Big, brainy and easy on the gas

However, for work trucks there are fuel-saving technologies out there right now that can positively impact the bottom line.

June 21, 2011
by Howard J Elmer

Canadian Automotive Review: JUNE 2011

We don’t have to tell you that the price of fuel is up and its future unpredictable. Worse than that, for any size fleet, this means the cost of gas or diesel is a monthly surprise on the balance sheet—and not a pleasant one. However, for work trucks (that have to keep rolling) there are fuel-saving technologies out there right now that can positively impact the bottom line. What follows is a sampling of what’s available on the market now.

GM has been offering a full-size hybrid pickup for several years now, but it’s only really been getting attention as gas prices spike. Nevertheless here is a truck that is ready to go now, one that says it will deliver a 29 percent improved city fuel consumption and a 22 percent overall fuel efficiency in a full-size truck, that still includes a 2,767kg towing capacity. GM says the 2WD model gets 10.1L/100km in the city and 8.4L/100km on the highway.

The Silverado Hybrid combines GM’s patented two-mode hybrid system with a 6L gas V8 and uses an Electrically Variable Transmission (EVT) and 300-volt nickel-metal hydride Energy Storage System (ESS). The V8 gasoline engine also has Active Fuel Management (AFM) and late intake valve closing (LIVC) technology. The hybrid system generates the electricity itself. When the brakes are applied or the vehicle is coasting, the hybrid system makes electricity and stores it. This truck is capable of all-electric driving up to 48km/h, saving fuel.

Intelligent fuel use
As a more conventional fuel-fighter GM is offering the XFE—also known as the Fuel Economy Package. Available on the standard 5.3L Sierra 1500 2WD (Crew Cab only) it combines a six-speed automatic transmission with AFM (Active Fuel Management). This system lets an on-board computer shut off the fuel to four of the V8’s cylinders when it decides the power is not needed, for example when highway cruising. With a fuel consumption rating of 13.7L/100km in the city and 9.1L/100km on the highway, GM claims the AFM-equipped 2011 GMC Sierra XFE is the most fuel-efficient V8 full-size pickup in Canada. With this setup this truck will tow up to 4,536kg.

Over at Ford, a happy coincidence of timing sees the V6 EcoBoost engine available in the F-150 for the first time right now. Ford marketing says its EcoBoost is a V6 engine with the power of a V8, but with fuel economy besting even other conventional V6 engines. Ford claims the 3.5L V6 EcoBoost makes 365hp, 420 lb-ft of torque and will tow 5,135kg. Fuel mileage is stated as 13.0L/100km average (14.7L city and 10.7L highway).

The V6 engine program manager, Jim Mazuchowski, explaines the new engine technology this way. “Power Density is what the EcoBoost produces, using two technologies—twin turbos and direct gas injection. First, the turbos cool and compress air which is then denser as it’s pushed into the engine. This charged air also cools the cylinder and injected fuel. The result is a dense mixture that fully burns. Also fuel pressure in the injection process ranges from 65 to 2,000psi during delivery, and the fuel-air mixture has a high rate of tumble through a new port design and detonates in a cylinder with a new piston. We used something like a diesel piston head with a bowl design.”

Ram introduced a new Tradesman pickup earlier this year, based on the Ram 1500 ST trim package along with features such as a standard 5.7 Litre HEMI engine with five-speed automatic transmission. Also included in the package is a standard Class IV trailer hitch with four and seven-pin trailer wire connectors. Tradesman also features heavy-duty engine cooling and a heavy-duty transmission oil cooler. Equipped like this, the Tradesman will tow 4,740 kg.

The Tradesman is available in both regular cab short-bed (6ft, 4in) and long-bed (8ft) models, with a choice of 4×2 or 4×4. Buyers can choose vinyl or cloth 40/20/40 split bench seats in dark slate and medium greystone, and either carpeted or vinyl flooring. While this package is attractive from a capital investment view point—the HEMI is not known for its fuel efficiency.

However it’s worth noting that Ram is currently developing a plug-in hybrid Ram 1500. These trucks are powered by a combination of a plug-in hybrid system, giving them up to 32km of electric driving, backed up by a two-mode setup using the 5.7L Hemi and a 12.9-kWh lithium-ion battery. Several prototypes are undergoing testing now; no production date is set though.

Last year Toyota brought out a small V8 alternative to its large V8-only powered Tundra that should pay dividends right now. Using an all-new 4.6L V8, coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission (that now comes with a Tow/Haul mode) this truck will get a combined fuel consumption rating of 12.1L/100km (says Toyota).

This 4.6L V8 makes 310hp and 327lb-ft of torque and offers a 12 percent increase in horsepower and an 11 percent improvement in fuel consumption over the outgoing 4.7L engine.

Smaller diesels win big
Diesel engines are generally more fuel efficient than gasoline engines, however the diesels currently available in the HD pickup segment are of such large displacement (6.4 to 6.8L) that potential savings are offset by their size. While it’s also a fact that mid-size diesel engine programs have been going on with the Big Three for several years now, they are not coming to market anytime soon.

The one exception is found in the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. This van-body work truck is of European origin and has become established here in North America. When it first debuted with a diesel it was considered strange choice, but that was 2005—now it looks like they were ahead of the fuel price curve. The Sprinters standard engine is a 3L V6 turbodiesel that makes 188hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. The Sprinter is available in a 2500 or 3500 series, with a choice of lengths, two roof heights and various door configurations. It will tow up to 2,268kg and has a payload of 1,300kg.

Also new on the cargo van front is the 2011 Nissan NV. This full-size van has three body configurations: Standard roof (NV1500, NV2500, NV3500) while a high roof is available on the NV2500 and NV3500. Its standard 4L V6 is a decent compromise between fuel efficiency and power. Using a five-speed transmission it is also offered with 5.6L V8 as an option.

Ford’s Transit Connect is the smallest of the commercial van bodies available currently; however with its 2L Duratec I4 engine it’s the most fuel efficient. This engine makes 139hp and 128lb-ft of torque. Transit Connect has a payload of 647kg. This work truck is available as a cargo van or wagon. It has AdvanceTrac with RSC, ABS, front wheel drive, power locks, windows and mirrors and rear barn doors that open to 180 degrees; also dual sliding doors with privacy glass.

Howard Elmer is a powersports writer based in Brampton, Ontario.