by Bob Plunkett

Work hard, play hard.

SOLVANG, California - As we drove along sandy tracks on a cattle ranch, beside the Solvang River, the path turned into rutted chutes of tire-sucking mud due to flooding from recent gully-washers. Passage to the cow pens required a big vehicle rigged not only with tall chassis and four-wheel traction but husky power to plow a path through all that goo.

For this task, no namby-pamby pickup would do. It took a super truck. The vehicle that conquered that oozing mire of mud amounted to Ford's new F-350 Super Duty pickup truck trimmed in plush Lariat edition and outfitted with dual rear wheels, 4x4 traction mode, and the power of 275 horses as harnessed by a new 6.8-liter V-10 engine.

Super Duty? That's Ford's descriptive for supersize F-Series work trucks with gross vehicle weight exceeding 8,500 pounds. New designs for 1999 issues ride on longer chassis that accommodate larger cabs, and these trucks pack more power from a new series of big Ford engines.

There's only vague resemblance between new Super Duty trucks and the light-duty F-150 and F-250 pickups revamped last year, as both types carry a bed in back. The supertrucks measure bigger in all dimensions, however, and they sport a squarish macho face with chrome grille set below a muscular hood with bulging power dome. They look like F-150s only after the steroids kick in. Ford plans to construct as many as 350,000 of these work trucks each year, a jump of 100,000 units over the previous heavy-duty truck series, to meet what has become an explosive demand for serious haulers.

To sate this demand, Ford builds Super Duty trucks in a dizzy array of sizes with varying wheelbases, chassis and bed lengths, cab styles, trim and powertrain choices the lot tallies to 44 different 4x2 and 4x4 configurations.

The series begins in sizewise sequence with the F-250 Super Duty truck, which differs from the light-duty F-250 (essentially a beefed-up variation of F-150) because it rides on the new Super Duty chassis and pulls from one of the three new engines designated for Super Duty trucks.

The base F-250 Super Duty has the shortest wheelbase of the series 137 inches. It features a regular-size two-door cab and offers the choice in back of either a pickup box that's 8 feet long or no box (called Chassis Cab), so you can customize it for specific tasks like snowplowing or hoisting. Both 4x2 and 4x4 configurations are available with the F-250, but for this smallest Super Duty truck there's no option for dual rear wheels as is available on larger F-350 trucks.

The real cab stretchers here are the SuperCab and Crew Cab, each with four doors and more room for riders or gear. The rear doors for the SuperCab model use rear hinges. They close by tucking behind front doors and open in the absence of B-pillars to provide a wide, unencumbered space for entry. On the Crew Cab variation, conventional front-hinged doors work in an arrangement resembling a four-door sedan. With SuperCab and Crew Cab modes, choices extend to size of the back bed either a short 6.75-foot box or 8-foot length, or no box.

Chassis for these trucks differ from the F-250 Regular Cab because of the need for a longer wheelbase to accommodate longer cabs. SuperCab wheelbases run to 142 and 156 inches, with Crew Cab wheelbases to 156 and 172 inches, depending on short or long box length.

Next step up in size sequence leads to the F-350, which serves as the core of Ford's Super Duty series. While the gross vehicle weight rating of all F-250 Super Duty trucks comes to 8,800 pounds, the F-350 series begins at 9,900 pounds and ranges through options of Chassis Cab and dual rear wheels and diesel engine to 12,500 pounds. (Beyond F-350, the F-450 dual-rear-wheel Chassis Cab reaches 15,000 pounds and behemoth F-550 six-wheel models (Chassis and Regular Cab) cap the line at 19,000 pounds.)

To trim these truck for comfort and convenience, Super Duty F-250 and F-350 models use three tiers standard XL, XLT with more features, and Lariat with luxury fittings. Chassis Cab for F-350/450/550 does not offer the Lariat.

New engines for Super Duty trucks consist of gasoline V-8 and V-10 and a direct-injection diesel V-8. Each brings increases in power and fuel efficiency, plus more usable muscle at lower engine speeds. Ford's Triton 5.4-liter V-8 with single overhead cam and sequential multiple-port fuel injection serves as base plant for F-250 and F-350 trucks, producing 235 hp at 4250 rpm and a torque measure of 335 foot-pounds at 3000 rpm. The new Triton V-10, displacing 6.8 liters, tops the Super Duty power curve at 275 hp, with torque to 410 foot-pounds at 2750 rpm. And the Power Stroke diesel at 7.3 liters musters 235 hp and massive torque of 500 foot-pounds at only 1600 rpm.

Manual transmissions contain five forward gears for gasoline engines and six for diesel. A new automatic four-speed shifter runs across the board for all models and engines. In addition, with the automatic transmission an optional power takeoff provision for V-10 or diesel supplies auxiliary power to drive add-on work devices such as a snowplow, tow lift or dump bed.

Traction confidence from the application of a four-wheel-drive system also extends to all Super Duty sizes. The standard unit incorporates a manual shifter and manual locking of front hubs, but for F-250 and F-350 a new optional electronic shift-on-the-fly device with an electropneumatic hub lock front axle represents the first part-time 4x4 transfer case available for big trucks in the over-8500-pound GVW class.

Despite the intimidating size of Super Duty trucks, they're quite mannerly and surprisingly easy to drive, thanks to the balance between strong suspensions and power controls for steering and braking, plus smart layouts for cabs with easy-reach controls and easy-read gauges. Interior comforts include conveniences like fold-down armrests and a console with compartments to hold work tools such as a laptop computer.

Bottom line: The Super Duty scores as a superior design from Ford, and the price structure seems extremely fair, beginning at $19,160 for F-250 and around $22,500 for F-350.

© The Car Connection

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