It's a simple rule: If you want to be big, you have to act big. And Ford's new Mighty Tonka F-350 concept truck should, literally, be as big as it gets. Every year, before the major auto shows, just about every manufacturer attempts to dazzle the world with its most recent technological triumph: "Here's the amazing new vehicle we'll have next year!" Sometimes, depending on the product, it gets the attention it wants; other times, the attention it deserves.

In addition to the bright, shiny new pickups and SUVs on the turntables, manufacturers show off their wild side in the form of concept vehicles. These autos are more like testbeds of what could happen years down the road. Some concepts look so futuristic, you fully expect a rocket motor underhood, while others are only thinly disguised next-generation prototypes that have engineers and marketing people standing at the back of the crowds, nervously listening to show-goer comments.

This year, Ford came to us early in the process, wanting to know what we thought about a new concept truck it'd be showing at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this year. What we discovered is that Ford is using this behemoth Mighty Tonka F-350 concept dualie as a testbed for far-out as well as real-world technology that could make it into the next-generation Super Duty, tentatively slated for an '05 debut.

The Look
Nothing says dramatic like bleached, eye-burning yellow, but there's something almost soothing here. Smooth, clean lines walk the delicate balance between striving for ultra-modern, while keeping a traditional Ford-truck look. Pat Shiavone, Tough Truck design director in charge of how Rangers, F-150s, and Super Duties will look in the future, says, "We know this isn't an easy walk to make--staying true to our heritage, while still trying to push the envelope." A huge front hood, with swollen chrome grille teeth make the Mighty F-350 look bigger than a 1-ton. Medium duty in height and width, the overall length of this concept is shorter than a Super Cab long-bed F-350 pickup. Much of the drama comes from the 22-in. custom rims and almost 40-in. agricultural-looking tires. The absence of a B-pillar in the cab allowed designers to create a completely new side look, again keeping lines smooth and clean. Doors oppose each other when open, almost a full 90*, allowing for easy ingress and egress. Likewise, the highish ride height automatically drops, bleeding off all the air inside the air suspension when any of the doors is open, making for a much easier step-in to the massive pickup. Also, a fold-down drop-down step flips out from the body when the door is open to give passengers even more access to their seat of choice.

The F-350 show truck has dual rear wheels, but doesn't have a bed with the typical bulging flares to accommodate the extra width. Instead, the bed and truck have extra width making it appear like a single rear-wheel pickup; however, all four massive rear tires sit underneath. The only tip-off are the two protruding fenderwells inside the truck bed. Lost bed space isn't an issue since this concept is designed for a fifth-wheel trailer. What looks like a polished billet-aluminum fifth-wheel hitch, mounted on four rugged frame mounts, could pass for a modern sculpture. Other appreciated exterior details are the four, giant, chromed tow hooks that look well suited for military use.

The Power
Underhood, International has an all-new 6.0L intercooled, turbocharged OHV V-8 Powerstroke, reported to put out over 600 lb-ft of torque and be tunable up to 350 hp. It's been rumored that International was going to replace the aging 7.3L V-8 Powerstroke with something smaller. This looks like it. It's our guess this is one of those pieces that should soon be ready for production--maybe even before the new Super Duties come out. This Powerstroke is about 75 lb lighter, has been specifically designed to be the quietest diesel available, offers almost 15-percent-better fuel economy, and includes a turbo that eliminates turbo lag. Finally, filter changes will no longer include messy drips. All filters are top-mounted and get replaced like cartridges, where it's necessary only to release the dirty one from its housing then snapping a clean one in its place. Likewise, a completely new five-speed heavy-duty automatic transmission (designed by Ford) will back up the diesel for the concept F-350, but we're also guessing this is very close to "ready to go," as well.

The Lift
Although the vehicle's outside look is certainly eye candy, if Ford wants this to be more than a toy, what counts is underneath. It stuck with the heavy-duty Dana 80 in the rear and solid axle Dana 50 up front, but it's reinforced both front and rear axles with beefier support arms and a heavy-duty, fairly high-tech air-suspension system. We've already identified that it can drop to the bump-stops when a door is opened. In addition, the adjustable air suspension can kneel when parked and raise to maximum height for water crossings (all controlled from the cockpit). Even more high tech, the same system is tied into front and rear sensors that can automatically, in less than a second, bleed air to match any impending collision with a smaller car, fence, or post. Using radar sensors similar to the backup beams in many car and truck products in front and rear bumpers, the computer can anticipate a crash and adjust ride height within the full limits of the air suspension, making the vehicle safer for all passengers.

