Whether you know it or not, big things are happening with pickup trucks. And we're not just talking about the F-150 or 1-ton bonanza. In fact, there's a growing segment of pickups that Ford, GM, and soon DaimlerChrysler won't be able to keep secret much longer. Medium-duty pickups, Class 6 and 7, are typically used in a variety of commercial-use applications. However, that might be changing as more big-truck lovers demand more personal-use configurations for the heavy-duty 1 1/2- and 2-ton pickups. Look for 550 and 650, as well as 4500 and 5500 Ford and GM medium-duty work trucks, to get more personal-use friendly in the future. Be that as it may, we thought it might be a good idea to take a look at what these trucks have to offer and pass the information along.--Ed.

Given the number of configurations for Class 2 through 7 pickup trucks that buyers can choose from, one might expect manufacturers to be satisfied with the variety and depth of product lines. Not so Ford. It's aggressively marketing a whole new line of trucks, including commercial vehicles in the Class 5 through 7 categories. But even the monsters in this market segment have non-commercial applications. The Class 6 and 7 trucks make ideal horse carriers and livestock haulers. They're also suitable for pulling fifth-wheel or hitch-drawn recreational trailers. That kind of flexibility is apparent throughout the new line. Ford has added plenty of performance options to please buyers looking for something other than a grocery cart. More wheelbase options, engines, transmissions, and axles are available for all classes of vehicles. The 550s have five wheelbase options between 159.5 and 223 inches, for example, while the 650s and 750s have 38 options on 11 chassis systems. The 550s have a new super-duty model and a GVW that's been raised to 17,500 pounds. Put a sleeper on a Class 7, and you can legally pull with the big dogs.

And what's Ford done to get all this steel down the road? Has it come up with something bigger, meaner, and nastier than its 7.3-liter diesel? The answer is yes and no. Ford also has launched a new engine and transmission package. Its new 6.0-liter 32-valve V-8 turbodiesel loses 1.3 liters to its work mate but compensates for displacement with huge output. The 6.0-liter puts out 325 horses at 3300 rpm. What's more, it multiplies all that horsepower with 560 lb-ft of torque at 2000 rpm through the new TorqShift five-speed transmission.

The 6.0-liter PowerStroke diesel and Torqshift tranny will be available on F-250 through F-550 pickups and chassis cabs, but not in the E-550 series vans powered by the Triton V-10 or the 7.3-liter PowerStroke. The 6.0-liter PowerStroke with TorqShift will become available in the 650 and 750 F-series pickups early in 2003. There are plenty of engine options besides the 6.0-liter. Buyers can get a 3126 Caterpillar 7.2-liter with up to 300 horsepower and 860 lb-ft of torque or a 5.9-liter Cummins ISB diesel with up to 260 horse and 660 lb-ft of torque.

Test drives of a variety of newly configured trucks in Las Vegas and at the Ford proving grounds in Romeo, Michigan, demonstrate the viability of the "more power with less noise" concept customers are demanding. This concept has indeed become reality. More noticeable than increased quietude, Ford's new powertrain provides additional speed, pulling power, and fuel economy than offered by the 7.3.

Perhaps the most noticeable reason for the awesome pulling power is the short-stepped TorqShift tranny, which works almost like the split gears used in Class 8 trucks, where 13- and 18-speed trannies give long-haul guys supreme power over gear selection to efficiently use horsepower on grades. The five-speed automatic overdrive has steps of 3.09:1 in first, 2.20:1 in second, 1.3:1 in third, 1.00:1 in fourth, and an overdrive of 0.71:1. Torqshift also has a new five-speed electronically controlled gearbox. The short-stepped gear changes are handled smoothly, and the package as a whole makes a driver feel in charge and happy to be there. And, despite new, cooled-exhaust-gas recirculation technology needed to meet EPA October 2002 emissions requirements for commercial diesels, the 6.0-liter provides approximately eight-percent-better fuel economy.

The heart of the EGR system, the turbo, is also one of the big reasons the 6.0-liter is more fuel efficient when pulling stronger. The high-speed turbo also provides surprisingly hefty sudden boost on the low end, an unexpected advantage of EGR, which requires the super turbos to drive the system. If you want to do six-ton drags, you'll get some extra off the line with an EGR diesel. The 6.0-liter has plenty to offer on its own, however.

Charlie Freese, chief diesel engineer at Ford, says, "The strategy we used allows us to size the turbocharger for fuel efficiency and altitude capability, while achieving better low-end response for better launch characteristics." The turbo, electronically controlled, propels the huge gobs of air needed for performance and to push recaptured exhaust gases back through the engine where it's relieved of more nitrous oxides, soot, and other pollutants. It also is a factor in the nearly immediate throttle response when launching. One caveat: If Class 8 experience with the new EGR technology holds true here, strict adherence to service intervals will keep your engine alive longer. Class 8 OEMs tell customers to stick closely to recommended service intervals. New oils (C-4), have been developed to carry more soot and acids, but changing oil on time will significantly increase engine life. A new, improved cooling package with a larger fan helps dissipate more heat put off by the EGR process.

If you're one of those who thinks it's just as important to get down as to get up a hill, you'll like Ford's new Tow/Haul feature, a transmission brake activated with a button on the stalk to the right of the steering column, just below the steering wheel. It works like an engine break, using engine horsepower to slow the vehicle without the foot brakes. It provides stability and safety on downhills when the weight of your vehicle and load need to be controlled.

In the ever-popular F-Series Super Duty line, Ford has created some high- end options indeed. It's brought the luxurious King Ranch edition over from the F-150 into the 250 and 350 Crew Cabs in single and dual rear-wheel applications. A new XLT Sport Crew Cab and FX4 off- road packages also have been added. The FX4 off-road package for F-250 and F-350 sports rancho shocks and skidplates.

Ford's aggressive marketing, flexible product line, and flood of new products and options are best typified by its new joint venture with Navistar. The Blue Diamond Corporation will produce 650s and 750s at Navistar's plant in Escobedo, Mexico. Dave Tarrant, chief nameplate engineer at Ford Medium Truck and Joint Venture Products, says, "You'll see many new offerings in the years ahead." To judge by Ford's current crop, the future can only bring higher value in a market that craves speed, power, comfort, and as many options as possible.

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