The Velvet Hammer
For nearly 100 years, the automobile has played a large part in American culture. From the first horseless carriages that appeared at the dawn of the century to the sleek raindrop-shaped hybrids of today, the cars we drive have defined us as a people. Until recently, pickup trucks have been nothing more than a footnote in that history, useful tools necessary for accomplishing work-related tasks, and nothing more. Sure, pickup trucks have always been successful in certain areas where farming or construction is a staple of the local economy, but for the majority of the 20th century, these tools of the trade were relatively basic and utilitarian.
Then, about 15 years ago, truck sales exploded and the Ford F-150 became the best-selling vehicle in the United States. All of this competition for control over the market meant sweeping improvements across the board in terms of build quality, body style configurations, interior amenities and comfort. As a result, new trucks are as comfortable and luxurious as modern sedans, offering soft rides and supple leather interiors previously unheard of in this market segment. However, all of this competition has been in the so-called "light-duty" or "half-ton" arena, where pickups are suited for a wide array of duties from trips to the grocery store to hauling loads of lumber. More serious trucking duties are left to the bigger, brawnier pickups in the heavy-duty class, where diesel engines and dual rear wheels are often necessary to haul huge loads and tow heavy equipment.
As is the case with the half-ton rigs, Ford is the sales leader in the heavy-duty class, and the company's Super Duty pickups have dominated the market with a wide array of engine and cab configurations. Not willing to rest on its laurels, the team from Dearborn freshened up the line for 2005, adding a handful of improvements requested by customers and restyling the front end for a more aggressive look. Other highlights for the new model year include increases in power and payload capacity, and several special-edition models designed to add a touch of class to the rough-hewn workhorses.
After spending a day in the blistering Arizona desert testing an array of different Super Duty models, we walked away impressed. While the big trucks drive like, well, trucks, they offer a surprising level of comfort and civility. We'll delve more deeply into our driving experience later on. First, let's talk about changes. In an effort to stay competitive in a "more is better" marketplace, Ford increased the payload and towing capacities of the Super Duty trucks across the board. Thanks to a new fully boxed front frame clip and revised engine choices, the F-250 can haul an extra 500 pounds and the F-350 payload capacity was increased a whopping 1,000 pounds. Tow ratings also jumped, with the F-350 dual-rear-wheel model now capable of dragging an incredible 17,000 pounds.
Under the hood, the base-level 5.4-liter Triton V8 gets a slew of new technology lifted from the F-150 line, including three-valve cylinder heads and variable valve timing responsible for a bump in output to an impressive 300 horsepower and 365 pound-feet of torque (that's 40 more ponies than last year). Moving up the powertrain ladder, the 6.8-liter V10 also receives a set of three-valve cylinder heads, and with 355 hp and nearly 450 lb-ft of torque, it is now the most powerful gasoline engine in its class. Also available is the venerable Powerstroke diesel, which happens to be the most popular engine choice in the Super Duty lineup with a stump-pulling 570 lb-ft of torque on tap.
The TorqShift five-speed automatic transmission that was previously available only on diesel models is now standard across the board, and newly standard 17-inch wheels make room for larger front and rear brakes that help handle the increased payload capacity. An all-new front suspension on four-wheel-drive models includes a switch from leaf to coil springs, and the result is a significantly reduced turning radius, which should come in handy when trying to navigate into tight parking spots.
Externally, the Super Duty retains much of its original broad and brawny look. The front end was restyled to resemble Ford's popular Mighty Tonka concept vehicle displayed at the 2002 North American International Auto Show, and includes a new in-your-face chrome grille and jeweled headlamps that work together for a more muscular appearance. In addition to the new 17-inch wheels, enormous 20-inch forged alloy wheels are optional.
Moving inside, the base-level XL and midlevel XLT models remain pretty much the same, except for a new dual-pod instrument cluster that locates the message center between the round tachometer and speedometer. The high-end Lariat model gets new Cherry Zebrano wood grain appliqués, along with features carried over from previous years, such as leather seating surfaces and steering wheel controls for the stereo and air conditioning. All trucks equipped with an automatic transmission now come with a tow/haul mode -- another item previously available only on diesel models. Automatic climate control and a six-disc CD changer are now optional, as is a first-in-class in-dash trailer brake control system.
