The mad truck dash to 30 mpg on highway and pickup gold

The Ram 1500 EcoDiesel is EPA certified at 28 mpg on the highway, and now Chrysler owns the fuel economy crown by a whopping 4 mpg over its nearest competitor.

If you thought the pickup wars -- manufacturers' ongoing offensive to top each other with towing and payload increases and an ever-expanding array of luxury features -- couldn't get any more intense, you are dead wrong.

There's a three-way shootout over pickup fuel economy raging among the Detroit 3. And 30 mpg is the next milestone.

Ford fired the first shot four years ago with a pair of powerful V-6s, including a twin turbo engine, that made V-6 pickups cool.

In 2013, Chrysler bumped off Ford's class-leading 23 mpg highway rating with 25 mpg for the V-6 Ram 1500. GM rubbed a little salt in Ford's wound by beating the F-150 with its new Silverado and Sierra V-6's 24-mpg highway rating from a new 4.3-liter V-6 engine.

And now with news that the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel is EPA certified at 28 mpg on the highway, Chrysler owns the fuel economy crown by a whopping 4 mpg over its nearest competitor.

Just like that the F-150's EPA rating went from first to worst among the Detroit 3. But lurking around the bend is the 2015 F-150, whose aluminum body weighs between 550 and 700 pounds less than the 2014 model.

The pressure is huge for Ford to hit the big three-oh on the highway. Doing so would justify the huge investment to switch from steel to aluminum, it would knock Chrysler out of the top spot, and the marketing rewards of being the first full-sized pickup to get 30 mpg on the highway would be massive. But it won't be easy.

A little back-of-the-napkin calculation indicates Ford probably won't hit 30 mpg highway right away with its new lightweight truck, even with its new 2.7-liter turbo engine.

The lightest version of the current F-150 weighs 4,685 pounds. If the lightest 2015 model weighs 468 pounds less, the 10 percent weight reduction would only yield a 6 to 7 percent fuel economy gain, or about 2 mpg. That would move the 2015 F-150 to about 25 mpg on the highway.

However, the new truck is larger than the 2014 model and probably less aerodynamic. And the available stop-start system helps improve city fuel economy, not highway.

About 18 months from now, Ford will equip the F-150 with a 10-speed automatic transmission, which could elevate the highway fuel economy into the 30 range. And if someday Ford offers a small diesel engine along with that 10-speed automatic in the lightweight F-150, fuel economy would likely be well north of 30 mpg.

While Ford is tooling up for the new F-150, Chrysler isn't standing still with its Ram EcoDiesel or with its V-6 gasoline truck. Ram does not intend to give up pickup fuel economy leadership. Luis Catani, Fiat Chrysler's chief diesel engineer, says there is plenty of room to improve the fuel economy of the truck.

As for General Motors, the new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon offer the best hope for pulling ahead of Chrysler and Ford in the pickup fuel economy war. These two new trucks are slightly smaller than the Silverado and Sierra. They will have an array of fuel efficient powertrains, including a 2.8-liter diesel engine, and a four-cylinder engine available with a six-speed manual transmission.

If Chrysler can deliver 28 mpg highway with a 3.0-liter V-6 diesel in a full-sized Ram 1500, GM may very well hit 30 or more with the four-cylinder diesel in the Colorado and Canyon.

Jeff Luke, GM's chief engineer for full-sized trucks, said fuel efficiency is a top priority for the two new trucks. At the Chicago Auto Show last week, Luke wouldn't confirm that GM is going for 30, but he did say it's possible there could be a "3" in at least one of the ratings for the Colorado and Canyon.

As for Toyota and Nissan, diesel also seems to be the way forward in their efforts to boost fuel economy. Nissan's Titan pickup will get a Cummins 5.0-liter diesel engine in 2015.

Two sources tell me that Toyota will also use that very same Cummins 5.0-liter diesel engine in its Tundra pickup in 2017. Last week in Chicago, I asked Bob Carter, Toyota's senior vice president for automotive operations about that. Here's what he said: "You have good sources, but I won't confirm or deny that today."

About a decade ago, most full-sized trucks could only manage about 15 mpg on the highway. Now some are nudging 30 mpg. It's amazing what can happen when automakers focus their attention on a problem.

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