Yarnell Grade is a twisting ribbon of asphalt that clings perilously to an ancient Arizona cliff face with the sort of precarious dramatic flair that would do any mad scientist proud. Ominously, two lanes lead up, but only one wends its way back down in tortured switchbacks across the rocky outcrops. Is that a vulture circling overhead?
It's all above us now, as we're barreling up the gentle alluvial slope that feeds into the grade proper in a 2011 Ford F-Series Super Duty pickup, an F-350 4x4 with a 10,000-pound trailer latched on the back, picking up speed for a healthy start.
But it's not to be. Some evil henchman of a road designer put the first switchback right at the bottom, meaning we have to ease off and slow down for the introductory 35-mph curve, an act that utterly kills our momentum.
No matter. The all-new 6.7-liter PowerStroke V8 turbodiesel doesn't care one whit. We accelerate stoutly out of the bend and proceed steadily up the grade without hesitation. Progress is slowed briefly by additional 35 mph corners that more or less define a great uphill slalom, but the Super Duty is acting as if the trailer isn't even there. That's what 390 horsepower and, more importantly, a whopping 735 pound-feet of diesel torque will do for you. This truck is a monster.
This PowerStroke diesel V8 is all-new and all-Ford. Gone is Ford's joint venture with Navistar, and the troubled 6.4-liter turbodiesel it produced has gone with it. This new engine is a clean-sheet design that is not only thrilling to drive but also inspiring to look at in cutaway form.
The custom-tailored, Honeywell variable-nozzle turbo sits smack dab in the middle of the vee, right on top of the iron block and between the aluminum heads. The exhaust manifolds spring from the inward faces of the heads in close proximity, and each bank sets the turbo spinning through its own nozzle. Cold inlet air gets sucked in from the front, is compressed (which produces heat), then expelled and sent to a nearby air-to-water intercooler to chill out and get dense.
And then things get weird. The compressed air then enters an intake distribution manifold that straddles the turbo like a giant tarantula. Eight runners connect to the inner faces of the valve covers, where they seemingly disappear. It takes a cutaway model to see that the valve covers themselves have secret passages cast inside them (four each) that extend the runners and direct the compressed intake air over the top of the heads to hidden outboard intake ports. Forget Yarnell Grade; this is the work of a mad scientist.
Fiends, With Benefits
The result of Ford's complex engineering is an engine that's lighter than the outgoing mill by 160 pounds. This V8 is substantially quieter as well, with no perceptible turbo whine and a greatly reduced degree of diesel clatter.
This is also a clean diesel, and it uses the increasingly familiar urea-based Diesel Exhaust Fluid (dispensed from a 5.1-gallon tank that lasts the length of an oil-change interval) and a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) catalyst to remove oxides of nitrogen from the exhaust. Furthermore, this turbodiesel is designed to run all day long on biofuel blends (up to and including B20) with no mechanical or warranty implications.
And this new Ford turbodiesel just happens to deliver 40 hp more and 85 lb-ft of torque more than the former PowerStroke V8 while apparently using 15 percent less fuel, all for the same option price of $7,835. Meanwhile, the standard engine is an all-new 6.2-liter V8 gasoline and E85-capable engine that simultaneously replaces last year's 5.4-liter V8 and 6.8-liter V10. It's no slouch, either, as it makes 385 hp and 405 lb-ft of torque.
Some of the fuel efficiency gains here come from taller final-drive gears, which are made possible by the massive infusion of torque. Last year's four available axle ratios ranged from 3.73:1 to 4.88:1, but the 2011 offerings span from 3.31:1 and 4.30:1. Despite this, tow ratings for various models of the 2011 Super Duty have either held firm or gone up.
A freshly designed 6R140 Torq-Shift six-speed automatic transmission improves economy and drivability in equal measure. The extra cog simultaneously allows a taller top gear (0.67:1, for economical cruising), a shorter 1st gear (3.97:1, for snappier launches) and somewhat closer spacing of the gears in the middle to reduce dithering back and forth on grades.
It all works together seamlessly while the Super Duty is going up Yarnell Grade, but the real surprise is how well the new transmission controls speed going downhill. Left in Drive, the transmission software's tow/haul mode is much better than last year at reading the driver's intentions and automatically dropping to the next lower gear. The key is a newly added brake pressure transducer. Instead of simple on-off reports, the ECU now knows exactly how hard the driver is pressing the pedal.
On top of this, the engine computer can utilize the variable nozzle function of the turbo as an exhaust brake, choking the nozzles down while the vehicle coasts to build substantial backpressure. The result is a high level of engine braking without the always flatulent and sometimes illegal "Jake Brake" noise.
