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Ford, GM and Ram: Pedal to the metal to claim pickup mpg crown

A look at the instrumen cluster of the Ford F-150 diesel. Photo credit: MIKE LEVINE VIA TWITTER

While fuel economy is less important to most consumers in this time of cheap fuel prices, at least one segment of buyers still considers it crucial: pickup drivers. General Motors, Ford and Ram know that, and they have not backed off on boosting fuel economy in the new or revamped versions of the Chevy Silverado, Ford F-150 and Ram 1500.

While it might not be a fuel economy race among the diesel versions of the F-150 and Silverado and the hybrid Ram 1500, each company's marketers would love to have bragging rights for best-in-class fuel efficiency because every claim in the supercompetitive pickup market creates distance between competitors. And fuel economy is right up there with towing and hauling.

Because many -- if not most -- pickups are bought and put to work, the more efficient a truck is, the less downtime is required to fill the tank. Also, fuel-efficient trucks increase range between fuel stops.

Ford has said it is targeting 30 mpg with the F-150 diesel. And clues are emerging that Ford is on its way to meeting and probably exceeding that target. Ford's tireless PR man, Mike Levine, posted on his Twitter account a photo and a video showing the instrument cluster of an early F-150 diesel, probably undergoing final testing. The cluster provides some interesting information.

A graphic showing the truck's fuel economy in the previous 30 minutes of driving showed a high of 35 mpg, a low of what looks like 15 mpg and an average of 24.9. The distance to empty in one of the tweets showed an impressive 648 miles. The F-150 diesel has a fuel tank capacity of 26 gallons. It's unclear from the video if the tank was full, but 648 miles is enough range to drive from Manhattan to Detroit without a fuel stop.

As for the upcoming Silverado diesel, a friend at GM says Chevrolet "is not worried" about Ford's 30 mpg target for the F-150. The 2019 Silverado gets a new inline-six turbodiesel along with weight reductions, aerodynamic improvements and the same 10-speed automatic transmission as on the F-150 diesel.

GM and Ford, you will recall, jointly developed the 10-speed automatic and are counting on it to help push their trucks up to and probably beyond 30 mpg. Officially, GM has been vague about its fuel economy targets for the Silverado diesel. GM's product development chief, Mark Reuss, has said the truck will be "the most efficient" in the segment.

As for the latest 1500 Ram coming in a few weeks, it looks like the city fuel economy crown may be in reach. All V-6 models get a standard eTorque hybrid powertrain that includes stop-start. Hybrids, as you know, excel in efficiency in city driving, while diesels excel driving down the road at a steady speed. I'm hearing through the Detroit grapevine that the 2019 Ram 1500 could post an eye-popping EPA city fuel economy rating.

Levine notes that Ford is not in a fuel economy race, but is focusing on delivering a fuel-efficient, diesel-powered light-duty truck that answers a need expressed by a segment of F-150 buyers: They want a truck that can provide astounding highway fuel economy or best-in-class towing capability.

Though GM was first to market a truck with an EPA certified 30 mpg highway rating with the diesel versions of the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, no one has pulled that off with a full-size truck. That is expected to change this summer with the F-150 diesel, which arrives before the Silverado diesel and will likely own bragging rights -- at least initially.

But the question isn't going to be which full-size truck gets to 30 mpg first, but which exceeds 30 mpg the most. The real prize is fuel economy leadership. I'll go out on a limb here and say that I think Chevrolet has the best chance of posting the highest EPA-certified highway number.

Here's why: GM's inline-six diesel is a new engine and it benefits from lightweighting and friction reduction improvements, and it will have the latest technologies. Dan Nicholson, GM's powertrain chief, told me the engine has been designed for one purpose: to power a light-duty truck.

Ford's V-6 diesel is excellent and has won kudos since Ford and Peugeot launched the original version, a 2.7-liter, in 2004. In 2009, the engine was stretched to 3.0 liters. It has been popular in Land Rover vehicles. The version to be used in the F-150 has been extensively revamped, says Dave Filipe, Ford's powertrain vice president.

The age of the Ford engine is the only sliver of daylight I can see separating the fuel economy performance of the F-150 and Silverado diesels. The trucks have been lightweighted and tweaked aerodynamically and they have the same 10-speed transmission and same size engine.

In my view, an investment in improving the fuel economy of a pickup is a winning bet, regardless of politics and fuel prices. With the F-150, Silverado and Ram, Detroit automakers have stepped up. When will Toyota and Nissan get serious about their big trucks and start doing the heavy lifting to make them competitive in all areas, including fuel economy?

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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