With a tow rating of up to 37,000 pounds, two class-leading engines and a capable off-road
package, Ford’s full-size pickups aim to deliver a knockout punch to its competition
It’s finally happened. All three U.S. truck manufacturers now offer models that can tow more than any production fifth-wheel weighs. In reality, that’s been the case for several years now, but with the introduction of the 2020 Ford Super Duty, it was like a punch in the face. Up to 37,000 pounds with a gooseneck hitch and up to 32,500 pounds with a fifth-wheel. That leaves roughly 8,000 pounds of tow capacity surplus when pulling the average 40-plus-foot luxury fifth-wheel, loaded to capacity. That’s just insane.
In truth, however, the Big Three aren’t competing for RVers, as they represent a comparatively small percentage of overall heavy-duty truck sales. No, they’re gunning for the commercial market, where more is always better. Consider how productivity could increase, for example, if your truck (or trucks) could handle in two loads what used to require four. That idea alone could make the price of a new heavy-duty truck worthwhile to a business owner, even as diesel-model pricing can easily soar beyond $80,000, depending on equipment and options.
These are not revelations to Ford, which has claimed commercial market supremacy for years. The numbers are quite compelling: In 2019 Ford sold 896,000 F-Series trucks, and it maintains a 60 to 70 percent market share in the oil and gas/construction segments, according to Tom Somerville, Ford Super Duty brand manager. With that in mind, and considering the legitimate challenges issued by GM and Ram with their own heavy-duty revamps, Ford knew that an update was necessary to keep its Super Duty trucks on top.
From an appearance standpoint, the updates are minimal but effective, making the new Super Duty immediately recognizable as a Ford but keeping the design fresh with new grilles/front fascia, new headlamps with increased LED output and nine new wheel designs (with the exception of base XL and dually models). The really good stuff, however, is underneath the truck’s aluminum-alloy skin.
Upgraded Power Stroke Diesel
Having introduced an all-new Super Duty for 2017, with its now famous military-grade aluminum-alloy body and high-strength steel frame (see “Light-Heavyweight Champ” in the October 2016 issue), a complete teardown of the current platform wasn’t necessary to regain the crown, but more power and improved efficiency were.
According to David Ives, Ford’s diesel technical leader, there were four key areas in which the 6.7-liter Power Stroke was improved upon to achieve its class-leading 475 horsepower and 1,050 lb-ft of torque. “Previously, we had a 30,000-psi fuel system, and we’ve increased that to 38,000 pounds, or about a 25 percent increase in operating pressure,” Ives said. “That operating pressure allows us to inject the fuel faster at full pressure to make more power and torque, and also to better atomize the fuel for greater efficiency at driving speeds and better tuning for emissions.”
More fuel requires additional airflow for complete combustion, which necessitated a new double-axle turbo design for the vane-control system. “Previously, we had an axle on one side and vane tab on the other,” Ives explained. “This double-axle design better supports the vanes, which allows for tighter vane side clearances. That improves the efficiency of the turbocharger, which translates into reduced fuel consumption and more torque and power for the customer.”
Often, when power is increased, the engine’s hard parts must be strengthened to cope with the additional stresses. In the case of the new Power Stroke, that meant a beefier block and cylinder heads, plus a big surprise: steel pistons.
“We sought out steel for its improved strength, and with steel being much less dense [thick] than aluminum, we were able to make the design much more compact,” said Ives. “So, the sides of the pistons [the skirts] are smaller, which creates less sliding friction as the piston moves up and down the bore. The smaller size also means the connecting rod can be a little bit longer, so the thrust forces on the side of the bore are reduced, which again reduces friction.”
Finally, the new 6.7 gets a variable-displacement oil pump, which generates increased oil pressure when the engine is working hard, and reduces it during a normal drive cycle. Ives estimated that the engine’s improved efficiencies will result in about a 1 mpg gain in fuel economy over the outgoing engine for most customers.
New 7.3-Liter Gas V-8
Historically, the gap between the top gasoline engine and the available diesel has been a wide one, not just in price but in power. Consider that, up until this year, the next engine down from the Power Stroke was a 6.2-liter V-8, which makes 385 horsepower and 430 lb-ft of torque. Not bad, but it was a long way from the Power Stroke and would grow even more distant with the diesel’s 2020 upgrades. Rather than discontinue the 6.2, Ford adopted a “good, better, best” philosophy, offering the 6.2 as the base engine at one end, the 6.7 at the other and a brand-new 7.3-liter gas V-8 right in the middle.
Proving that there’s no replacement for displacement, the 7.3 churns out 430 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 475 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm on 87-octane pump gas. We had a chance to sample this engine in an F-350 King Ranch 4×4, and we can attest that it is a strong performer that sounds great, too. If you don’t want to step up to the diesel, the 7.3 is a worthwhile upgrade over the base 6.2, especially since you’ll also get the new 10-speed TorqShift automatic transmission, the same one that backs the Power Stroke.
Heavy-duty trucks have always been available with four-wheel drive, but with the exception of Ram’s Power Wagon, off-road packages were typically limited to different shocks and tires, a skid plate or two, and stickers that designated it as the off-road model. GMC took the concept one step further last year when it came forth with its Sierra AT4, followed this year by Ford and its Super Duty Tremor package.
