By John Cappa
Photography courtesy of the manufacturers
The top pickup truck manufacturers have been competing for pickup supremacy for decades, and everyone has a favorite. Today that battle is a rock-throwing, eye-gouging, punch fest that rivals any ugly schoolyard brawl. All manufacturers have fortified their trucks with higher horsepower ratings and torque numbers, increased cargo and towing capacity, and more all-out interior comfort and amenities than ever. However, one arena in which the battle has not typically raged so passionately is fuel economy — until recently.
Thanks to corporate average fuel economy requirements, automakers need to meet a government-mandated combined fleet fuel economy average of 35.5 mpg by 2020 (39 mpg for cars and 30 mpg for trucks) for vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 8,500 pounds or less. That is quite a jump from the current mandated average of 25 mpg (27.5 mpg for cars and 22.2 mpg for trucks). For more information about CAFE requirements, click here.
With truck sales on the rise, the half-ton segment can't escape fuel-efficiency improvements. Had the evolution of fuel-economy technology not been government mandated and taken place over several years, we would likely see more similar features and technology across the brands. Because of this "encouraged" evolution, all three major manufacturers have attacked the mileage problem from different angles, and all three have come up unique and viable solutions. Which one is best, which of the three fuel-economy plays will the other two manufacturers adopt first, and which will be the leader in fuel economy, power and capability by the end of the decade is anyone's guess, but each of the strategies have been well considered.
We're laying them all out for your consideration:
The Blue Oval unveiled out its fuel-economy hand at the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It's a play based on simple common sense: Less mass moved equals improved mileage. It's said that you can increase fuel economy by 1 percent for every 100 pounds that you remove from a vehicle. Thanks in part to a 94 percent aluminum body and new high-strength lightweight steel frame, the 2015 Ford F-150 will be up to 700 pounds lighter than its 2014 steel F-150 counterpart.
But what Ford isn't saying is that its current steel-bodied trucks are more than 300 pounds heavier than comparable half-ton trucks from GM and Ram in some cases. Ford plans to add more weight to its 2015 trucks in the form of optional content such as a 360-degree camera, high-power 110-volt/400-watt outlets, the BoxLink cargo management system, blind spot warning system with cross-traffic alert and more. So the actual weight savings of the new aluminum pickup will depend on how the truck is outfitted.
Sticking with the less-is-more theme, Ford will introduce the turbocharged 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine into the 2015 F-150. This will include the lower (and presumably the lightest) XL trim level. The engine features a lightweight compacted graphite iron block, aluminum heads and auto stop-start to improve city fuel economy. It's believed that the 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6 will produce in the neighborhood of 280 horsepower and 350 pounds-feet of torque. Ford and GM are working together to develop a 10-speed transmission, but it likely won't be available until later in the model year. For 2015 the 2.7-liter will be backed by a six-speed automatic; however, when and if the 10-speed comes to fruition it could be a significant game changer for Ford.
Adding a turbo to a smallish engine (for a full-size truck) is said to help deliver power and torque consistent with larger engine displacements while achieving up to 20 percent better fuel efficiency. This seems to hold true when unloaded; however, many owners of 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost-equipped F-150s have reported mpg numbers in the single digits when towing heavier loads.
We'll have to wait and see if this rings true with the new smaller engine. As with the rest of the fuel sippers here, we expect the 2.7-liter EcoBoost F-150 to have a slightly lower tow rating and cargo capacity than the 3.5-liter EcoBoost and traditional 5.0-liter V-8 version of the truck. Ford has not yet released maximum tow rating, horsepower, torque or mpg numbers for the 2.7-liter EcoBoost F-150. The currently available 2014 steel-bodied, naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V-6 F-150 pumps out 302 horsepower and 278 pounds-feet of torque and offers 23 highway mpg and a tow rating of up to 6,700 pounds. When the dust settles we speculate that the 2.7-liter turbo-boosted lightweight aluminum-bodied truck will have a tow rating of 5,000-7,500 pounds and muster mileage in the high 20s. Current base pricing on the 2014 steel-bodied F-150 is $25,640 (all prices include destination). No word on 2015 F-150 pricing or what it will cost to check the box for the 2.7-liter EcoBoost.
The Bow-Tie brand and GMC placed bets on the EcoTec3 engines for 2014. For 2015 we assume GM will likely offer the same trio of engines and be the only half-ton truckmaker with two available V-8s. The fuel miser of the EcoTec3 bunch is the 285-hp 4.3-liter V-6 with 305 pounds-feet of torque. It provides an impressive 24 mpg on the highway. Matching the 4.3-liter to the rumored 10-speed transmission could certainly bring GM closer to, if not to, the head of the fuel-efficiency pack.
Like all of the EcoTec3 engines, the 4.3-liter features direct fuel injection, active fuel management (cylinder deactivation) and continuously variable valve timing. This combination is not found in any other half-ton truck. The 4.3-liter block and heads are made from aluminum for weight savings. A compact overhead-valve design helps reduce weight as well. Unlike GM's competitors, this fuel-efficient engine is standard on most models. The cost savings could pay for quite a bit of fuel. Base model 2014 Chevrolet and GMC trucks are priced at $26,670 and $27,170 respectively.
As with all of the half-ton fuel-economy contenders, the smaller GM engine supplies lower power numbers and decreased capability. The 4.3-liter-powered Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra can tow up to 7,600 pounds, which is significantly less than the 12,000-pound rating of a max-tow-equipped 5.3-liter V-8 Silverado/Sierra.
