Technology has been blurring the lines between work and play for years now. That’s been the case with email, smart phones, and a whole bunch of fancy gadgets that are supposed to make our lives easier and more productive at the same time.
And trucks are no different. Even the most basic work truck has a host of ergonomic enhancements that would have been unthinkable years back. In today’s world, medium-duty trucks have to be tough, productive, efficient, connected and still stylish and comfortable enough to take out for a night on the town. It’s an odd – even disparate – combination of traits. But, when viewed in context, it's a perfect commentary on how we live and work today.
Ford clearly understands the importance of balancing these two differing sets of demands, as evidenced in its new, enhanced, 2020 Super Duty truck line.
At a sneak-preview press event in the rugged mountains outside of Phoenix, Ford gave journalists a first-look at the new trucks and their improvements. Taking center stage is an all-new Ford-designed and-built 7.3L V-8, which joins the standard 6.2L V-8 in Super Duty’s gasoline engine stable. Additionally, Ford has upgraded its third-generation 6.7L Power Stroke diesel V-8 to deliver more power and torque.
Both engines are paired with an all-new Ford-designed and Ford-built 10-speed, heavy-duty TorqShift automatic transmission. Alan Constantino, a performance engineer for the Super Duty model line, noted during test drives that Ford is the only manufacturer to design and build all of its heavy-duty engine and transmission combinations – which he said ensures the powertrain works seamlessly with all chassis components and vehicle calibrations.
And while there was an array of shiny new Super Duty trucks lined up waiting to go, if you’re on assignment for Heavy Duty Trucking, you really only have one choice for a test drive: The Big Dog F-450 Super Duty. This is the Super Duty line’s no-holds-barred work machine – the OEM’s main contender to put Ford back first and foremost in the minds of vocational truck customers.
Clean, Crisp, and Classic Looks Inside and Out
We might as well start with the outside of the truck, since that’s what everybody sees first, anyway. For 2020, the Ford Super Duty has received something of a face lift. The overall look is more streamlined to my eye – with some of the more in-your-face bold features of the previous iteration muted somewhat. The takeaway is a truck that looks more refined, yet still tough and robust. In many ways, the design brings to mind classic 1967–'69 Ford trucks, which have always been a high-point of Ford automotive design to me.
My white F-450 test truck was a long-bed dualie with a full-size crew cab with a 475 horsepower, 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel lurking under the hood. And even sitting still, the truck simply exuded confidence, power, and capability.
Most truck interiors (cars, too, for that matter) seem to be gray these days. So, the color scheme was no surprise as I settled in behind the wheel of the F-450. But there was color evident in the cab as soon as I pushed the ignition button and cranked the big Super Duty up. Immediately the dashboard and center instrument cluster burst to life, with brilliant, incandescent displays of various gauges and information screens. The color renderings on these almost-infinitely adjustable display screens are vibrant, regardless of how much harsh Arizona sunlight is streaming in through the drive-side window.
And I’m happy to report that Ford has made the center-console display screen much larger – more akin to a table – and far more intuitive to use. This is a trend I happily approve of. Display screens are terrific for getting a lot of information to drivers and passengers alike at a glance – provided that information is displayed in a way that allows for both easy access to the data and a safe, easy way to act upon it, if need be.
Ford Power Stroke diesels used to be as famous for the “clack” and “clatter” they produced as much as for the sheer brute torque they put out once the accelerator was put down. But those days are long gone. This new generation of Power Stroke purrs like a kitten at idle and delivers only a muted rumble, even if you do put your foot into it heading up steep mountain grade.
And that is precisely what I was about to do.
You see, one big reason I opted for the F-450 Super Duty for my test drive was the fact that it was towing 30,000 pounds. of compact Kubota construction equipment behind it on a Big Tex flatbed trailer – the perfect setup to test the “heavy duty” in a test drive for Heavy Duty Trucking.
