Rainy day pickups

December 15, 2010
by Howard J Elmer

PURCHASINGB2B MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010: For 2011 the Canadian Truck King Challenge was a heavy duty event—taking advantage of the fact that three Detroit builders each unveiled a new Heavy Duty pickup truck in the past year—a rare event.

These trucks, the Ford Super Duty, Chevy Silverado HD and Ram HD were each delivered as crew cab diesel-powered versions. The three were similar in most respects and the tests were conducted back-to-back and all on the same day. As always, we tested at our private IronWood test facility near Head Lake, Ontario.

This is the fourth Canadian Truck King Challenge and, as usual, it rained. That seems to be the Challenge curse–every year the test has been rained on. So, we towed in the rain, drove off-road in it and loaded and unloaded the trucks with the rain running down our necks–but then this is why Truck King is as authentic as it is; we do what you have to do as well.

Below are the comparison notes for each of our trucks. It should be noted that according to the manufacturers, the HD pickup segment is growing. This fits with the overall economic view that “small business” is expanding. As a result each of the Big Three builders has upped the content of their 2011s while also dropping the base price. And that is good for business.

2011 Ford F350 *

(An F250 was not available, however with the exception of the increased load limits on the F350 the truck is identical to the 3/4-ton version.).

Empty Test Loop notes
The new dash has clear, large gauges and a larger centre information screen (4.2in) that clearly displays info from the radio settings to the trailer connections. It’s easy to see, bright and can be used with steering wheel-mounted five-way buttons.

This Ford (granted it was the one-ton) is the stiffest ever and so I found it had a tendency to skitter on the washboard during my test drive. On the other hand, the new steering is confident with good on-centre feel.

Large catch-all rubber floor mats are nice. The seating is very good, but four cupholders up front? Overkill.

The new engine is a torque monster, yet vibration is low and noise is well controlled. Ford claims as much as 20 percent improvement in fuel economy over the outgoing 6.4L (which isn’t hard considering how thirsty it was).

The signal stalk has been changed; it no longer “sticks” when activated–I find it annoying. Several extra inches of floor space have been added to the new Super Duty Crew–most of which finds its way into the rear seat area. This makes the rear bench comfortable and with the seats folded the large flat floor lends itself to easy loading and unloading of equipment, tools or groceries.

Ford has powered mirrors that extend for trailer towing—these are excellent—however, Ram found a simpler solution. I noted that Ford’s backup camera also doubles as a convenient way to hook up a trailer alone.

They also offer four- and seven-pin connectors, but they are still located below the bumper. Why? This location gathers more dirt and grime than a through-bumper installation. Ford’s tailgate step and handle is a nice feature that has yet to be copied by the others.

The new TorqShift six-speed transmission that Ford has coupled to its 6.7L Power Stroke gives me pause. Under load I had some rough up-shifts. While it didn’t happen regularly, it was noticeable. On-road, towing, the truck oozed confidence.

Shift-on-the-fly controls for 4WD on the Ford work well, and they also offer a button-operated electronic rear differential locker (as opposed to the automatic mechanical GM system) and Ford was the only one to have manually locking front hubs. This makes it the only truck with true 4WD among our test units. Clearance was good with very rugged off-road performance.

The hood on this 2011 Super Duty, gets “power dome” and with the large Super Duty logo stamped into the upper grille the brand and its claim to being the most powerful HD is never in doubt. This look is polarizing– buyers love it or hate it. You decide. As for under the hood, Ford has made a huge investment in the new engine and associated systems. At first blush this effort looks very good.

2010 Ram 2500

Empty Test Loop notes
The engine and transmission in the Ram is the veteran combination of the 6.7L Cummins turbo-diesel (350hp and 650ft-lb of torque) and six-speed automatic. This is now the lowest power output among the three—however, how much power is enough?

My test truck came with carpeted floor mats; these hold the dirt and are hard to clean. Otherwise the interior is excellent in both soft-touch materials, accents and the interior design. The drive was confident, comfortable–in fact, maybe a little “soft”.

Has the best mirrors in the bunch, they easily flip-up to resemble “west coast mirrors” of old. No power means no failures. Dodge also provides four and seven pin connectors in the bumper–a good protected location.

My tester didn’t have a backup camera included–however one is available. Ram was first to offer a button activated engine exhaust brake–this is still there and works very well while towing. The exhaust brake holds the load on grades, saving the brakes. Its operation is tied in with the selectable gearing feature on the shifter handle.

The truck has a two-speed transfer case (as do the others) for 4WD HI and 4WD LO that’s an electronic shift-on-the-fly setup. Where the Ram falls short is it lacks a rear differential locker. In effect, without one, it really is just half of a 4WD truck. Of the three it’s the easiest to get stuck. The other noticeable omission is a traction control system. This truck spins its wheels off-road as well as on, if over-torqued. Not a good trait, particularly when towing.

Of the three trucks, design-wise, inside and out, I like the Ram best. However it appears that is where the development dollars ran out. While the powertrain is decent, it is also the oldest of the three and the capacities offered the lowest. There are also obvious omissions in the area of traction controls and electronic systems that both GM and Ford have. Ram needs to step up its game to compete.

2011 Chevy Silverado 2500

Empty Test Loop notes
GM has put all its R&D dollars into a great leap forward in chassis and powertrain development for the new 2011 Silverado HD. Great, however, this also means the changes to the body and interior design are negligible.

Body style-wise this means little, the design is still fresh, but the interior design is now the oldest and it is tired. The ride is firm and the road manners steady; steering, however, feels “heavy”.

Seating is comfortable with a decent centre armrest (plus storage). I noted that the interior soundproofing has been improved. Dash is functional and remains the same. Rear seats flip up for storage, but the floor is not flat (as Ford’s is).

The Duramax is a proven diesel (1.2 million built to date) that even before this upgrade had enough jam to pull up to its limit easily. Now with the stiffer chassis, towing feels more confident. The Allison transmission is smooth regardless of the amount of weight towed–frankly it’s an excellent gearbox.

It also has a manual “tap up/tap down” shift feature along with a tow-haul setting. The smart engine brake works with the transmission to downshift and hold the load on grades—no matter how severe.

GM has deleted the four-pin electrical trailer connector from its standard hook-up while Ford and Ram have kept both them. However, it is well placed in the bumper. GM has an optional back-up camera for the lone driver hooking up a trailer. The mirrors are alright–but not great.

What GM offers for unique off-road traction is a neat mechanical differential lock built by Eaton. This lock has an internal spring-loaded pendulum that reacts to centrifugal force–flying out when there is wheel slippage and locking the gear set. It’s completely automatic and when engaged gives the 4WD system a goose as the back end slips. Excellent.

This GM Silverado HD is the best ever–for GM. But this market is highly competitive, so the best I can say is this effort has put GM back in the game with Ford. That was the consensus among the judges too. We could all at least agree that both are now neck and neck in this race.

The good news? At least now there is a race.