Ram put its fuel-sipping efforts into an advanced 240-hp 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 with 420 pounds-feet of torque mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. In the past, diesel engines have been praised for providing up to 30 percent better fuel economy than a comparable gas engine. More recently, the increased cost of diesel fuel over traditional gas and the need for expensive after-treatment systems have been enough to dissuade other half-ton truck manufacturers from taking the same route. Despite the drawbacks, Ram offers the only half-ton diesel truck. The 3.0-liter EcoDiesel-powered Ram 1500 musters a recently EPA-certified 28 mpg on the highway, making it the current fuel-economy king among non-Ram competitors by 4 mpg in the half-ton segment. No word on what Ram has in store for 2015.
The extra efficiency of the 3.0-liter Ram isn't without compromise. Tow capacity has been diminished slightly from a max of 10,450 pounds to 9,200 pounds for a properly equipped EcoDiesel truck. Checking the EcoDiesel option will set you back $2,850 more than a Hemi V-8-powered truck or $4,500 more than the Pentastar V-6 with an eight-speed transmission. The base-model 2014 Ram 1500 Tradesman comes in at $24,940. Also note that the 2014 Ram 1500 with the standard 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 and eight-speed transmission is the current mileage king at 25 mpg on highway. So, as with GM, you don't have to pay for a premium engine to get good fuel economy.
Even though the Honda Ridgeline, Nissan Titan and Toyota Tundra are technically considered imports, all three are built in the U.S., and all three have staked their claim in the pickup truck schoolyard.
While Honda's 2014 Ridgeline generally isn't considered a full-size half-ton pickup in most truck circles, it does offer a fascinating combination of capability, convenience, truck/car features and fuel economy that interests traditional and nontraditional truck buyers alike. The 3.5-liter V-6 punching out 250 hp and 247 pounds-feet of torque is the only available engine in the Ridgeline. The 2014 model year is said to be the last iteration until a full redesign, which will surface in late 2015 as a 2016 model. No word on engine or other specs, just an outlined sketch has been released (click here to view).
For now, the Ridgeline has a max tow capacity of 5,000 pounds, and the base-model RT starts at $30,405. Interestingly, even though the Ridgeline's 21 mpg highway is not currently top tier, the frameless unit body could be a hint at the future of what half-ton trucks will become, not only in an effort to reduce weight for more fuel efficiency, but to decrease production costs as well.
The 18 mpg highway of the 2014 Nissan Titan may not make many waves in the ocean of half-ton trucks, but the recent news of an optional 5.0-liter Cummins diesel did get a lot of attention. The base-model Titan, priced at $30,365, comes as a King Cab (no regular cab available). The standard 5.6-liter gas V-8 spits out 317 hp and 385 pounds-feet of torque, which provide a max tow capacity of 9,500 pounds. The V-8 Cummins-powered Titan should debut in 2015 or 2016. It's believed that the 5.0-liter Cummins engine will produce more than 300 hp and somewhere in the neighborhood of 550 pounds-feet of torque.
Considering the engine size and potential output, we suspect that the Cummins Titan could see up to 27 mpg based on our calculations. This is a huge power play for Nissan, but it could be an expensive one. Some industry people believe that checking the 5.0-liter Cummins option box could cost as much as $10,000. The high price tag seems possible when you consider that the Cummins version of the Titan will likely require stouter diesel-specific components including a transmission, transfer case, driveshafts, axles and possibly suspension. It will also require some type of pricey exhaust after-treatment system. The unfortunate reality for Nissan is that if it could sell more Titans, pricing could be more reasonable.
For 2014, a base-model 4.0-liter V-6 Toyota Tundra will set you back $27,195. At 20 mpg highway, the all-aluminum engine generating 270 hp and 278 pounds-feet of torque does not compete aggressively in the fuel-efficiency slug fest. Like GM, Toyota offers the Tundra with two optional V-8 engines. The larger of the two V-8 engines (5.7-liter) supplies up to a 10,500-pound max tow capacity; however, the standard 4.0-liter V-6 is rated at a much lower 4,500-pound max tow capacity. Rumor has it that for 2016, Toyota will introduce the same 5.0-liter Cummins engine as Nissan. No word on output numbers, but as with Nissan, considering the engine size and power potential, the truck could muster up to 27 mpg based on our unscientific calculations.
Where Are We Headed?
Unfortunately, even though the current half-ton mileage king is a diesel, it's been noted by some that the feds have not fully sided with diesel-powered trucks. The big push seems to be (as determined by governmental subsidies) for electric power plants or fuel cells, regardless of the fact that the technology and consumer demand just isn't there yet.
Fuel-economy successes will certainly be followed by all of the manufacturers. Aerodynamics have become increasingly important for the half-ton-truck segment. The trucks seem to be getting lower in an effort to decrease wind resistance. From an outside-the-industry perspective, all of the trucks are beginning to take on a similar silhouette; you can't deny what works in the wind tunnel. It's likely they can only look so different and still be as efficient as they need to be.
In the future we fully expect to see segmentwide lighter curb weights, stop-start technology, grille shutters, self-lowering suspensions, lighter wheels and tires, and transmissions with eight or more speeds among other things. Ford's move to an aluminum body has been considered a risk by some industry people, but the weight savings is indisputable. It's likely that both GM and Ram are paying close attention to the success or failure of that decision. The only certainty is that all truck manufacturers will continue to fight to squeeze every 10th of an mpg out of their next full-size pickup.