Ford, Ram trucks square off in fuel economy, tech race

Richard Truett covers engineering for Automotive News.Richard Truett covers engineering for Automotive News.
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Watch for a pickup truck fuel economy war between Ford's F-150 EcoBoost and Chrysler's new Ram 1500 EcoDiesel.

Consumers finally will have a chance to weigh the benefits and running costs of a downsized turbocharged gasoline engine against a similar sized diesel in similar pickups with similar prices. We're talking about the 2014 Ford F-150 with its 3.5-liter EcoBoost gasoline V-6 and the new 2014 Ram 1500 with its 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6.

The stats: The F-150 XL SuperCrew starts at $32,010. The bump in price to add the EcoBoost twin turbo V-6 is $2,095. Add in the $1,195 shipping charge, and you could be out the door for $35,300, plus taxes and whatever fees the dealer tacks on.

The Ram 1500 Crew Cab with a Hemi V-8 and an eight-speed costs $33,870. The upgrade to the EcoDiesel punches the Ram's price up $2,850. Add in $1,195 for shipping, and the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel is priced at $37,915 before taxes and dealer fees. So the trucks are priced fairly closely.

What do you get for your money?

The F-150 spins the wheels through a six-speed automatic, while the Ram EcoDiesel does it through an eight-speed automatic. In terms of horsepower, the F-150 crushes the Ram, 365 hp to 240. But horsepower is not the most important measurement in truck engines. Torque, a measurement of the twisting power of the wheels, is a better measure of truck engine performance. An abundance of torque means a heavily laden truck can pull its load up a mountain road without struggling. Horsepower has more to do with a vehicle's top speed. The EcoBoost and EcoDiesel engines are tied at 420 pounds-feet of torque.

Ram's 2014 1500 pickup with a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 engine.

With its 145-inch wheelbase, the F-150 EcoBoost can tow 11,300 pounds maximum, while the Ram EcoDiesel can move 9,200 pounds.

Fuel economy is the yardstick many buyers comparing the Ford and Ram trucks will be looking at. So let's give the F-150 EcoBoost its props.

Driven with the lightest of feet, the EcoBoost engine is capable of meeting and even slightly exceeding its 23 mpg highway EPA fuel economy rating. It's a winning powertrain that has been sold in more than 400,000 trucks in the past four years. But drive the EcoBoost F-150 with a heavy foot, and the fuel economy tumbles into the low teens. You can have Eco, and you can have Boost. But you can't have both at the same time and get good fuel economy.

The Ram EcoDiesel has not been rated yet by the EPA, but the early indications are that it will pummel the F-150 EcoBoost in fuel economy. First, Chrysler provided an early build truck for testing. One Automotive News staff member piled 1,100 miles on it in a week and got more than 23 mpg in hard driving, which means fast takeoffs from stoplights and blasting onto the highway to get up to speed quickly. Driven normally, the truck returned 28 mpg.

I took that truck for a run from downtown Detroit to the Wayne County Metropolitan Airport, around Dearborn, Mich., and back to Automotive News in downtown Detroit, a trip of about 60 miles. Setting the cruise control at 63 mph on the highway, the truck twice pegged the fuel economy meter at a carlike 29.9 mpg. But that number declined quickly when I drove in town, and my overall fuel economy was 25.8 in combined city/highway -- still respectable.

But there is no free lunch when it comes to fuel economy. A diesel engine delivers higher fuel economy, but it costs more to feed one. Nationally, diesel fuel costs about 60 cents more a gallon than regular gasoline, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report and the U.S. Department of Energy.

With a 145-inch wheelbase, the F-150 EcoBoost can tow 11,300 pounds maximum

While it's more expensive to fill up the Ram, at least you can do it less often. The Ram's range between fill-ups will likely be around 725 miles on a tank. That is based on 28 mpg highway, which Motor Trend magazine achieved with a Ram 1500 EcoDiesel in instrumented testing. And 28 mpg is also Chrysler's goal for the truck.

The F-150 is going to need a fresh tank of gasoline every 598 miles -- but only if it achieves its exact 23 mpg EPA highway rating, which is unlikely.

Finally, the F-150 rides on 500-year-old suspension technology -- rear leaf springs -- which were invented in the middle ages. The Ram 1500 uses modern coil springs in the rear for a quieter, smoother ride.

Rolling into 2014, Ram is ahead in this race right now. Ram has spent the money, done the heavy lifting and has delivered a superior truck -- with a more fuel-efficient engine, a more modern suspension and more gears in the transmission. But things could change by the end of 2014 when an all-new F-150 debuts. The new one will have a lighter, aluminum-intensive body. Nothing is known about the rear suspension yet, but the new F-150 gives Ford an excellent opportunity to unshackle itself from the old-fashioned leaf springs. EcoBoost vs. EcoDiesel: 2014 is going to be interesting.

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