Available on XLT, Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum F-250 and F-350 models, the Tremor starts with 35-inch Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires — the largest hoops offered on a heavy-duty pickup — mounted on unique 18-inch matte-finish wheels. The suspension features a front-end lift (for a level ride height), progressive-rate springs and custom 1.7-inch-piston twin-tube dampers to soak up the rough stuff.
That’s all most customers will ever really use, but the Tremor has the goods for more adventurous terrain, including Trail Control with a new Rock Crawl mode, a locking rear differential and a new Dana limited-slip front differential, plus 10.8 inches of ground clearance, which allows water Ford-ing (pun absolutely intended) of up to 33 inches.
Ford set up a pretty aggressive off-road course for us journalist types in the desert outside of Phoenix, complete with a rock-crawling course, a so-called Twist Ditch that tested suspension articulation, an uphill section that appeared nearly vertical, water crossings, muddy roads and more. The Trail Control system, which can help the driver navigate up- and downhill sections without touching the brake or gas pedal, combined with a forward-camera view and 360-degree bird’s-eye view (and assistance from copilot Bobby Keith, Ford’s off-road and towing engineer), made us look like hardened off-road veterans (almost).
We can’t really comment on how well these new Super Duty trucks tow their maximum-rated loads, because the fifth-wheels on hand at the press event were less than 10,000 pounds, hardly a challenge for even a base F-250 model. Hauling an 8,190-pound fifth-wheel up a 6 percent grade at 50 mph (the posted speed limit) with a Power Stroke-equipped F-350 dually was accomplished in sixth gear at about 1,600 rpm, and with the exhaust brake in automatic mode, we rarely had to touch the brake pedal on the way down. But as we mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are few trailers a truck like this won’t be able to tow.
Perhaps more important, especially for those who are nervous about back-in sites, is the new Ultimate Trailer Tow Camera System with Pro Trailer Backup Assist, which is standard on King Ranch and above, and optional on XL, XLT and Lariat models. The camera aspect of the package, including Trailer Reverse Guidance (TRG), has been available on Super Duty trucks since the 2017 model, but it worked only with travel trailers, and the Pro Trailer Backup Assist feature is offered for the first time on Super Duty.
Instead of incorporating a “target sticker” that is applied to the A-frame of the travel trailer, TRG for fifth-wheels employs a yaw sensor that is mounted to the pin box via an adhesive backing. “We weren’t able to use an image-based concept [target sticker] for trailer-angle detection on a fifth-wheel because there wasn’t a surface that is consistent between different trailers,” explained Don Mattern, Ford’s trailer technology supervisor. The TRG kit comes with a fifth-wheel prep package, which also includes the necessary connections. “Once you have the sensor plugged in, it will learn the system — it’s a three- to four-minute drive — you just make a few turns and drive straight,” Mattern added.
TRG helps guide the user via the camera systems, while the center display depicts an overhead view of the truck and the angle of the trailer with yellow and red zones on either side. As long as you keep the trailer between the yellow zones, the trailer is on a good path; once you get into the yellow, it may be difficult to change direction, and once you get into the red, you are in danger of jackknifing.
Pro Trailer Backup Assist, meanwhile, offers an alternative to backing up using the sideview mirrors, a process some newcomers find confusing and counterintuitive. The system incorporates a knob on the dashboard; simply press the center of the knob to turn it on, let go of the steering wheel and turn the knob the direction you want the trailer to go.
Backing an F-350 and fifth-wheel trailer on a course set up by Ford, we found that the system works as designed; the only thing that took some getting used to was deciding when to let go of the knob and straighten the trailer. As experienced RVers, we would still prefer to use the steering wheel and mirrors, but for someone new to the lifestyle, or for those who are uncomfortable with backing a trailer, the Ultimate Trailer Tow Camera System with Pro Trailer Backup Assist package will be a welcome addition.
Another nice feature available on the Super Duty is the Adaptive Steering System, which has been augmented for 2020 to include Electronically Controlled Hydraulic Steering. This addition consists of a sensor and electric motor that modifies the torque going into the hydraulic steering system, which makes it possible for the Pro Trailer Backup Assist to move the steering system without the driver having to touch the wheel. It also makes the steering system speed sensitive, providing less steering effort at low speeds and increased effort at highway speeds for better road feel.
“Another advantage is that we can incorporate features with this system,” Mattern said. “One that is already in place is called Pull Drift Compensation, so if you’re getting a constant side wind, we can perform a torque offset because the system is looking at the yaw rate and noticing that the truck isn’t turning, but the driver is putting in constant steering effort. So, the system will learn and adapt to that, and if the condition changes, it will adjust and say, ‘I don’t have to put that offset in anymore.’” In and of itself, this feature might make the option worthwhile to many RVers.
With more capabilities and even more features to make towing easier, the 2020 Ford Super Duty is a solid choice no matter what you plan to tow. Now, do we hear 40,000 pounds?
A frequent contributor to Trailer Life, Chris Hemer is the former technical editor of Trailer Life and MotorHome, and has been an RV and automotive journalist for more than 20 years. An outdoor enthusiast who now makes his home in Portland, Oregon, he enjoys camping, motorcycle riding, mountain biking and hiking.