Half-Ton Pickups: Strategies for Better Fuel Economy

2016 Ram 1500 Longhorn Hemi II

By G.R. Whale

According to the 2014 Vehicle Technologies Market Report from Oak Ridge National Laboratory's sales-weighted data from 1980 to 2014, light vehicles showed a 124 percent increase in horsepower and a 47 percent improvement in zero-to-60-mph times, but just a 27 percent improvement in fuel economy. Interestingly, the report notes that vehicle weight appears to have an inverse relationship with fuel economy, meaning as pickup trucks get heavier (excluding the alloy-bodied Ford F-150 because it's been getting lighter), fuel economy is getting better. This is especially relevant to today's luxury-laden ever-larger pickups.

Although it may not be happening as fast as some would like, manufacturers are employing many different technologies to provide better fuel economy, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the half-ton pickup truck segment, one of the largest and most profitable segments for any automaker. Clearly pickups are stronger and quicker than ever before, but how is that happening while fuel efficiency is still a concern to most buyers?

To that end, we've taken a closer look at the technologies used to improve fuel economy and to provide more usable power to today's pickup owners. Here's what's out there and who's using it.

Direct Injection

Not long ago, throttle-body or port fuel injection became universal among gas pickups of all sizes, and direct fuel injection — meaning fuel sprayed directly into the combustion chamber of each cylinder — is now found in plenty of nameplates, including pickups. Direct injection helps intake charge cooling, and allows for higher compression ratios and better overall efficiency; it was first used on World War II aircraft engines and appeared in cars in conjunction with turbochargers about 10 years ago. The most popular example today is Ford's EcoBoost engine family, but GM also offers direct injection in its Chevrolet and GMC Ecotec engines.


For decades turbochargers have been fooling smaller engines into thinking they're bigger by pushing air through the engine, and they've always been popular in modern diesels. Turbos work by using the spent exhaust gases to spin impellers inside a turbo to generate pressurized air that's usually run through an air cooler before it enters the combustion chamber to provide a bigger bang. Reliability issues have been a problem in the past, but with recent advances in material use, variable geometry turbos and lessons learned from diesel engine usage, modern turbos can now survive gasoline engine temperatures. Again, Ford's EcoBoost engines provide the best example of efficient and powerful turbocharging, but Ram's EcoDiesel also uses a smart turbocharging system as well. The new 2016 Nissan Titan XD also uses a powerful turbocharger in the Cummins V-8 diesel.

Variable Valve Timing/Lift

Although multivalve variable valve timing comes in 90 percent of new light-duty automobiles, it is not so prevalent in the pickup truck arena. VVT comes in multiple forms: GM's Ecotec engines use it with the traditional pushrod V-6 and V-8 engines, while the Ram 1500 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi and Ford's older single overhead cam V-8 4.6- and 5.4-liter engines vary the camshaft position relative to the crankshaft, advancing or retarding timing for better low-end torque and smoother drivability.

Multiple-cam valve timing (as in single overhead cam or dual overhead cam) can separately make intake and exhaust valve adjustments to offer better idling and performance at extreme temperatures or altitude, benefiting passive exhaust gas recirculation and idle quality, and offering broader power curves. Depending on how sophisticated engine builders are, smart VVT can even provide the option of switching between Otto and Atkinson cycles like the new Toyota 3.5-liter V-6 found in the 2016 Tacoma. Additionally, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' MultiAir system offers similar benefits using a single camshaft, but the only current pushrod engine with this ability is the Dodge Viper 8.4-liter V-10; currently it is not in any pickup.

How much the valves open also can be controlled, so much so that BMW and Infiniti have built engines that control throttling by how much the intake valves open. Others automakers such as Honda use movable valve-train components on a single cam for larger valve openings at higher revs, closing them altogether for cylinders that are switched off.

