Ford F250: Super Super Duty

Sure, the mileage stinks, but the F250 is for people who use their truck to work and haul stuff, not cruise the interstate

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Snazzy interior, towing capacity, turbo-charged diesel engine

The Bad: Doubts about new engine, far from great fuel economy

The Bottom Line: Great for towing boats and trailers—but do you really need one?

Up Front

In the world of heavy-duty pickup trucks, the arrival of the redesigned 2008 Super Duty Fords is a big deal. Ford (F) work trucks—the F250, F350, and F450—are the market leaders, coveted not only by ranchers, plumbers, and contractors but horse, boat, and recreational-vehicle owners, as well. Ford says 90% of buyers of its Super Duty trucks end up towing something at one time or another.

Detroit has no Asian competition in heavy-duty trucks, which is one of the market's unique features. Ford's smaller, lighter F150 pickup faces tough new rivals such as the redesigned Toyota (TM) Tundra, the Nissan (NSANY) Titan, and the Honda (HMC) Ridgeline.

But for now, at least, when it comes to the big-dog models (which are bulked up to increase their hauling and towing capacity), Ford's only real rivals are the heavy-duty versions of GM's (GM) Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, and the Dodge Ram from DaimlerChrysler (DCX). Not surprisingly, given the lack of competition, heavy-duty pickups are a huge source of profits for the companies.

And my guess is that the new Ford and GM trucks are going to be tough competition for the Dodge Ram, which is due for a redesign. Already, Dodge is offering discounts averaging $3,273 on its '07 Ram 2500, according to the Power Information Network.

I test-drove the ultra-fancy, four-wheel-drive Lariat version of the F250 with the optional King Ranch interior. This is nothing like the barebones pickups of yore. My test truck listed at $57,000 and had a spacious cab, with four comfy captain's chairs upholstered in soft brown "Chaparral" leather that made the interior smell like a saddle shop. It also was more than 20 feet long and had all sorts of extra gizmos, including a power sunroof, backup alarm, and navigation system. There's an optional rear-seat entertainment system for watching movies.

As with other full-size pickups, however, the big appeal of the F250 is the vast number of configurations it comes in. The basic two-wheel-drive F250 XL with stick shift, regular cab, and a gasoline-powered V8, starts at $23,305. But the price easily tops $30,000 once you start adding options many shoppers want, such as a diesel engine ($6,895), four-wheel-drive ($2,975), an automatic transmission ($1,490), air conditioning ($855), a basic radio and CD player ($250), extendable trailer mirrors ($250), a tilt steering wheel ($150), and traction control ($130).

Going with an extended or crew cab model jacks up the base price commensurately. With an extended cab, stick shift, and a gas-powered V8, the basic XL starts at $25,430, or $28,410 with four-wheel-drive. Move up to the bigger crew cab, and the XL starts at $26,790, or $29,765 with four-wheel-drive.

Add about $5,000 to those prices to move up to the fancier XLT, which comes with such basics as air conditioning, 17-inch chrome wheels, cruise control, a CD player, and power mirrors, doors, and windows. Another $3,000 to $4,000 moves you up to the most basic Lariat, which has power seats, leather upholstery, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, extra cupholders, and 18-inch aluminum wheels. Add $3,640 more for the King Ranch interior. In the same price range as the Lariat, there's also a four-wheel-drive-only FX4 with a techie-looking interior featuring black leather trim.

Ford says 75% of heavy-duty pickup buyers opt for diesel power, and the big doubt about the '08s is its new workhorse 5.4 liter, 350-horsepower diesel powerplant. On paper, it's a great engine. It runs on new, low-polluting, ultra-low-sulfur diesel that is becoming the U.S. standard. It also delivers a very substantial 650 lb.-ft. of torque starting at 2,000 revolutions per minute, which basically means you could drag an office building behind this truck without straining the engine.

The new engine is technologically innovative because it has dual turbochargers. A small, electronically controlled turbocharger comes on at low rpms to boost oomph at startup. As the truck gains speed, a second, larger turbo kicks in, too, boosting power in the middle of the torque range. At cruising speed, the big turbo operates on its own.

What's worrisome about the new engine is that the previous 6.0 liter workhorse diesel used in the F250 from 2002 through 2007 was plagued with problems. In January, Ford sued Navistar International, which makes both engines, alleging that Navistar had failed to pay its share of the recall and repair costs on the old engine. When Ford started partially withholding payment on the new engine, a spat broke out between the two companies in early March. Only a court order prevented production of Ford's new heavy-duty trucks from being significantly disrupted.

Of course, you can always go with one of the two gasoline engines available on Ford Super Duty trucks, a 6.8 liter, 362-horsepower V10 or a 5.4 liter, 300-horsepower V8. But the new, high-tech diesel is one of the appeals of the '08 Fords, and the big question now is whether it will work better than the old one.

