It was a dark and stormy night. Seriously, it really was, making it a very good thing that the 2009 F-150 we were using to tow some 5000 pounds of stuff from SoCal to the southern tip of the Rockies was far more surefooted than we’d expected. The trip continued in a stormy fashion, and it wasn’t until almost halfway through the 1000-mile journey that the wipers finally got to lie down and rest—at this point, nearly useless anyway, due to becoming embedded in ice as the altitude had increased near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Closely followed by a veritable parachute in the form of an enclosed 18-foot Wells Cargo t
Our impressions and thoughts about the luxo SuperCrew Lariat as a tow vehicle had been formed and consequently also changed a few times. Initially, the idea of towing anything that would warrant the use of extendable mirrors and a built-in brake controller with a half-ton pickup seemed completely wrong. After all, those are items one would need and use on a ¾- or one-ton pickup, but not on a half-ton, especially a half-ton with a living-room-size cab followed by a short bed.
Thankfully, we were wrong.
Those extendable mirrors were a must for seeing past the sides of the enclosed trailer, although it’d been nicer yet if the built-in wide-angle portions hadn’t been partially rendered useless by needless plastic on the mirror head. Meanwhile, the brake controller wasn’t really needed, which was a very good thing.
Helpful or deceiving? If you reset the “average mpg” meter often enough, or always drive u
With several miles of eight-percent or better downhill grade at the start of the trip, the thought of the little 5.4-liter motor holding back a total of some 10,500 pounds on compression braking alone was, well, unnerving. In reality, tapping the four-wheel disc brakes once or twice was all it took to descend the grade in a safe fashion. Quite impressive. Chalk one up for Ford’s tranny engineers.
Zooming along the Interstates on flat ground taught us that the option-laden F-150’s weight and 144.5-inch wheelbase were adequate for what we’d committed ourselves to do. In all fairness, the handling was more than just adequate—and we didn’t even have a weight-distributing hitch, which rightfully should’ve been used both for the vehicle’s sake and legality. But we were still not fully convinced that this was an all-good idea, and on edge accordingly. In other words, nowhere near relaxed enough to try figuring out all the switches and gizmos on and around the snazzy dash.
What Will They Think of Next?
About the only feature above and beyond the normal stuff we had encountered so far was a small, but angrily attention-getting blinking light, basically the same symbol as used for slippery roads on road signs. This introduction took place a few days earlier a few blocks from the palatial Truck Trend offices when we purposely went around a street corner a bit sideways in order to get a feel for the vehicle. And, yes, it was raining then, too.
Most everything has both a bright and a dark side. Being able to tow 6000 pounds in relati
So, in an unfamiliar vehicle, while merrily sliding along around a bend in pouring rain, this panic light on the dash goes off. Yikes! We lost oil pressure. Or at the very least the engine had decided to lose all its coolant midway through the turn. Or the tranny just puked its guts through a hole in the pan. Luckily, that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, while we had concentrated our attention on vehicle dynamics in an effort to learn the pickup’s traits, this obnoxious blinking light scared the crap out of us when all it was really saying was that we were going a little sideways. Well, DUH! We already knew that. So what’s next? A dash light that confirms that the wipers are on?!?
Getting Up in the World
Ascending the infamous Cajon grade along I-15 proved beyond a doubt that the 300-plus horses emitting from the three-valve V-8 were plenty capable of hauling this vehicle combination up long grades, at least when whipped hard enough by the pedal on the right. Available power was far beyond adequate on a section so foggy that 20 mph was going way too fast, and even when using only the foglights had us wondering where the appropriately named fog line was hiding out. Did we mention that it was a dark and stormy night?
As daylight eventually saw fit to greet us, there was more time to ponder the spacious interior and its accoutrements. Frankly, what else could you amuse yourself with while on the I-40 between Barstow and Needles? Counting gas stations certainly isn’t going to cut it, as there aren’t any.
No, this was not from trailering, but after going up an eight-percent grade at the 50-mph
Motoring right along at perhaps a wee bit above the speed limit (oh, c’mon, everybody does it), we started to notice that the proclaimed “miles to empty” on the dash and the mileage posted on the road signs didn’t quite count down at the same rate. Any hopes of reaching the cheap fuel in Kingman, Arizona, were dashed, no pun intended. Still, the thought of being able to go some 400-plus miles on a single tank while towing was a notable plus, and for us the main reason for towing with a half-ton in the first place.
It didn’t take too many more miles before we had to face the fact that our chances of even getting to Needles before running out of fuel were slim. Having already slowed down to nearly the legal speed for vehicles pulling trailers (a measly 55 mph) in an effort to conserve whatever little fuel was still left, according to both the fuel gauge and the lying SOB “miles-to-empty” meter, the truckers and maybe even the occasional bicyclist or road grader gleefully passed us. It sure looked like walking was in our near future, and on a freeway that’s boring even at 100 mph.
When filling up at a previously unknown to us gas station just west of Needles, most likely the proprietor felt sorry for us—he even commented on the large size of the F-150’s gas tank. For whatever reason, he charged us “only” $3.89 per gallon even though the signs clearly stated the price was $3.99. Luckily, the tank wasn’t completely empty and required only 34.235 gallons out of a nominal 36, saving us some money. We’d later have access to $2.41 gas, but under the circumstances, we were simply glad we didn’t have to walk anywhere, carrying a gas can we didn’t have and which most likely couldn’t have used in the newfangled Ford filler neck, anyway.