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Cylinder Deactivation

Although this technology has been around for quite a while, advancements in computer controls have made some big leaps forward, especially for pickups. The concept is pretty simple: Shut off the cylinders you don't need and save fuel. Think of cylinder deactivation as the opposite of a turbo or supercharger — it can fool a big engine into thinking it's a smaller one. GM uses this technology in the Ecotec3 engines (4.3-liter V-6, 5.3-liter V-8 and 6.2-liter V-8); Ram's 5.7-liter and 6.4-liter Hemi V-8s, and Honda's 3.5-liter V-6 all use it to help improve fuel economy. It also can help control heat, noise and vibration since, in most cases, less mass is moving around inside the engine.

Auto Stop-Start

Taken directly from hybrid vehicle technology, this system automatically turns off the engine when the vehicle stops and then refires it as the brake pedal is released. The idea here is that idling wastes fuel and energy. Although the system adds expense and weight — primarily from the stouter alternator, starter and battery — idling is when a pickup is least efficient. To date, the technology is standard on all Ram High Fuel Efficiency models and Ford F-150s equipped with the 2.7-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost, but will likely become a standard feature for many pickups in the near future.

Variable Pumps

Since engines rarely have to deliver full power at the spur of a moment — some speculate less than 5 percent of total running hours — it makes sense that the engines don't always need the same oil and water flow and pressure to run as efficiently as possible. Whether it's mechanical, electrical or a combination of both, using the water, oil or air-conditioning pumps less will save fuel. Variable oil pumps are standard on all GM Ecotec3 engines as well as on the Ford F-150's EcoBoost 2.7-liter V-6. Ram also offers a smart system on its Ram 1500 HFE model.

Electric Accessory Drives

Most half-ton pickups use electric-assist steering to save weight (of the oil reservoir and pump), but other vehicles combine the technologies by driving the hydraulic steering pump with an electric motor to save fuel (and belt loads). Driving air-conditioning (as hybrids have for years), steering pumps and water pumps typically is done a small percentage of the time, but they are constantly ready for use all the time. More pickups are getting better at providing those systems with power only when needed.

0330 chart

What to Expect

In the future, pickup engines will employ more of these features as they're refined and costs drop. We fully expect each new engine to improve its efficiency and lower its pumping losses. Targeted cooling systems and integrated head/exhaust manifolds will better control heat losses to provide better power and fuel efficiency.

Dual-injection systems could be combined with dual fuels and turbos to use gasoline at low loads and higher-octane E85 for top-end power, but those systems are too expensive now. Some truckmakers may wait for low-sulfur gasoline before adding dual injection.

Advanced variable valve timing systems and perhaps even full electric valve operation, which would eliminate camshafts altogether, will aid combustion control and reduce pumping loss.

We have no doubt cylinder deactivation will migrate to more engines soon; it could become more software controlled, possibly dropping individual cylinders as needed rather than having them stop and start in a fixed pattern.

Auto stop-start will become more popular too, especially when the benefit can be measured using a government fuel consumption rating. Although it is rather technical, the Mazda i-Eloop brake energy regeneration system is so smart it stops the engine with a piston just beyond the top of the power stroke so when it injects fuel and provides a spark to the chamber to restart the engine, it doesn't need a separate starter motor at all. This could serve as a good model for other manufacturers.

Ram EcoDiesel 1 II

Variable displacement, or multistage oil and water pump use, is already common across many automakers, but it is not common in pickup truck engines and we expect that to expand. And air-conditioning and heavy-duty steering pumps may be driven electrically in the not-to-distant future.

Down the road we anticipate the option of variable compression ratio by sliding a puck into the combustion chamber (like a big piston dome) to increase or decrease the ratio for efficiency and retract to today's ratios under heavy loads to avoid detonation.

Additionally, the "spark" for an engine may come from an advanced corona ignition system that lights the mix faster and more evenly with a burst of plasma rather than a spark plug so nothing will wear out.

Homogeneous charge compression ignition engines designed to run gasoline without a spark (similar to diesel engines) offer better fuel efficiency and torque but are not yet production ready. This technology shows the most promise for hybrid range-extender applications where the engine runs in a narrow rev band.

Finally, longtime alternative fuel expert Eric Evarts predicted, "Low gas prices will minimize investment in [compressed natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas] products or infrastructure beyond fleet-focused HD markets, with an increasing number of diesel engines used for tightening [fuel] economy standards."

