Our first stop was an Arizona aircraft hanger (its true what they say about dry heat). We received a brief presentation and introduction to the 2005 Super Duty and then had a chance to talk to high level engineers, managers and designers. Ford made sure we had access to these individuals throughout the day and I couldn't help but notice their enthusiasm for this truck.
After the presentation, we had our first chance to drive the new Super Duty. We drove Power Stroke diesel Super Duty trucks through hilly Arizona countryside towing 7,000 lb loads. The trucks were remarkably quiet. If it weren't for the faint whine of the turbo and the low RPMs on the tachometer you wouldn't know you were driving a diesel. The reputation of loud, rattling diesels doesn't apply to this truck.
There was power to spare, handling was great and braking was predictable. The person sharing the truck with me during this portion of the drive noted that you could easily forget that you were towing if it weren't for the large trailer in the rear view mirrors. After traveling through the hills we took to the highways and drove to Ford's Arizona Proving Grounds (APG). Highway towing inspired confidence in the capabilities of the truck, even for someone like myself who doesn't tow often. The truck easily accelerated at all speeds, never ran out power and braked well.
Near the entrance of the APG Ford had a humorous display of a Chevy pickup being carried in the bed of a 2005 Super Duty. I couldn't help but think about Ford's 1980s television commercial of a Ford climbing a hillside with a Chevy in its bed.
Our first set of exercises on the APG was towing braking exercises comparing Ford's TowCommand braking system against a popular after-market controller. Ford's towing brake controller talks to the rest of the Ford systems and it therefore can provide trailer tow braking intelligence the after-market currently cannot duplicate.
The brake controller allows you to dial in the braking of the trailer based on load and the trailer's brake capabilities. We were told that the manual describes the procedure for setting the controller appropriately.
The loads in these tests were in excess of 10,000 lbs. We first tried low speed (~10 mph) tests. The Ford controller provided a smooth stop with no jerking or rocking of the truck. The after-market controller gave a slight jerk, followed by a rocking motion when the truck came to a complete stop -- typical behavior for a trailer not stopping at the same moment as the vehicle towing.
Next, 40 mph tests designed to demonstrate the predictability of the braking system. This test consists of two sets of cones. We get the truck up to 40 mph, then as soon as the truck reaches the first set of cones we apply hard braking (not enough to lock up the brakes) with the intent of stopping exactly at the second set of cones. With the Ford controller this was easy and the braking was predictable. You give X amount of braking, the truck stops with X deceleration.
The after-market controller behaved differently. Braking seems to be predictable at the beginning, but both I and the other driver in the truck stopped short of the second set of cones. The Ford engineer noted that it is common to overcompensate when braking with after-market controllers. Because they do not brake in sync and talk to the stock vehicle, the driver tends to give increasingly more brake peddle because the trailer lags behind the truck's braking.
After this, we took the truck and trailer through quick lane change maneuvers. The suspension handled it well, especially considering the thousands of pounds we were towing. We proceeded around the high speed, banked track doing more comparisons of the controllers. In each case, whether it was a slow or quick stop, the Ford controller proved superior.
Our next set of tests were maneuverability tests comparing the 2004 F-450, the 2005 F-450 and the 2004 GMC C4500. As a Ford enthusiast site, we naturally have some Ford bias when it comes to comparison tests. However, our goal is go into tests like this with an open mind, leaving our pre-conceived notions behind.
The 2004 F-450 had a terrible time in the tight turn test. It could not turn tight enough to make it through the tightest turn radius of the test. It handled the slalom fairly well but was a little slow on braking. Next, the 2004 GMC C4500. The 2004 C4500 performed poorly. It was so bad even the most die hard GMC fan would have a difficult time preferring it over either Ford. When I got in the truck I was greeted by a utilitarian interior and bouncy seats that felt like they came from an old tractor-trailer.
What surprised me most about the GMC were the brakes. They seem to suffer from the same grabby feeling the light duty GMC/Chevy pickups had during a previous tow test I participated in last year. It handled the tight turn test well, just making it through the tightest turn cones (knocking one over). The slalom was downright scary with extreme lean. When I commented about this, the Ford engineer said it was apparent GMC rushed to market because they didn't have a worthy competitor in this class.
The 2005 F-450 did very well. Braking was good. The turn radius amazed me. Not only it did make the tightest turn, it did it with ease. It almost felt like I was in a smaller pickup such as a Ranger. The slalom was similar to the 2004 F-450. While the lean and road handling was nearly identical, the steering was more precise and I didn't knock any cones over like I did with the 2004.
After this test we drag raced Dodge, GMC and Ford trucks with 13,400 lb loads on a 1/4 mile strip, each with identical gear ratios. The races were conducted with the air conditioner on, in 4x4 mode (so we would not get wheel spin) and we were asked not to spool up the turbo by braking and throttling at the same time. By conducting the races this way we could insure that the conditions would more closely mimic real world towing acceleration.
With the diesels, the Dodge/Cummins pulled off the line the quickest , the GMC Duramax next and the Ford Power Stroke last. The Dodge's narrow power band quickly revealed itself and both the Ford and GMC pulled ahead before 30 mph was reached. The Ford and GMC stayed nearly even until about 30 mph and then the Ford started pulling ahead, winning by a full truck/trailer length by the time it hit 60 mph.
In the gas powered test, the Ford pulled off the line quickest followed by the GMC and the Dodge. The GMC stayed fairly close to the Ford until about 40 mph, at which point the Ford really started pulling ahead. The Hemi powered Dodge was surprisingly slower. During each of these races the GMC vehicles had a noticeably louder exhaust than its Ford and Dodge counterparts.
The final part of the ride was the off-road course in a diesel powered Super Duty. The engineer told us that the computer switches tables (the data sets used to govern engine behavior) when the truck is placed into 4x4 low. The truck climbed an extreme incline with ease. That, however, is not where it was at its best. Coming down the incline I was told not to apply any brakes. The computer control was amazing. The Super Duty climbed down the hill with such ease that it almost felt like the truck was being eased down with a chain.
We then drove the truck over small rolling hillsides on a dirt road through the Proving Grounds. Considering the terrain, and the 35-45 mph speeds the truck handled very comfortably. The end of the course was a deep sand trail. The truck handled the sand the way you'd expect a 6,000+ lb truck to handle. The shear momentum and weight of the truck insured it sank quite a bit and didn't behave nimbly. However, considering the truck's weight the suspension and steering allowed me to keep the truck in control and react quickly to its behavior. In all areas of the course there way very little hard jerks and recoil you would except given the terrain. The suspension's capabilities combined with the precise steering and stiffer frame made the handling far better than you would normally except in a truck this size.
I only have one area that I didn't care for. The stereo unit and A/C controls don't look well integrated with the dash panel, almost generic. Even the King Ranch has this layout. Considering the great layout of the 2004 F-150, I had expected a better dash. Overall I believe Ford has a real winner on their hands. This truck performs well, looks great and handling is improved from the previous generation. The styling is bolder yet does not depart dramatically from the previous generation Super Duty.