We head out of a rock quarry on a 16-mile stretch of dirt road somewhere between Prescott, Ariz. and Phoenix in a 2011 Ford F-250 Super Duty XLT Crew Cab. We have the a/c off and the windows are rolled up and glazed with mud. We're trying to draft the Super Duty in front of us, but his slow pace is a bit maddening. The day has been jammed with towing, hauling, rock climbing, hill descending and other stress tests. The four auto journalists in the truck are tired and dusty.

"To heck with this," says our driver. He flicks on the a/c and guns it around the line of slow pokes. So ends our serious attempt to win Ford's final assignment on this ride-and-drive event, an 80-mile fuel economy challenge back to the hotel.

A New Power Stroke Era

While the greater part of this day showcased the new 2011 Super Duty's capabilities, the intent of the fuel economy challenge was to demonstrate that the new Super Duties achieve 18 percent better fuel economy with the diesel engine (up to 25 percent improvement for chassis cabs) and 15 percent better with the gas over 2010 models.

The fuel economy boost is inherent in the technology of the new engines: the 6.7-liter Power Stroke V-8 turbocharged diesel and the 6.2-liter V-8 gas engine. Ford severed its ties with Navistar to build the new Power Stroke, and its solo effort has produced an engine with a mammoth 735 ft.-lb. of torque at a low-revving 1,600 rpm and 390 horsepower at 2,800 rpm. This engine is tested and approved for up to B20 (20 percent) biodiesel.

The new gas engine, which can also run on E85 ethanol, produces 405 ft.-lb. of torque at 4,500 rpm and 385 hp at 5,500 rpm. Both are mated to an all-new heavy duty TorqShift six-speed transmission.

Get Ready for Urea

The new diesel is the quietest I've ever heard, rivaled perhaps by the Mercedes E320 BlueTEC diesel. An engineer said one of the tricks to a quieter engine was the greater number of fuel injection events, which flatten the pressure curve, eliminating the instantaneous explosion. Whatever, it's just quiet.

The diesel engine is also the cleanest ever, mandated by law. Ford chose to reach the new emissions standard using an SCR (selective catalytic reduction) system, which relies on DEF (diesel exhaust fluid made of urea) injection. The system requires a manual DEF injection at about every 7,500 miles. There's a separate blue cap next to the fuel cap to fill the fluid.

Other OEMs opted for an EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) system. The Ford engineers said SCR achieves better fuel economy than EGR; one wonders if the cost of the urea injection would offset that savings. At any rate, DEF injection is a new fact of life. The engine has a NOx sensor that alerts you when DEF level is low-too low and you're not going anywhere. 

Ford's new oil change sensor is finally making oil change intervals scientific. In larger pickups, duty cycle is everything. The ranch owner putting highway miles back and forth from the city compared to a wrecker application will vary intervals by as much as 5,000 miles. How do you know when to change the oil? "Just wait for the light to come on," said one engineer. Not bad.

The new diesel now only needs 13 quarts of diesel per change instead of 15.

Capability to Spare

While our driving group may not have been too keen on the fuel economy challenge, the rest of the day was filled with what I call a "Disneyland for auto writers."

We made our way from Prescott along the Tonopah Salome Hwy, stopping just after negotiating the Yarnell Grade, a twisting, hill-hugging, white cross bearing (you heard me) road with a 3-5 percent grade.

At the bottom of the grade we switched into Super Duties with 10,000-lb. trailers coupled by Ford's industry-first, factory-installed fifth wheel or gooseneck hitch.

Payload tops out at 6,520 lbs.

We headed back up and down the hill to put that torque to the test. Well, not really. We had power to spare going uphill; there was no gear hunting, no turbo lag and no steering fatigue. In fact, we passed a Ford Fusion for the heck of it.

Downhill, the integrated trailer sway control kept us from thinking about those white crosses. Another confidence enabler is the ability to manually limit the top gear, which takes a big load off the brakes.

Our next stop was that rock quarry, where we put the trucks through an obstacle course of hills, boulders and mud. The truck's basic suspension remains unchanged from the previous generation, though another batch of new technology helped us through.

Hill start assist prevents a vehicle from rolling back on a grade by maintaining brake pressure until the engine delivers enough torque to move the vehicle up the hill.

A hill descent feature allows the driver to control the downhill speed without applying the brakes.

The electronic locking differential function locks the left and right axle shaft together for optimal traction, which comes in handy with one wheel off the ground.

Another handy segment first for commercial use is the Live Drive PTO (power take off) function. The function allowed us to use truck power to operate a dump bed and a water sprayer on the go, without having to constantly stop and adjust the equipment to spread dirt or water evenly.

Beam Me Somewhere, Scotty

All of these functions are controlled right from your driver's seat using an optional new 4.2 LCD "productivity screen" in the instrument panel. There are menu options galore, accessible through controls on the turn signal stalk.

This mission command center is a bit overwhelming. Coupled with the other screen on the dash between the passenger seat and even Scotty from Star Trek might have issues with all this technology at first.

That center screen displays and controls Ford SYNC and Ford Work Solutions. Do a keyword search at www.businessfleet.com to understand how Ford SYNC will do everything except tell you your music taste sucks.

Click here for a brief rundown on Work Solutions.

An available component of Work Solutions is Crew Chief, the industry's first OEM-installed GPS tracking and diagnostics system. It's a more than capable system and the monthly price point per vehicle is reasonable too. But Ford has a lot of competition in the Telematics space with established and robust aftermarket systems, which, obviously, work with any manufacturer's product.

I was told Ford is exploring making Crew Chief available to install in other manufacturer's trucks. This is a good step toward compatibility with a diversified fleet. Yet even retrofitting older Ford trucks in the fleet would equal the hassle of installing an aftermarket Telematics system. We'll see what the uptake is on Work Solutions, especially the Crew Chief tracking component.

At any rate you better get used to Telematics systems for small fleets; it's a fact of life moving forward to eliminate unnecessary costs and up productivity.

Storage Space Galore

The rest of the interior is quite refined for a work truck and maximized for storage (increased by 60 percent).

There are cup holders galore - and a lot of them are detachable to reveal more space underneath. The front console cup holders can be removed to fit Pendaflex hanging file folders. There are 12v power points in the front seat console and one accessible from the back. The back seat flips up to reveal another long storage area, which is lockable. It contained another 12v outlet, a perfect place to charge a laptop while on the road.

The Road Home

We made our way back to the hotel not paying much mind to our miles per gallon. Later we found out that the winning team - which included a writer who makes a living writing about "hyper miling" techniques - got more than 30 mpg. His technique involves no a/c, engine shutoffs and coasting in neutral. Our team "only" got 22 mpg, on the low end of our group. (Ford tallied the results, by the way, using Crew Chief's GPS tracking and reporting capabilities.)

We got our results without really trying, which are closer to real-world conditions anyway. At least that's how we comforted ourselves for the lackluster attempt. Again, that's with four guys and a mix of off-road, back road and highway driving. Not bad. Oh, and I forgot that there was a 1,000-lb payload in the bed. But we barely noticed it then, too. This truck has capability to spare.

The F-250, 350 and 450 Super Duties hit showrooms in April.


Chris Brown
Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. He covers all aspects of the fleet world.

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Chris is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. He covers all aspects of the fleet world.

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