Cars.com photos by Angela Conners; manufacturer images


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Ram Hemi 1 II

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Note to ALL truck engine makers:

Start/Stop technology.

Thank you.... your customers.

Best strategy would be to get the democrats out of the whitehouse.

@Jim unfortunately much of the foolishness at EPA (begun by a Republican president, by the way) is a very bi-partisan affair. Congress hase been under Republican leaders in EVERY committee and house during the last four years. Despite that advantage they did sweet f**king nothing to block Democrat policies. Completely surrendered to Obama and the Dems on every matter of importance.

Regarding the article, really liked the graphic comparing features between brands and engines. This is what I come to PUTC for, not stories about green energy.

The article unfortunately fails to clearly note that the 1979 half ton 300 c.i. Ford I had is a very different animal from the 300 c.i. F150 of today.

Especially in regard to power and FE. That key factor being weight. Today's trucks are so much bigger, but they are also so much better.

I like the start stop technology that has been around for awhile in the imports, it works very well, have no issues with it, just may take awhile for the domestics to get it right

You want to know why weight is an issue on any vehicle today?

Answer is government regulations! The rules for the government are laid out on 1 document, the Constitution while the rules for the rest of us is probably a billion pages long by now called rules and regulations! That is your problem.

More useless, stupid safety stuff being added to vehicles because the weak of society have demanded more and more rules over us all and the God of this nation, the government has responded with more commandments over our lives!

Ford's 3.5 naturally aspirated & 5.0 V8 do NOT have direct injection.
No mention of Nissan's VVEL system.
The throttle can basically be open all the time, while engine load is determined by "area under the curve" of valve lift/duration.

I've had Stop/Start technology in all my trucks since 1976. And I have total control of it.

It's called an ignition key.

I've driven the big 3 trucks with the "towing" axle ratios and the MPG isn't much different than my 5.7 Tundra with the 4.30 gears.

The only other half ton truck I was interested in was the 6.2 Silverado/Sierra with the max towing package. I think this truck combo is a myth because no dealers in my state could locate one. They had plenty of the 5.3s to push me towards, but couldn't even order in a 6.2 from GM directly. I probably would have a 6.2 GM truck in my driveway if GM could have got me one, even considering it would require premium fuel.

Instead I got a 2016 Platinum Tundra where I had no problem finding a Tundra with the big engine/towing combo (5.7/4.30/38 gal fuel tank). The Tundra was also ~$7k cheaper MSRP over the 6.2 GM truck that were non-existent.

@JAck, what location do you live in, and when was this? I know 2 people who have this engine/truck, and also know there is one sitting 2 miles from my work with the 6.2

I did not know the GM engines had a variable displacement oil pump. I knew they used 0-20 motor oil. At least the 5.3L does. Interesting to see what manufactures are doing to try and increase efficiency.

Great idea on getting those Dems out of the white house.
We need to get rid of all government services. Like SSI, Medicare, EPA, Education, IRS, etc, and while we're at it lets get rid of unemployment benefits. Our country will be much better off without those. All those people that are benefitting form those programs will be out of work. That means less drivers on the road, less people buying trucks and cars so the price of gas will drop drastically since no one can afford to drive anywhere.
That will save truck MFG the billions of dollars they spend on emission upgrades. So now trucks will be way cheaper. But oh wait, no one's working or collecting SSI and their medical bills are thru the roof since they lost their Medicare so now they can't afford to buy a truck.

Cool engine technology and there is more to come, but lets not forget transmission improvements. I remember when lock-up torque converters were first put into vehicles which was an early technology that improved fuel efficiency. 8 speed transmissions certainly lowers fuel consumption around town. The more gears allows the transmission to upshift earlier and thus keeping engine RPM operating lower. The new 10 speed transmissions that are coming will only help improve fuel efficiency.

I would hope that Ford {and GM} makes the 10 speed automatic standard in all 4x4 pickups, as of 2017 model year.

. I remember when lock-up torque converters were first put into vehicles which was an early technology that improved fuel efficiency. 8 speed transmissions certainly lowers fuel consumption around town. The more gears allows the transmission to upshift earlier and thus keeping engine RPM operating lower. The new 10 speed transmissions that are coming will only help improve fuel efficiency.

