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Top Trends in Truck Efficiency

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2012 Chevrolet Silverado and other C/K1500

author photo by David Boldt

Not that long ago, buying a truck was as simple as picking a color. Beyond farmers, cowboys and businesses, few drivers had the need or the desire to own and operate a pickup. Of course that's all changed, with trucks occupying the top rungs of most automakers' sales ladders. But with gasoline hitting $4 per gallon, many drivers are growing tired of $100-plus fillups and 12 miles per gallon. There's a need for new technology to boost efficiency, and truck builders are starting to deliver.

If you read the reports or see the ever-present advertising, you might think Ford's EcoBoost technology is the neatest advance in pickup design since, well, the pickup bed. Of course, utilizing smaller displacement powertrains and boosting their performance with turbochargers or superchargers isn't new, but its widespread application in light duty trucks certainly is. Ford seems to be onto something, as its EcoBoost V6 now accounts for roughly 40% of new F-150 sales.

The mathematical argument in favor of Ford's turbocharged V6 is compelling. With only 3.5-liters of displacement the EcoBoost V6 produces 5 more horsepower than Ford's new 5.0-liter V8 (365 vs. 360) and almost as much torque (420 lb-ft vs. 434 lb-ft) as its 6.2-liter V8. And while producing prodigious power figures, the EcoBoost V6 compares very favorably with the economy of Ford's base V6, a 3.7-liter producing 302 horsepower and just 278 lb-ft of torque. The 3.7-liter V6 achieves 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, while the EcoBoost gets 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway (both figures are for 4X2 drivetrains).

Of course when considering a pickup the decision is generally based on more than just efficiency; capability also plays an important role. Ford claims a best-in-class towing capability of 11,300 pounds while managing a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy.

Of course General Motors and Chrysler aren't going to let Ford have its own way in a tech-driven marketplace. The General started beating the efficiency drum early with a very efficient V8 lineup, as well as what GM describes as a 'mild' hybrid. The V8 powertrains were well received, and the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra (together) regularly challenge Ford for the top-seller crown. GM's mild hybrid, however, is less compelling, providing a 25 percent improvement in fuel economy, but at a significant cost premium over non-hybrid models.

Chrysler buyers can have it both ways; the Hemi engine in the Ram 1500 pickup can serve as either a 5.7-liter V8 or as a 2.85-liter 4-cylinder thanks to its Multi-Displacement System (MDS) which shuts off cylinders under lighter loads to conserve fuel. In nominating the MDS Hemi for its 10 Best Engines list, Ward's AutoWorld magazine noted the Hemi's "advanced new technology...which allows cruising in 4-cylinder mode about 40 percent of the time." And with a 20 mpg highway rating from the EPA, the Hemi's power, efficiency and smoothness make for a compelling choice in the Ram 1500.

Of course, there's much more to a truck's efficiency than what's under the hood. All three domestic truck makers, as well as Toyota and Nissan, are paying appropriate attention to transmission offerings and, in their next generation of trucks, will also work to reduce vehicle weight. Light-duty diesels continue to generate rumors, but there's no tangible news to share yet. Finally, GM will remain in the midsize pickup segment with a new Colorado and Canyon, giving shoppers of the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier a credible alternative.

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Top Trends in Truck Efficiency