Lighter-duty Commercial Trucks Get More Fuel-Efficient Engines

December 2012, - Feature

by Tom Berg, Senior Contributing Editor - Also by this author

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In all the years I've been doing update articles for HDT, particularly on Class 1, 2 and 3 cargo vans, I've repeatedly asked execs at the truck builders about trends in engines.

EcoBoost 3.5-liter gasoline V-6 and a naturally aspirated 3.7 V-6 in Ford's upcoming Transit vans will do the work of much larger and heavier V-8 and V-10 engines in current E-series vans. New 3.2-liter I-5 diesel will be optional.
EcoBoost 3.5-liter gasoline V-6 and a naturally aspirated 3.7 V-6 in Ford's upcoming Transit vans will do the work of much larger and heavier V-8 and V-10 engines in current E-series vans. New 3.2-liter I-5 diesel will be optional.

Except for the introduction of the Mercedes-made Sprinter van with its small 2.7-liter inline 5-cylinder diesel in 2001, there werent any -- until recently.

For years, Ford and General Motors reps told me customers wanted power and continued to buy hefty V-8 gasoline and diesel engines. "Of course they'll buy big, honkin' motors if that's all you offer," I'd say.

But the Euro-style Sprinter was a trendsetter. Its large size made it a useful hauler for package delivery fleets, who successfully ran them in Europe and were the first to buy them here. It was also a good fit for tradesmen such as locksmiths, who found the Sprinter's standup room perfect for workshops.

That little diesel with a 5-speed overdrive automatic transmission was good on fuel economy, and the trucks were quick off the line and fast on the highway. The restyled current model has a 3-liter V-6 diesel, which is likewise lively and economical.

The competition seems to have taken notice. Earlier this month I was among a pack of "moto-journalists" who went to Detroit for briefings staged by the Big Three domestic builders Chrysler, General Motors and Ford.

Next-gen pickups

GM talked about its next-gen pickup trucks, whose V-8 and V-6 gasoline engines are getting enhanced cylinder deactivation functions that will turn them into V-4s under light load. This effectively reduces displacement and saves fuel, and is the opposite of the old hot rodder's rule for power: There's no substitute for cubic inches.

Chrysler showed sleeker 2014-model SUVs and Fiat-sourced large Ram cargo vans. The info is confidential until the vehicles are formally introduced at auto shows. But as a hint of what'll be in some of them, note Chrysler's spreading use of its powerful 3.6-liter Pentastar gasoline V-6 that's paired with an 8-speed ZF automatic in the new Ram 1500 pickup. It's EPA-rated at 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, while still delivering strong performance.

I drove one of those Ram 1500s last August at a Ram event in Tennessee, and wrote about it for The truck with this powertrain is a winning combination, even if the still-available Hemi V-8 (with cylinder deactivation) is more fun.

Ford Transits

Ford's briefing in Detroit was more detailed and open for reporting.

The next-generation Transit Connect compact vans and wagons will have an optional 1.6-liter EcoBoost turbo engine that'll break the 30-mpg mark, execs said. They're due here late in 2013, as are the full-size Transit vans.

These will have bigger bodies than the E-series vans theyll replace, but the Transits will get smaller V-6 gasoline engines: a standard 3.7-liter model and the 3.5-liter EcoBoost double-turbo version thats gone into 250,000 F-150 pickups as of last November. Reps said these engines will make more power than the V-8s and the V-10 they'll replace, will produce similar torque, and will weigh 100 to 200 pounds less.

There also will be a 3.2-liter inline-5 diesel for heavy-load, high-mileage operators. That it's an I-5, like the original Mercedes-Benz diesel back in 01, is a curiosity; but the Ford's a half-liter bigger in displacement and more modern, so will make quite a bit more power and torque.

We'll see how it does on fuel economy, though it should be as good or better. All the Ford engines will drive through 6-speed-overdrive automatics, which will aid efficiency and go-ability.

In one Ford presentation there was the phrase, "smaller is better." Shouldn't that also apply to engines in the popular E-series vans? Yes, but no. Because the E-vans will begin phasing out early next year, it wouldn't be worth the money to design in the newer engines, so the big ol ones will stay. They won't be cheap on gas, but they'll go out strong.

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