Posted by: GMSRGREAT | Apr 4, 2016 11:00:21 AM

I'm sure you will argue back as you always do but 6,8, and 10 speed transmissions can help with hwy economy. But I believe the city will be the biggest improvement. The 10 speeds allows for a much lower gear in the beginning allowing a higher rear gear ratio in the diff. So while on the hwy you can have very low rpms. However you need efficiency at low rpms to make use of the gearing too. Some engines are really efficient at higher RPM but the trend is much lower RPMs and engine design to do that.

@Nitro it was roughly ~3-4 months ago here in Missouri (Midwest). I test drove a 5.3 and it just wasn't the truck for me and that's when I asked for the 6.2 combo and was told that I was basically SOL.

My local dealer here only has 1 6.2 and it's Denali with the 3.23 gears (not max tow package) and a $60k price tag on it.
Tons of 5.3s from WT to High Country/Denali, but either the 6.2's are selling before they are built or GM has some sort of a constraint on these 6.2/3.42 spec trucks. The 3.42 gears is the big killer here I think, I see tons of 6.2/3.23 geared trucks for sale on eBay and other dealerships.

On a comparison, I got my 16 Platinum Tundra (was on the lot already) basically every option and the MSRP was $51,700. I got it OTD for $47,000 cash including the $750 rebate from Toyota.
Maybe I'll wait and see if GM moves the 6.2 to lower trim trucks (those not ~$55k+), I know my Tundra will hold great resell value if I want to swap for a newer truck here in a few years.

Some engines are really efficient at higher RPM but the trend is much lower RPMs and engine design to do that.
Posted by: LMAO | Apr 4, 2016 12:01:42 PM

This is false!

I'm sure you will argue back as you always do but 6,8, and 10 speed transmissions can help with hwy economy.

Posted by: LMAO | Apr 4, 2016 12:01:42 PM

As usual LAMO , your wrong, I won't argue that point. LOL . However, you are correct about highway economy improvements are attainable with use of these newer 6, 8 and 10 speeds.

I'm sure you will argue back as you always do but 6,8, and 10 speed transmissions can help with hwy economy.

Posted by: LMAO | Apr 4, 2016 12:01:42 PM

As usual LAMO , your wrong, I won't argue that point. LOL . However, you are correct about highway economy improvements are attainable with use of these newer 6, 8 and 10 speeds.

I'm sure you will argue back as you always do but 6,8, and 10 speed transmissions can help with hwy economy.

Posted by: LMAO | Apr 4, 2016 12:01:42 PM

As usual LAMO , your wrong, I won't argue that point. LOL . However, you are correct about highway economy improvements are attainable with use of these newer 6, 8 and 10 speeds.

I don't know what happened there with the multiple posts????

Of course you can't argue. You will be even more wrong as usual

@LMAO you say that "some engines" are more efficient at higher rpms. Every gasoline engine is more efficient at higher rpms.

Look it up: Volumetric Efficiency aka VE

VE is the reason that engines today are better than the old engines of the 1930s

Remember, Fuel efficiency and VE are 2 different topics. VE refers more to power production per cubic displacement. Better VE does not necessarily translate to better fuel efficiency at all.

Cylinder Deactivation
"It also can help control heat, noise and vibration since less mass is moving around inside the engine"

That's the dumbest statement I've heard in a while. Someone needs to read up on how the cylinder deactivation works.

@LMAO better look that up, dude.

Show me even ONE example of an exception to the "better VE equals better FE" rule and I'll nominate you for president.

You can't do it.

Compare two identical engines, but one has better VE than the other. The one with the better VE will ALWAYS be more efficient.

@GMSRGREAT please re read my original comment.

You mentioned fuel economy, not me.

FE is the result of a combination of factors, including ambient weather conditions, driving style, load, and fuel quality IN ADDITION to the specifics of engine performance, gear ratios, wheel size.

I simply stated that an engine with greater VE will always be more efficient.

