Battle Tested

We travel to the Sonoran Desert to test the towing technology embedded within Ford’s 2020 Super Duty lineup.

It’s been a long while since I had to tow a boat, and since then, both outboards and towable boats have significantly increased in size. Today, vessels with two, three, even four outboards are towed hither and yon on a custom trailer adding up to weights exceeding 15,000 pounds. And on many occasions, it’s not a professional behind the wheel of a behemoth, converted big rig but the boat owner or captain in the driver’s seat of a domestic pick-up. It’s a long way from the nostalgia of my youth—a family friend’s 21-foot Mako and a ­borrowed, three-on-the-tree Ford F100 Ranger.

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Just like in the marine industry, technology has been infused in the car industry to make things, in nearly all cases, better. Joystick controls and self-docking have taken a big bite out of one of the most stressful aspects of boating—both are excellent tools and continue to be refined. For our on-road counterparts, tech is also a big player. It’s the brawny, brainy vehicles of Ford’s Super Duty lineup that recently brought me to the Sonoran Desert outside Phoenix, Arizona to test their towing capacities matched to the suite of technological options offered on the pickups.

Right off the bat, the experience was not what I expected. On the morning of my test, I was prepared to board a bus with another member of the press corps for the 70-mile or so trip out to the testing grounds. Ford had other plans: Lined up along our breakfast spot was a fleet of Super Duty pickups in packages that ran the gamut from F-250 to F-450, in six trim levels. When I realized it was a Le Mans-type start, wherein racers essentially run to their vehicles and take off (I exaggerate, but the auto journalists seemed to eyeball which pickup they wanted and hustled towards them), Digital Director John Turner and I hopped in a Velocity Blue F-250 right next to us and headed out. In Ford country, you take whichever Super Duty is closest.

The long drive allowed me to get comfortable with the big pickup on highways, single-lane rural routes and long, dusty desert roads. Her powerplant is a beast, the third generation of Ford’s 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel V8 rated at 475 hp with the pull of a pachyderm: a whopping 1,050 foot-pounds of torque; both numbers are best in class. The truck easily cruised at 75 mph, the tach reading just under 2000 rpm. In parking lots she handled like a big pickup, but at highway speeds the F-250 is a comfortable cruiser that can be optioned out like a luxe SUV. The gas engine is no slouch, with 430 hp and 475 foot-pounds of twist; both are also best in class.

The class-leading 6.7-liter diesel powerplant that’s the heart of the Super Duty series is rated at 475 hp with a whopping 1,050 feet-pounds of torque.

The class-leading 6.7-liter diesel powerplant that’s the heart of the Super Duty series is rated at 475 hp with a whopping 1,050 feet-pounds of torque.

We arrived at the towing grounds and the intimidation factor—with bad memories of trying to back down trailers and decipher someone’s hand signals, only to jackknife both truck and trailer—started to kick in. There were a bevy of setups to choose from, with conventional, gooseneck and fifth-wheel trailer packages to well over 30,000 pounds. Not only were we to give the systems a go in close quarters maneuvering, we were also going to drive ‘em straight up the mountain pass in the distance. I looked up at the steep, single-lane switchbacks and chose a diesel-powered F-350 with a conventional setup and load with a weight and size—a 26-foot, 9,400-pound trailer—that closely matched a similarly-sized center console with twin outboards.

Larry Rhein, Super Duty’s transmission calibration specialist, rode along. He gave me some stats on the series: The Super Duty lineup rules the roost with best-in-class towing in all three packages, from 24,200 pounds for conventional up to 37,000 pounds with a gooseneck trailer. “What good is it [when towing] if you arrive at your destination stressed and exhausted?” Rhein said when I shared some of my experiences as a driver with much smaller loads. Heading uphill at the start of a mountain pass, I immediately felt confident with Rhein sitting shotgun, but more so thanks to a combination of the F-350’s smooth (it was genuinely hard to decipher shifts) 10-speed transmission, a yaw-rate sensor that keeps the load in line and the pure power provided by the big diesel. I even passed a big SUV towing a shiny Airstream on the way up. But I still had to come down, easily more stress-inducing than the climb.

With nearly 17,000 pounds of truck and trailer coming down the mountain, one can imagine the head of steam with all of that weight and the stress on the brakes, not to mention the driver. But I just steered and paid attention thanks to the engine exhaust brake. Useful heading up or down, it’s activated with the press of a button. The driver can then set a speed—in my case 30 mph—and the vanes on the engine’s turbocharger adjust to create back pressure (the turbo’s exhaust is restricted) to maintain a cruise control-like experience with no need to ride the brakes. Applying the gas or brakes in “on” mode controls speed—per usual—but will always go back to the preset; “automatic” does it all for the driver. And for heading up steeper inclines in the “on” mode, it’ll help reduce constant gear shifts.

Now fully confident, I was ready to give parking these beasts a go. “A lot of people have the fear of backing up a trailer,” Rhein said as we pulled into the lot where a series of cones were set up for the test, telling me to be prepared to be impressed. Earlier, I had spoken to Super Duty Performance Engineer Alan Costantino about my dreadful past trailering experiences; he was confident that I’d have it mastered in no time. “Something that once took two or three people can now be done by one person,” Costantino told me. “The systems provide a highly confident driving experience.”

And he was right. While I needed a little more practice with the much larger, less responsive fifth-wheel, I was able to master backing down a conventional setup within minutes. One of the most stressful things about getting a boat in and out of the water or parked in a tight spot was eliminated: The integration of Ford’s Pro Trailer Backup Assist is spot on. Utilizing seven camera angles—with standard rear view, 360 (from above), wide angle, a reverse split and three others that can be set up in a split view on the truck’s MFD—it becomes like a video game. It’s not unlike going from wheel and throttles to full joystick control; in the truck’s case, you turn the toggle left, the trailer goes left and the same for the other direction.

If you’re old school and choose to use the wheel, a Trailer Reverse Guidance system works in tandem with the cameras, showing the driver an overhead view of the truck and trailer with a virtual steering wheel that directs you how to turn to complete the job. But after utilizing Ford’s automatic system and watching the steering wheel spin wildly to respond to the toggle’s controls, I realized this system obviates the acrobatic dance I had tried to perform so many times before. This’ll save a lot of friendships—and marriages.

Last year, it was widely reported that the F-Series pickups were the best-selling vehicles in America for the 42nd consecutive year. With the 2020 Super Duty line, Ford keeps pushing the technological envelope. “We design all the systems in house to talk to each other,” Costantino told me, citing that other big domestic pickups have good reputations and robust sales but none can say that their myriad systems—transmissions, powerplants, etc.—are built exclusively in house. “The integration of the truck and its features is top notch,” he said, and I agree: It’s light years away from that beloved F-100 and its sagging bench seat.

This article originally appeared in Outboard magazine.

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