The Big Three trucks fight for the fuel efficiency crown

With the reveal of the GM Silverado/Sierra twins in Detroit last month we now have a chance to compare the current Motown offerings head to head. And it looks clear: Chevrolet, Ford and Ram are going for the fuel efficiency crown.

2014 Big 3 Pickup trucks

With the reveal of the GM Silverado/Sierra twins in Detroit last month we now have a chance to compare the current Motown offerings head to head. The only caveat, at the moment, is the lack of engine and weight stats from the General on its new 2014 half-tons. However it’s probably wise to think in terms of what Ram and Ford are offering; as its unlikely that GM will be far off that mark when the numbers are revealed in the coming weeks.

 

So, what we are looking at is essentially the 2011 Ford F-150 (though there has been a mild refresh for 2013) and the 2013 Ram; which is also considered a refresh, but turned out to be much more. And while these are different years it’s the closest the half-ton trucks have been to being all-new (at the same time) since 2009. Today, chassis, suspensions, interiors and sheet metal have all changed in each of the brands; but the real battle shaping up is about just one thing – fuel efficiency.

Ford’s V6 EcoBoost fired the first shot two years ago; then last summer the 2013 Ram answered back with its Pentastar 3.6L V6 engine coupled to the TorqueFlite 8 transmission. This new powertrain makes 305 hp and 265 lb.-ft. of torque and claims a highway fuel consumption figure (note, this is not combined) of just 7.8L/100km.

And yes, this is a direct response to the huge success of Fords EcoBoost engine in the F-series. Frankly Ford shocked the truck world with a 3.5L V6 that made 365 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque while still managing 13.0L/100km combined.

Since its launch, it has captured over 50% of the Canadian market and around 43% of the American, being ordered in all new F-150s. This is an unprecedented shift away from V8s in the truck market; and while this trend started with Ford it’s being mimicked across the brands.

Need another example of the strength of the truck market? In 2012 Ford sold over 100,000 F-series trucks in Canada for the first time ever. Frankly, this motor probably deserves at least some credit for that accomplishment.

So, fuel is what this war is about – one that is playing out in a unique truck-world way. Take a good look at today’s pickup trucks – half-tons in particular – they have never been larger than they are now; and while some weight has been lost by using high-strength steel and hydro-forming of the frames, they are still huge. Yet, buyers are demanding better fuel economy and more power; on the surface at least this seems impossible.

Throughout the fall speculation was thick over how the General would deal with these customer demands and very strong engine offerings from Ford and Ram.

Now we know. GM’s response to this engine war has been to introduce a new family of engines – the EcoTec3 motors – two V8’s and a V6. Now the displacements are all familiar (4.3L V6, a 5.3L V8 and a 6.2L V8), but GM says that these small blocks are never-the-less all new. In particular, each EcoTec3 engine features three integrated systems; direct injection, cylinder deactivation and continuously variable valve timing (VVT). Now, none of these systems is really “new” but I grant you the combinations are.

But of the three motors it’s the new 4.3L that will be GM’s chief combatant in the quest for the V6 fuel crown. The secret weapon in this new 4.3L V6 will be the cylinder deactivation feature – that’s a first for a six cylinder engine. Add to this system the direct injection, which is designed to promote a better burn with less fuel, and the prospect of loping along in deactivated four cylinder mode suggests serious fuel savings for the new Silverado.

But we can’t forget the truck buyer’s demand for power and that is what the VVT feature on these new engines will deliver. It’s the key component of an automatically advancing and retarding spark system that builds power as the engine senses load – like climbing a hill while towing – after which it resets itself to a more fuel friendly mode.

So why is this competition between trucks relying so heavily on the six-cylinder engines? In a word, size. Trucks are big and they are not going to get smaller – not while buyers demand more and more payload and towing capacity. Of course buyers also want better fuel economy without reducing size. So, while this seems a tall order it is doable. The reason? Because even the most heavily used pickup is still driven empty at least 70% of the time. This fact shows the two sides of a trucks life. Personal transport and workhorse. Manufacturers are now realizing that if they can offer power only when needed then fuel efficiency is really possible during all those empty kilometers.

For this reason what we are seeing in new engines and transmissions from the truck builders is really cutting edge. They are also leaving no stone unturned in the quest for fuel savings. Ford’s EcoBoost uses high-pressure fuel rails similar to diesel technology, while the Ram invested heavily in the other end of the powertrain putting the first ever eight-speed transmission in a truck. It’s said that just going from six to eight gears offers up as much as a 20% improvement in fuel consumption. Now, last up, GM borrows a bit from Ford’s idea and melds its cylinder deactivation into that V6 for a one/two gas-saving punch. Unfortunately we don’t have the resulting fuel numbers now, but it shouldn’t be long before we do. The first test drive of the 2014 Silverado/Sierra will be coming up in March.

 

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