Not to sound like I'm bashing Toyota or anything, but it's no wonder their trucks have the worst fuel economy; they have no special technology going for them! I guess some can argue that it makes them more reliable, but I'm sure they can find a way to implement these technologies and make them reliable, if they put enough time and research into it.

smaller tires!
bigger tires and wheels are more weight requires more engine power to turn
2 or 3 speed rear diffs that changes the gear ratio
CVT Transmissions, more direct power to the wheels , less weight
side air scoops that fold down under the truck as it increases speed , air resistance under the vehicle causes drag (Honda CRV)

@LouDC nix the multi-gear differential package.

With multi-speed auto transmissions you really don't need it.

If you have an 8 or 10 spd trans, and a torquey motor you really don't need more.

There is a point of diminishing returns in all this bit with gears and engine technology. It costs more to design, build, repair which equals more ownership cost. At some point the fuel savings don't equal the up front costs.

"1980 to 2014, light vehicles showed a 124 percent increase in horsepower and a 47 percent improvement in zero-to-60-mph times, but just a 27 percent improvement in fuel economy"

Am I the only one that thinks this is a stupid statement?

A 124% improvement in power WITH a 27% improvement in mpg.

I don't see any problem.

ADD to that statement vehicles that are markedly more reliable and much more safe.

Lou_DC - smaller tires make no sense considering the size of brake rotors and the weight and capacity of modern pickups.

The 20 inch wheels/tires on my brother-in-laws F150 are virtually the same diameter as the 18's on my XLT.

I could get better mpg by changing back to 4 ply tires but any fuel savings get eaten up by flat tires and poor off highway performance.

2 speed rear diffs only work in 4x2. Add extra complexity and weight. As papa jim has pointed out, rear end ratio's now have a negligible mpg effect due to 6-10 speed transmissions.

All of the low hanging fruit related to mpg has been picked.

dale milner - spoken like a true Friedmanite. The problem is that in reality any time government has handed everything over to the private sector we see 20-60% of the population in poverty.
Ever wonder why Trump is so popular with rank and file Repubs BUT is hated by the Republican Elites?

HE is against open unfettered free trade.

@jack - I'd say that only 2 trucks on my dealer's lot at any given time are 6.2's. The usually have around 100 pickups on the lot. That would mean roughly 2% of GM's 1/2 ton fleet are 6.2 (assuming even distribution between dealers). I personally would not bother with a 5.3 since the 6.2 has similar mpg but better HP.

Not all of the 6.2's I have seen are in high end trucks. My local dealer tends to have a fairly even split of high end and mid-level trim 6.2's. I've never seen a 6.2 in a base model.

@ooxxii - feel free to move to Brazil or India. Those countries have less stringent vehicle safety requirements. Oh and mortality rates are much higher.

@LouBC welcome back, stranger!

Agree re: the political climate.

Re: GM 6.2 motor and availability. It is odd, unless you consider that GM may be bowing to Washington on this.

They make AT LEAST an extra thousand dollars on every 5.3 to 6.2 upgrade, and considering the buyer is forced to include a luxo-upgrade package to even get the 6.2, it's probably more like 5 to 10 grand on the final MSRP sticker.

And of course it costs them no more to actually build the 6.2 over any other gas V8 in their lineup. Same numbers of little parts and big greasy bits. Same number of holes to drill.

Must be the CAFE.

"superchargers push air while turbochargers pull air"

Uh... Is this for real? They both suck in air. Might want to read up on how they work.

Ive just checked mpg on new Colorado v6 = 24 mpg
My 08 Silvy with 4.8 v8 gets 26 mpg

Interesting stuff


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@Chevrolet builds a better way to see the USA

The only way your 4.8 LS is getting more than 22 mpg is going downhill in neutral with a tailwind.


He is not getting over 20 mpg with the 4.8. Doubt GM would stop making a 26 mpg motor.

Lou_BC - - -

"All of the low hanging fruit related to mpg has been picked."

Close, but not quite. Here are some more engine, or engine/fuel, advances coming down the road:

1) REAL Variable Displacement Engines (similar to the inserted "puck" idea mentioned above in the article, but done right);

2) Water (or MeOH/Water) Injection (BMW is exploring this currently). Steam expands 400-to 1; gas/air about 70-to-1.