Traveling With a Suspicious Mind
Our focus had now largely changed from figuring out gizmos and features to getting a grasp of how many fuel stops we’d have to plan for. While we’d done this trip once before with a half-ton pickup and accomplished the trip in 12 hours, with three fuel stops, that time we weren’t pulling a parachute in the form of an enclosed trailer. Obviously, the trailer had a huge impact on the fuel economy of the F-150, probably much more so than the extra 5000 pounds of towed weight, especially at the speeds we were trying to maintain. So, while the dash claimed an average of 13.9 mpg, reality pegged it at a rather dismal 9.87.
One button we’d noticed once daylight lit up the roomy cab was the one for engaging the Tow/Haul mode. Normally we would’ve avoided using Tow/Haul since, generally, that would make the trans stay in lower gears longer and delay locking up the torque converter—just what we didn’t need to save fuel. Not so in this case. With the F-150 it seemed to work completely backward from the norm, with the tranny staying in higher gears longer when in Tow/Haul. Any kind of hill therefore meant either flooring the pedal, forcing a downshift (or two) or disengaging the Tow/Haul to let the trans downshift more easily and less abruptly. We can only guess that Ford engineered it this way in an effort to prevent heat buildup in the transmission by minimizing slippage. There’s only so much torque in the Mustang motor below 2000 rpm anyway, so the drivetrain isn’t exactly stressed by the lower rpm.
Also on the fuel-saving menu, use of cruise control is said to help (not that we ever really believed that—except, maybe, with a pretty oblivious driver). Cruise certainly wouldn’t help our measly mpg figures, because at the 75 mph or so we were going with the trailer, the trans would never go into sixth gear. To get the upshift required letting up on the throttle a bit, at which point the tranny would shift, then we got back on it. Carefully. At 70 mph, the tranny would stay in high gear, but the motor couldn’t maintain speed at such a low rpm. Again, the trailer was a big, fuel-sapping sail.
Luckily, we had practiced all the newly learned fuel-saving skills by the time we were climbing the hills before Flagstaff. Otherwise it may not have been possible to achieve the 8.83 mpg that resulted from that leg of the trip. Yes, 8.83—not even 300 miles on a tank. This sure made us sit down (as if you have a choice while driving) and take notice. Coming to mind was a 1976 crew cab with a small-block and 4.10 gears we drove for many years. That vehicle was predictable, getting a solid 10 mpg whether running empty or towing with a cabover camper installed. Also, on this very same route, we generally see between 7.5 and 8.0 mpg with our regular tow apparatus, a 1980 Peterbilt with aerodynamics comparable to a typical single story home. Plus, the Pete’s moving 35,000 to 60,000 pounds, not the 10,000-something we were dealing with here.
It did make us wonder if perhaps we should pretend to be in California, adhering to the dumb 55 mph (truck) limit just to avoid going bankrupt before reaching our destination. At least the fuel prices in Arizona were superior to California’s.
It was a false victory to see an 11.51-mpg result at the next fill-up, since that stop was both a bit premature (but the last station for quite a while, and we did not trust the Miles-to-Empty wizard anymore) and the last one for the trip east. When the pump clicked off at $75 (29.8 gallons), we considered it close enough as it was now some 15 hours since departure. Just another hour or so up into the Rockies and we’d be done for the day.
The Second Panic Stop
In retrospect, it was a blessing that we got cut off earlier in the day and had to hit the brakes pretty hard to avoid a collision (or, “accident,” for you Californians who have 1-800-THE-LAW-2 on speed dial). It showed that the excellent optional Ford trailer brake controller was set a little too high, making the trailer brakes lock up momentarily. Adjusting the brakes down a bit proved to be just the answer for stopping straight when later coming within four feet of claiming common space and time with an elk on a snowy and icy roadway. It honestly looked as if the elk had noticeable traction problems, while the F-150 and trailer behaved perfectly during this unplanned, high-rate deceleration event.
What Goes Up Must Come Down.
With the exception of taxes and fuel prices, things tend eventually to end up down where they came from, and we were no different. After a week of driving the Lariat like most owners would, with an empty bed and without a trailer, it was time to head back west, now with an empty bed and only one item in the trailer—which sounds fine until considering that a lack of weight in the tow vehicle isn’t really a good thing, and that the one load in the trailer was a car which weighed more than the previous load.
Still, the return trip was relatively uneventful (must’ve gotten the tongue weight just right) with better mileage, partly because of losing many thousands of feet of elevation, but also due to a better understanding of the “miles-to-empty” feature on our part. With only two fuel stops, the average speed was slightly over 65 mph and the mileage closer to 10 mpg. Certainly nothing to be proud of and a far cry from the 18 highway/14 city mpg the SuperCrew is capable of in theory. When it was all said and done there were 2233 additional miles on the odometer, of which roughly 230 were regular non-towing. Overall mileage came in at 10.25, but while the Ford was thirsty it never missed a beat no matter what was thrown at it.
Yes It Can. But That Doesn’t Mean You Should.
So to answer the question about the practicality of towing with a half-ton such as this F-150, yes it can absolutely be done, and with a decent safety margin. Whether you should do it is a different story. We pity the F-150 owner who gets a half-ton instead of a ¾-ton to save on fuel, then tows frequently. It probably wouldn’t take all that long to break even on the added cost of an F-250 with a diesel, just on fuel alone. Surely the rest of the vehicle would last longer, too, as few things like running at or near capacity for very long. For those who only tow occasionally, by all means go for it. But if the salesman points to the 11,200-pound tow rating (as equipped), consider the source. Much like with this story, come to think of it.