Pickup Power Trains

We always say you should job rate your truck,” says Joe Veltri, director of Dodge Trucks, Chrysler. “Make sure you know exactly what you use the truck for, not just on average, but all of the time.”

Based on your application, there are several points to consider when choosing the best power train for your pickup. According to Dennis Slevin, F-150 vehicle engineering manager, Ford, they include:

  • base cost of the power train (engine/transmission combination);
  • duty cycle (light payloads or towing vs. heavier payloads or towing);
  • operating environmental conditions (on-road vs. off-road or construction sites);
  • and desired options (some options offered only on specific power train combinations).

Sizing up gas engine alternatives

Picking the right engine for your 1/2-ton pickup involves balancing capability against fuel economy and price, says Joel Fukumoto, Toyota Truck product manager. “The first priority should be capability. [There is no point] in choosing a lower-priced engine that saves on fuel, but can’t do what you need it to do,” he says.

It’s also vital to understand exactly how much your truck and its engine can tow.

“Even if you have a big trailer, choosing the biggest engine isn’t necessarily what you need to do,” says Carl Hillenbrand, Silverado product manager, General Motors. “The towing ratings vary by models, by engines and by 2WD and 4WD. On some models between the 5.3-liter and a 6-liter, you basically aren’t getting any extra if you don’t have an extra towing package on it. You have already basically maxed out the chassis and cooling.”

First, you need to determine what you actually tow. “Sometimes people guess what their trailer weighs,” says Hillenbrand. He advises taking it to a scale to weigh it. “From there, we have our towing charts. Try to figure out what combination fits best. [You] are probably better off with an engine that is as small as possible but can still get the job done well.”

Don’t assume small displacement engines are always more fuel-efficient than their larger counterparts. “For example, GM’s 5.3-liter V-8 engine actually gets better fuel economy than the company’s smaller V-6,” says Hillenbrand. This is because the 5.3-liter V-8 has more advanced technology. “It has active fuel management. It has a lot of enhancements, including six-speed transmissions that are rolling out this year.”

In the Dodge lineup, there is no difference in fuel economy between the smaller V-8 and the larger HEMI V-8. This is made possible by new technology implemented in the HEMI motor.

You need to weigh the cost of technology vs. the savings. “If you look at initial costs vs. actual cost of usage of the vehicle, you have to balance how many miles you drive and when it will pay off,” says Hillenbrand.

For lower miles, the value equation may be a V-6. “[The vehicle] may not get the same fuel economy, especially loaded, as it could with a 5.3-liter engine. But if you don’t drive very many miles, it may be a good selection,” Hillenbrand states. “If you are driving enough to pay back the difference, then you need to pay for an increased size engine that has all of the extra technology on it.”

Flex-fuel engines are another alternative. Flex-fuel trucks operate on both fuel types and often don’t cost anymore than a conventional gas truck. “We don’t charge any extra for the Flex Fuel engines,” says Hillenbrand.

The benefits of the flex-fuel option depend on the cost difference between E85 (85 percent ethanol/15 percent gasoline) and standard gasoline. “A gallon of E85 fuel generates less energy than a gallon of gasoline, so a truck using E85 would use more fuel to go the same distance,” says Fukumoto.

1/2-ton hybrid pros and cons

“On the surface, many folks look at the fuel economy label and assume lower overall operating costs for a hybrid, but this can be misleading,” says Slevin. Hybrids typically come with a hefty price premium, which must be factored into the operating cost assessment.

“Overall cost of ownership depends on the application,” Slevin adds. “If it is being used as a delivery vehicle in a city driving application, there could be significant fuel savings. However, if it is being used to tow or in highway driving applications, the hybrid will not offer the same fuel benefit. Bottom line is a careful analysis would have to be conducted to verify if the initial price premium for the hybrid power train is offset by the fuel savings in the actual usage.”

There is also the issue of towing performance. “Hybrids offer reduced capability in terms of reduced final drive ratio, which affects the off-the-line performance, and maximum trailer weight allowed,” says Slevin.

Consider how the Silverado 1500 hybrid compares to its gas-powered counterpart. “You will not be able to get up to 9,000 lbs. towing; 6,100 lbs. is our max,” says Hillenbrand. “Keep a close eye on hybrid technology. “As hybrid technology continues to evolve, capability is likely to improve,” says Fukumoto. “But for now, hybrid trucks deliver capability about equal to or only slightly better than compact trucks. From a cost of ownership point of view, if you are willing to accept the capability trade off, it may make more sense to choose a smaller engine or perhaps even a smaller truck.”

Diesel vs. gas

Diesel engines will cost substantially more upfront, yet provide longer service life and higher resale value. Again, you have to calculate the cost of ownership by the number of miles driven to determine if a diesel makes sense.

“If you go back to point of purchase, a diesel engine in a 3/4-ton truck is a $7,000 option,” says Veltri. Typically, you get a significant amount of that back at resale.

Fuel efficiency is also much better than gas engines. “Diesel engines typically are up to 25 percent more fuel-efficient,” says Jim Michon, truck fleet marketing manager, Ford.

“Diesels run very well under load,” says Hillenbrand. Fuel economy is also better. “If you are loading full GVW on a truck and you are running diesel vs. gas, you are going to be drinking a lot more gas.”

“Ideally, the commercial customer buys the right power train for his needs,” says Michon. “If he’s pulling a conventional trailer and can handle a lower Gross Combined Weight (GCW), he will go with a gas power train. If he’s interested in higher GCW, he may choose a diesel.”

Ironically, Allen Schaeffer, executive director for the Diesel Technology Forum, believes the current economic climate may favor diesel. Customers are likely to hold onto trucks longer, rather than trade them in every three years. “You look at the longer value proposition and it is very strong in terms of higher resale value and reduced operating costs,” he notes.

Schaeffer admits that the fuel prices can be variable. “Obviously, at $4 or $5 a gallon for diesel, over $2 a gallon for gas, it is going to be a very long payback period,” he says. But with the economy in contraction, diesel prices are falling. “What is happening now is the gap is closing.”

Diesel is also becoming more widely available at the pump. “We just did a public opinion survey that said 72 percent of the people found that diesel was readily available,” says Schaeffer. “The last time we looked at it, we found that 42 percent of all service stations that existed in 2005 had at least one diesel pump.”