If an XLT or Lariat can't satisfy your desire for the biggest, baddest truck on the block, Ford is offering three distinct special editions in 2005 that should do the trick. The Amarillo is essentially a loaded Lariat decked out in Screaming Yellow paint with chrome accents and a two-tone charcoal leather interior. Available only in the Western half of the U.S. as either an F-250 or F-350, the truck is about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
For the second year in a row, the Harley-Davidson Edition will also be part of the Super Duty line; although, the 2005 version is, in our opinion, a vast improvement over the orange and black pickup offered in 2004. Harley-Davidson designers lent a hand with the new paint scheme -- a subtle yet striking two-tone layout that features flames licking across the rocker panels in either light on dark blue or dark red on black. Brightly polished 20-inch wheels are standard, as are the requisite H-D badges affixed all over the truck. A billet grille and blacked-out headlamps work with chrome tubular step bars and faux carbon-fiber accents to round out the package. Harley-Davidson editions will be available as F-250 or F-350 4x4s, with either the Powerstroke diesel or V10 under the hood.
The final offering in the special-edition lineup is also the most opulent. Named after the largest working ranch in the country, the King Ranch Super Duty features a two-tone white and tan paint scheme complemented by an outrageous interior bedecked in Mandarin teak wood accents and incredibly supple Cantano leather. This is some of the highest-quality leather we have ever experienced in any vehicle, and it covers everything from the seats to the steering wheel and center console. While the price tag is a little steep and the soft hide probably wouldn't hold up under work-truck conditions, this is one heavy hauler we could definitely get used to.
Having spent inordinate amounts of time in half-ton pickups, we weren't sure what to expect from the industrial-strength Super Duty on the road. As it turns out, the big brute is actually quite civil on the highway with or without a big load in the bed. We spent the most amount of time in an F-250 XLT 4x4 Crew Cab equipped with the 6.0-liter Powerstroke diesel and five-speed automatic transmission. The suspension is firm but not choppy, and it soaks up heavy ruts and bumps with ease. The new coil spring suspension and large-diameter wheels have truly reinvigorated the platform, as handling is now crisp and precise on the open road and on tighter city streets.
The Powerstroke provides incredible power, and even with a 15,000-pound trailer hitched to the back, acceleration was smooth and linear thanks to the turbodiesel's broad, flat power curve. The new in-dash trailer brake system works extremely well, as it effectively ties the trailer brakes to the truck's electronic ABS systems for smooth emergency stops and rapid lane changes. Another benefit of this system is that it eliminates the need for the vehicle owner to go out and buy an aftermarket system which has to be installed under the dash where it can get in the way. Large external mirrors with built-in wide-angle spot mirrors provide plenty of visibility when towing.
On the inside, our XLT Super Duty looked very much like a current F-150, and the same cheers and jeers applied. The seats were comfortable and supportive, but the light gray two-tone upholstery felt a little downmarket. Just about everything else was covered in hard gray plastic, and while the fit and finish of the panels was mediocre, we imagine the utilitarian nature of the cockpit would hold up pretty well under dirty or extreme working conditions. On the road, the cabin was extremely quiet and rattle-free, and the truck's hauling ability and nimble road manners were so impressive they caused us to temporarily forget about our drab surroundings. The new instrument cluster is informative and easy to read at a glance, and the controls for the stereo and climate control were easy to read and operate. We also liked the fact that grab handles are placed in all the right spots, which made climbing in and out of the big truck much easier.
Ford claims that Super Duty prices haven't significantly changed for 2005, and with a price tag of just over $41K for our test vehicle, they aren't for the faint of heart. However, these trucks are capable of hauling loads and traversing trails other vehicles can't even touch, and they do so in comfort and style. If it were up to us, we'd probably spring for the upscale Lariat with its plush leather and wood interior, or go all the way and grab a striking yet still capable Harley-Davidson edition. Either way, you're practically guaranteed a top spot at the local steakhouse, even if you have to park on top of an unsuspecting Bentley.