3) Pneumatic/hydraulic valve actuation (This produces a square wave form, not a sinusoid, as with cams.) Koenigsegg and Audi are working on this. The benefit is "instant on / instant off", with better engine breathing, meaning higher HP and MPG's;

4) Reinvestigation of n-butanol ("bio-butanol") as either a pure fuel, or as a fuel additive. This can be fermented from algae; is "carbon neutral"; is automatically high octane (~ 105); and has NO undesirable effects, unlike like grain alcohol (EtOH).

Just some examples. I'm sure there are others...


Turbos and superchargers both ***push*** air into the cylinders. How else would they compress the air? If you pull air into a vacuum, once it reaches equilibrium it stops entering the vacuum, and therefore can't compress.

What a poor article. Nothing written in it is new or unheard of, and, more importantly, it doesn't address the biggest factor in fuel efficiency; the driver. It doesn't address maintenance, air pressure in the tires, gearing, aerodynamics, driving techniques, etc etc etc

papa jim

you talk about a 8 to 10 speed transmission but a CVT is unlimited to be 40 to 100 speed transmissions plus the torque converter and the fluids of a transmission suck up or take away the engine power. A CVT is a direct drive resulting more engine power to the wheels, transmissions waste engine power.
Take a look at the new semi-tractor trailer trucks, they all have side air scoops on the bottom of the trailers , this gets them 3 to 6 mpg increase, look at the race cars where the bodies hug the ground to control the air resistance under the vehicle, that results in faster speed and better gas mileage, look under a Honda CRV.
Now I know air scoops hanging down from a 4x4 truck won't work going off road but at higher speeds they do, I say make them fold down at higher speeds on the highway.
also diff gear ratios depend on mountain or flat ground driving, like 3.73 gears are more efficient climbing a steep mountain than a 3.23 ratio, so suppose half of your driving is on flat land and the other half is on level ground, wouldn't it be nice to change the gear ratios? It's done on big trucks, semi trucks for that reason!
Excuse me but MY ideas are the best in here, nobody else comes close!

@Lou_BC: Smaller tires make lots of sense, if you really don't NEED the taller tires.

There must be a reason Ford went back to using 245 70 17 tires.

Ah yes, it takes far less torque to get them moving, and braking can be much better, because a smaller overall wheel tire combo is easier to slowing down.

Nobody said install 14" wheels on a pickup, it's just the difference of 265 70 17s, vs like 275 50 20, that is only maybe 66 pounds more capacity per tire. Now consider the 275 50 20 heavier weight between a wider taller rim, and more tire, your extra capacity is down to less than 60 pounds, and they always put more capacity in the tires then is actually needed. (unless you corner or go four wheeling so and you have one tire off the ground, constantly.

Besides, you can get those LT tires for the 245 or 265 17 tires a lot easier than a 275 60 20.

But, guys like the look of bigger tires, so dealers tend to get the majority of their trucks with the bigger tires.

I won't have the 20" wheels, and 265, or actually, 245 70 17 would suit my needs.

Excellent article. Very interesting. Thanks PU.com

NMGOM - when I say low hanging fruit I'm referring to lower cost engineering advancements.

I started getting much better fuel economy by regularly adding a quart of Lucas Oil to my oil changes. That stuff makes the V8 in my truck run a lot smoother too.

TRX-4 Tom - my point is that smaller wheels don't necessarily changes the tire size. If one wants to run low friction mpg tires to save 100 dollars a year then that is their choice.
I do agree that 20's on a pickup is stupid. it is just a fashion accessory. 18's are a good size since there is a good selection of tires especially when one steps up to LT's.

papa jim - thanks. This site's lack of blog moderation kills most threads so I've avoided commenting. More importantly though, I was off on vacation for a few weeks.

"My 08 Silvy with 4.8 v8 gets 26 mpg"


The GM Safari van I owned with 4.3 NEVER got better than 24 mpg (Canadian gallon) or 20 mpg US.

A friend of mine has a 4.8 Silverado. My 5.4 consistently gets better mpg.

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