The Spring
One of the most promising pieces of advanced technology on the Mighty F-350 is hidden from sight and could potentially add up to 30-percent-better fuel-economy numbers. The system is called Hydraulic Launch Assist, and the idea is to capture braking energy, store it, and then transfer it into takeoff power. The system uses two highly pressurized tanks (5000 psi) filled with nitrogen located under the driver's seat, mounted to the frame, and tied into the driveline. Imagine you're holding a large spring, pressing in as hard as you can from both ends. That's the energy collected when coming to a stop, being held in the forward pressurized tank. As you release the spring, that's the energy being used to take off from a dead stop.

We're told this transfer from one nitrogen tank to the other can move a 6500-lb truck up to 25 mph without any use of the engine in just a few seconds. Since moving a body at rest takes the most energy, there's plenty of fuel to be saved here with this technology. Of course, it will only last for a few seconds, as the pressure between the two tanks equalizes until the next stop, when energy will be stored again in the front tank. This capturing of braking energy and converting it to takeoff power has huge applications for heavy fleet vehicles and larger pickups and SUVs.

The Cockpit
"If there's one thing concept-truck teams learn pretty quick," says Pat Shiavone (more correctly good design teams), "it's that even though you have to play the exterior-truck designs pretty carefully, you can play quite a bit with the interiors." Looking more like an aviation cockpit than a truck interior, the Mighty F-350 attempts to combine individualized function with high-tech modular form. We're told that in the future truck buyers will want to more successfully customize their vehicles, choosing specific gauge clusters and message center priorities. Detachable GPS systems, altimeters, and Palm Pilots can be mounted straight onto the dash and integrated into the vehicle's main computer. A huge center console allows the driver not only to decide between transmission gears and four-wheel-drive modes, but also vary tractive force from right to left, front to rear, with an additional graduated adjuster handle.

Seating for the Mighty offers fully suspended driver and passenger seats to smooth out terrain irregularities, as well as a five-point harness for protection. Rear seats include enough room for three hefty adults and luggage, provided they use the integrated luggage modules located underneath each seat bottom. The carry totes have enough room for safety gear and emergency provisions or can be filled with several days worth of clothing for a short vacation. It's our guess that few of the actual pieces will make it to production, but overall dash, gauge, and size layout could be close to next-gen Super Duty specs.

The Brains
One of the more unnerving high-tech hardware pieces to the Mighty F-350 concept puzzle is the super-computing Prognostics and Telemetric monitoring system. All vehicles nowadays have diagnostic programs, communicating with the driver through a message center or dummy lights. This truck takes it a few steps further. Not only does the computer monitor engine, suspension, transmission, axle, and other aspects of the vehicle, but it will predict necessary services, compensate other related systems, contact the local dealer, order any parts necessary, make the appointment, and tell the service mechanic to drop you an e-mail. A little scary. There's a good idea in here somewhere, but we'll admit this is a tough one to get our arms around. Regardless, this could be of great benefit for fleets, where different vehicles are driven by countless drivers at varying rates and often ignored. Services can be identified when needed, however soon or late into the life of the vehicle. For many, having a vehicle that monitors its own health, makes its own checkups, diagnoses its own problems, and even preps itself for surgery, could be a huge benefit. Look for this type of technology to make its way into luxury vehicles first, then slowly trickle down to the rest of us.

The Result
Will this truck ever see the light of day? Certainly, there'll be a few people scouting the auto shows to gauge reaction. Every idea has to start somewhere, but whether the Mighty F-350 does get the green light, there are definitely clues, if not major hints, as to what styling preferences the next truck designers have what they'd like to see. "It wouldn't surprise us one bit," says Pat Shiavone, "if the next Ranger had a look like this--but that's another story."

We've had to do a lot of guessing in this story because the Ford people are quite good at protecting information, but we should mention that just about every time we asked a specific question, their denials were attached to a wry smile. Should make what happens next pretty interesting.

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