A Trailer-Towing Bag of Tricks
For our route, Ford designated a run of approximately 10 miles up and down Granite Mountain outside of Phoenix – a brutal, 1,200-foot elevation gain with 5% to 8% grades the entire way, both up and down.
That alone would be quite a job for any truck with 30,000 lbs. of construction equipment in tow. But, luckily for me, I had Ford’s upgraded Trailer Towing Assistance system in my corner to help out when things got tricky.
But first, starting out on the long, four-lane run toward the switchback road up Granite Mountain gave the 6.7-liter Power Stroke the opportunity to strut its stuff on the open highway. Even with a maximum trailer payload behind the F-450, acceleration was smooth and even. The new Ford 10-speed automatic handled all the shift points effortlessly and got the truck up to cruising speed without any undue fuss or excessive engine noise. Throttle inputs are crisp and instantaneous. The truck is laterally stable with laser-tight steering and outstanding views to all quarters from the driver’s seat.
Once I was off the main highway and onto the two-lane, one-way run to the summit, the Power Stroke diesel promptly settled into its sweet spot and lugged happily away while I effortlessly cruised up the road. The engine had no problem maintaining my desired climbing speed of around 45 mph. And on a few occasions, when I wanted to overtake some lumbering recreational vehicle that suddenly bumbled in front of me, acceleration was crisp and assertive. To put it mildly, this engine has massive reserves of available horsepower. All it takes is a quick tap on the accelerator to unleash those horses when you need them.
At the crest of the Granite Mountain run, I easily made a tight left-hand turn onto the down lane heading off the summit. With sheer, 2,000 foot dropoffs looming on the driver’s side, and 30,000 pounds of dead weight working with gravity against me, this would be a daunting downhill run for even the most capable of work trucks. But, as I said, I had Ford’s Trailer Towing Assistance system in my corner – and it did not disappoint.
The first thing the towing-assistance system does to help drivers out is makes scads of vehicle operational and performance data easily available with a few button pushes. I was able to quickly get details on my front wheel cut angle, percentage of grade I was on as well as details about the input and performance of the integrated trailer brake – all on display in the center dash cluster right in between the speedometer and tachometer.
The system is fully integrated into the entire drivetrain, and that now includes the Super Duty’s enhanced diesel exhaust brake, which Constantino demonstrated to me on our first downhill run. Tapping a button on the center dash console turns the engine brake “On.” In this setting, the engine brake functions like one would expect: It simply acts as a compression brake to limit acceleration as the truck descends a grade.
But push the exhaust brake button a second time, and things start to get really interesting. This second input puts the compression brake in “Automatic” mode, giving the system access to performance data coming off the Super Duty’s drivetrain. It is, essentially, now an “intelligent” exhaust brake, capable of noting the driver’s throttle and braking inputs and adjusting brake performance to maintain those desired speeds as long as necessary.
To put it simply, in Automatic mode, the Power Stroke exhaust brake acts just like a secondary cruise control system – albeit one that's fully tied in-- and works in conjunction with the main cruise control taking telemetry inputs off of the 10-speed automatic transmission.
When in this operating mode, the brake effortlessly holds whatever speed point you give it, based simply on your last throttle input. On my second run down the mountain, for example, I set my downhill speed at 35 mph, and the engine brake held me there with no problem at all. It disengaged only when I had to get on the service brakes to deal with a particularly nasty cutback, or accelerate on the safer stretches of the road. In both cases, once I wanted to return to my preset downhill cruise speed, doing so was as simple as hitting the desired speed and taking my foot off the accelerator.
Ford has obviously taken the old “Don’t work hard – work smart” credo to heart with its new 2020 Super Duty lineup. As a result, these trucks have a little something for every enthusiast.
But, styling and technology aside, Ford has not wavered from its core vision of what a work truck should be. As a result, people who need trucks to put in a hard day’s work will find a lot of capability and durability in these new models as well.