It's too early to know how well the F250 is going to sell. But Ford says that in February, the new trucks spent an average of a mere six days on a dealer's lot before selling. Super Duty trucks represent about 40% of total sales of Ford F-Series trucks, which fell 11.7% last year, to 796,039.

Behind the Wheel

This is a big, big truck. You really need the running boards to be able to step comfortably in and out of the cab. And if you're planning to garage the truck, get out your tape measure before deciding which one to buy. With the crew cab and the longest available eight-foot bed, the F250 is nearly 22 feet long and has a turning radius of more than 55 feet.

You don't buy a heavy-duty truck for its speediness, but the turbochargers on the new diesel engine make the '08 F250 faster than the old one. My test truck accelerated from 0 to 60 miles-per-hour in a little over 10 seconds, which is quick for such a behemoth. The engine starts instantly when you turn the key, without the lag older diesels have, partly because the Piezo electric injectors not only boost acceleration but improve cold starts down to 20 degrees F. The engine is also very quiet. Running down the road at 50 mph, there's none of the rumbling made by the older diesel engines. You can hold a conversation or listen to music just as if you were in a car.

The F250 looks better than the old one, too. Ford has redesigned the front end to give it a macho look that resembles an 18-wheeler's front end. The company describes the look of the truck's interior as "tough luxury." Everything is old-fashioned and squared off. For instance, there are big, bulky square handles for hoisting yourself into the seats, designed so you can grab them even if you're wearing heavy work gloves. A distinctive "rib" design theme, inspired by the indentations molded into a toolbox, gives the cab a distinctive work-oriented look. There are ribs on the map pockets, airbag cover, and sides of the seats, among other places.

Numerous features make this a good truck for towing boats, RVs, and trailers. For instance, the extra-big outside rearview mirrors extend way out when you're towing and snug in against the side of the truck to make parking easier. The gas and brake pedals are adjustable. There are 10-, 15-, and 30-amp auxiliary power supply outlets for hooking up tools and other gear. And there's a control on the dash that allows you to apply the brakes on a trailer independently from the truck's brakes, which is handy for controlling a heavy load when you're going down hills.

A couple of negatives: The headroom in the back seats of the new F250's crew cab isn't all that great. There's an indentation in the ceiling to add space but you have to tilt the seat back pretty far to benefit from it. I was also surprised by how poor the fuel economy was in my test truck with the new diesel engine. There's no official government mileage rating on a big truck like this. But in a stretch of 192 miles of mixed driving, I only got 12.4 miles per gallon.

When I stopped for a fill-up, I also had trouble being sure I was getting ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, which is supposed to have been phased into the U.S. market last fall. I stopped at half-a-dozen service stations, including such major brands as Sunoco, Gulf, and Exxon, before I finally found a Mobil station that had it. A couple of stations definitely didn't have it yet. At others I got responses like, "Sure we have it. We just haven't put the new labels on the pumps yet," which was a little troubling because using plain old low-sulfur diesel could damage the new engine. The confusion will probably clear up soon enough, but it's something to be aware of if you buy a new diesel truck.

Buy it or Bag It?

I'm a Ford guy. To me, a Ford truck feels more solid than a Dodge, Chevy, or Toyota. But I still wouldn't rush out and buy one of these new Fords. I would at least want to test-drive the new F250 against the Chevy Silverado or GMC Sierra. Those are very nice trucks, and the heavy-duty versions are just hitting the market.

Also, if you're buying a truck mainly for towing, think carefully about whether you really need a heavy-duty model. The F250's maximum towing capacity of 12,500 lbs. is only somewhat better than that of the cheaper and more fuel-efficient F150, which is now is rated to be able to tow up to 11,000 lbs. The new Tundra and Silverado do nearly as well. That's plenty for towing most trailers and boats.

The stiff competition among these smaller, more mainstream pickups is likely to lead to price-cutting this year. So, you will probably get a better deal on one of those models if you don't really need the F250's extra towing capacity. (Of course, if towing heavy loads is a priority, you may have to pay up for the F350, which can tow up to 16,000 lbs, or the F450, which can tow up to 21,600 lbs).

I would also monitor message boards for early owner reviews of the Ford's new diesel engine. The company says it has done the equivalent of 10 million miles worth of testing on the engine. "To better assure durability, the tests were conducted using the most extreme and abusive conditions and run to five-times the life cycle that the hardest-working truck would ever experience," the company's PR material says, so Ford is confident that the engine will be problem-free.

But that's what it said about the old engine, and it pays to be prudent. These days, pickup trucks are big-ticket items. So, it's important to do research and comparison-shop, rather than just loyally buy the same model and brand year after year.

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