. For now.

Ford Super Duty trucks arrive in Canadian dealerships this fall. Prices start at $39,849 for the F-250, while the F-350 and F-450 start at $41,849 and $65,599 respectively.

Battle of the Behemoths – Ford ups the ante, again, in the Heavy Duty Pickup Wars