Proving Points in Desert

KINGMAN, AZ It's a hellishly hot summer day in the Arizona desert. It seems warm enough to solar roast a turkey. But to Ford Motor Co. staffers stationed here, it is a super day for putting beefed-up '05 Super Duty pickup trucks through their paces. For us, it's just another day in paradise, says Merle Ward, head of Ford's 3,400-acre Arizona Proving Ground where vehicles are tested under extreme conditions,

KINGMAN, AZ — It's a hellishly hot summer day in the Arizona desert. It seems warm enough to solar roast a turkey. But to Ford Motor Co. staffers stationed here, it is a super day for putting beefed-up '05 Super Duty pickup trucks through their paces.

“For us, it's just another day in paradise,” says Merle Ward, head of Ford's 3,400-acre Arizona Proving Ground where vehicles are tested under extreme conditions, with temperatures hitting triple digits.

Ford engineers here want to show what the redesigned Super Duty trucks can do in wickedly hot weather. It's impressive.

It's no desert mirage seeing new F-Series Super Duty pickups outperform competitors in drag races while towing trailers filled with 10,000 lbs. of cargo.

On the proving ground's grueling off-road track, the Super Duty 4×4s climb steep grades and claw across sandy washouts, without breaking a sweat.

On a paved track, trucks with a new industry-first factory-installed electronic trailer brake controller show smoother and safer stops and lane changes.

With controls integrated into the instrument panel, the device coordinates truck and trailer braking. Ford expects to sell a lot of the TowCommand Systems, cutting into an aftermarket that until now has had the trailer brake controller market cornered.

The various demonstrations show Ford's determination to stay king of the road in the lucrative heavy-duty pickup segment, where profits per vehicle are an estimated $10,000, according to analysts.

Ford holds about 55% of the segment of pickups weighing more than 8,500 lbs., says Marty Collins, Ford Div.'s general marketing manager. The Super Duty lineup includes the F-250, F-350, F-450 and F-550 made at Ford's Kentucky Truck Plant near Louisville.

Employing three shifts a day, the factory produced more than 400,000 trucks last year, including the Excursion SUV.

Heavy-duty trucks are one of the industry's fastest-growing segments.

“How big is the Super Duty business to us?” says Collins. “If it were a business by itself, it would be in the Fortune 500, ahead of Southwest Airlines.”

The last Super Duty redesign was in 1998. GMC, Chevrolet and Dodge more recently debuted new heavy-duty trucks or engines. For Ford, it was time for an upgrade.

“Bragging rights go back and forth, but now it's our turn to go one better, and we're going to exploit that,” says dealer Lee Kemp, owner of Forest Lake (MN) Ford. The new trucks will be in Ford showrooms this fall.

Upgrades include the all-important towing and payload capacity. The '05 F-350 with dual rear tires carries a maximum payload of 5,800 lbs. On average, payload capacity increases 500 to 1,000 lbs.

A new maximum towing capacity of 17,000 lbs. gives the F-350 best-in-class honors.

“This truck is all about capability and control,” says Susan Dehne, Ford Super Duty chief engineer. “Knowing 90% of our customers tow trailers, towing had to be a priority in our improvements.”

New engine choices include the 5.4L Triton V-8, the 6.8L Triton V-10 and a more powerful 6.0L Power Stroke diesel with 570 lb-ft. of torque, 10 more than before.

There is also a stronger suspension system, an all-new frame, larger 18-in. wheels and a new exterior look, including a more dominant grille with horizontal bars styled to look as if they're milled from a block of steel, says Gordon Platto, chief designer.

As the segment grows, so do the number of trim levels and creature comforts.

“Seven years ago, we didn't offer different trim levels. Now one-third of our business is the high-end Lariat,”says Phil O'Connor, the line's marketing manager.

There's no price increase for 70% of the new lineup, and a 1% price increase for the rest. Excluding a $795 delivery charge, F-250 and F-350 prices range from $22,390 to $38,365.

“The 2005 Super Duty is a significant upgrade of a class-leading vehicle,” says Phil Martens, Ford group vice president-North America product creation. “We're dead set on retaining our leadership and dead set on beating our competition.”

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