Beyond that, the driver can use the plus/minus buttons on the new gearshift lever to selectively trim gears off the top in what Ford calls Progressive Range Select mode, allowing the truck to be driven automatically as if it had a six-speed, five-speed, four-speed, or even a three-speed transmission. If the driver wants still more control, there's also a full manual mode.
Electronic stability control comes standard with the new 2011 Ford Super Duty, and the system's algorithm for the control of trailer sway can make corrections by applying individual brakes on the truck. It can also use the optional integrated trailer brake controller ($230) to operate the trailer's own electric brakes.
There's now a hill-hold function that arrests rollback on grades for a couple of seconds to give you time to move your foot from brake to throttle, plus a very effective hill descent control that limits speed while you're off-roading.
Those who want a navigation system in the Super Duty can get it one of two ways. There is, of course, a Sync-based entertainment and navigation system ($1,875) similar to that found in the Ford Flex and Fusion Hybrid now in our fleet of long-term cars. But commercially minded customers can also get navigation and audio in a computerized format from Ford Work Solutions for $1,395. This device allows you to establish a cellular link to a personal computer back in the office so you can access files and print documents right in the cab if a user-supplied Bluetooth-capable printer is present.
For another $1,120, the system can be upgraded with Tool Kit, a tool tracking and checklist system that reads RFID tags installed on the customer's tools to make sure the needed equipment is actually present in the truck before it drives off.
And then there's Crew Chief, a hidden GPS tracking system that fleet managers will love and the lazier members of the work crew will loathe because it broadcasts the truck's position, speed, idle status and many other user-definable variables every three minutes in real time to the fleet manager's Web account. If the government were doing this to all of us, it'd be big brother. If it's your boss, well, get to work and you'll have no trouble.
On the non-electronic gadget front, an optional built-in fifth-wheel and gooseneck in-bed hitch receptacle can be pre-installed for $370 for true plug-and-play, heavy-duty hitch installation. It's all factory tested and warranted, yet fully compatible with Reese fifth-wheel hitch products. Worth every penny, we think.
Inside the Lair
All of this trick new hardware is contained in a truck package that is little changed from before. The available wheelbases, bed lengths and cabs remain the same. The interiors are largely unchanged, save for a few critical and strategic differences.
The front seats have been reshaped and re-bolstered in a way that makes them both truly comfortable and truly supportive over the long haul, and they now contain side airbags. Headroom and legroom dimensions change by a couple of meaningless tenths of an inch as a result of the resculpting.
Between the seats, a new center console ducts cool air to rear passengers, plus it also contains a variety of small storage options, a large lockable center bin and a power point or two.
In the back of the double cab, the ultra-flat load floor was thought to be the hot ticket in the former Super Duty. But owners apparently disagreed, expressing an interest in lockable in-cab storage instead. So now the seat bottoms flip up to reveal lockable bins that can hold "long hunting items," and there's a power point inside to allow a laptop to be securely hidden while on the charger.
Another useful change is the 2011 Super Duty's gauge cluster, where the familiar dials now surround a 4.2-inch LCD display that's much more than a simple trip computer. In response to control buttons on the steering wheel spoke, it can now display 4x4 system information, trailer information and, of course, the requisite A/B trip computer. But the coolest part is the larger real-time mpg display that presents both your rolling mpg average and your instantaneous mpg performance in a clear graphic that gives effective feedback to those who want to save fuel.
A 2011 Ford F-350 Crew Cab 4x4 with Lariat trim costs $45,915, and a top-level King Ranch model like the one we spent some time driving comes in at $50,580, both some $2,000 more than their 2010 equivalents. Diesel power represents another $7,835, and when you add navigation and a few other options, you can easily surpass the $60,000 threshold. And we're not even talking dually yet.
Of course the lesser trim levels and smaller cabs start from a lower plane of existence. An F-350 regular-cab 4x2 in base XL trim (remember those?) will set you back just $29,715. An F-350 Crew Cab example in the same drive and trim configuration begins at $33,400.
You could say the F-350 has a rather broad price range. Add in the F-250s, the F-450s and the dually models, and you can see there's far too much to talk about here. More impressions will come as these trucks make their way into our eager hands.
But from what we've seen of the new 2011 Ford F-350 Crew Cab 4x4, Ford's mad scientists have been very busy indeed. And the functional truck users and trailer tow-ers among us should be glad to know that they have focused their cruel talents on the bits that matter to us: the engine, the transmission, the tow hitch paraphernalia, and yes, the seats and the cupholders.
(Lightning strike, followed by heavy rain and thunder.)
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.