So I got to fly up to Dearborn, Michigan, this week to test drive some Ford trucks (tough duty, I know. And not an ELD in sight thankfully …) that included a new 2017 model F-250 crew cab 4x4 Super Duty (Platinum trim level with ALL the bells and whistles), some 2017 pre-production F-150 pickups featuring the OEM’s new powertrain package – a second-generation 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 gasoline engine mated to Ford’s all-new 10-speed automatic transmission, partially designed in collaboration with General Motors – plus a 26,000 lb. GVW crew cab tangier orange 2016 model F-650 dump truck.
Funny thing about dump trucks; back in the day, they were tough to drive. You not only needed good shifting skills (which I sorely lack) but you also needed something of an iron constitution (another missing trait on my part) to handle the rough ride and Spartan interior, which could put quite the beat-down on a driver’s body.
Climbing up into an old-timey dump also meant entering something of a foreign world to an everyday motorist used to sedans and pickups; they didn’t look the same, didn’t even feel the same. Heck, even the steering wheels on dump trucks back then were vastly different – bare-bone designs that were often little more than a plain ring of steel.
Not anymore. Not for a long while, actually.
The F-650 I piloted on the highways, crowded suburban streets, and rural dirt and gravel roads between Dearborn and Ann Arbor, Michigan, though, provided an almost automotive feel for its insides.
And that’s largely the point, Kevin Koester, Ford’s medium duty and F-Series fleet marketing manager, explained to me. In fact, the F-650 shares most of the same cab interior components found on the F-250. Even the F-650’s steering wheel looked and felt the same as the F-250’s I later drove, with the same push-button controls on the wheel you’d find in a pickup truck or everyday sedan.
“We’re bringing a better automotive fit and finish to work trucks; bringing the architecture of the Super Duty into the medium-duty segment,” Koester told me. “The seating geometry is similar and the cab interiors are roughly the same and that’s so we can bring more comfort and familiarity to the driver.”
He believes the biggest takeaway from medium-duty trucks like the F-650 today is that they are capable work trucks that don’t feel like work trucks.
“We’re trying to open up who can drive such trucks; to make them less ‘scary’ or intimidating to drive,” Koester emphasized. “We also want it to feel more familiar to a wider spectrum of drivers, so they can get in and quickly be a success.”
That “success” to me at least translates into things like safety and productivity. Example: I had to make a series of U-turns due to some highway closures in fairly crowded traffic. Yet the handling, tight turn radius, and wide side-view mirrors made such maneuvering a snap.
I also delivered a 5-yard load of top soil during my time with “T.O.” as the truck came to be known in my mind (the initials for its color, “tangier orange,” of course) with a simple one-page instruction sheet telling me how to safely dump the dirt.
(I didn’t even have to remove my tie during my delivery run, either. Wait, I wore a TIE during my ride and drive? Well, that’s a story for another day.)
From a fleet manager’s perspective, there’s a lot to like about the “T.O.” as well. For starters, it’s 6-speed automatic transmission is connected to a 6.8-liter V10 gasoline engine; that shaves about $8,000 to $10,000 off its sticker price compared to one of its diesel-powered brothers.
Now, some fleets need that low-end diesel torque, but for fleets that don’t – tow truck companies, tree service firms, municipal operations, moving and storage companies, and, yes, construction firms who need dump trucks that fit into small job sites – T.O. can fit the bill quiet nicely. With les of a hit on the wallet.
Not to mention it’s 40% quieter versus previous F-650 models – that’s a big deal when you need to operate in a residential neighborhood at, say, 7 a.m., noted Koester.
For the 2017 model F-650, Ford added a mobile power take off [PTO] option and for the 2018 model, Ford plans to offer an optional backup camera system, he said – providing more safety coverage for novice and experience dump truck drivers alike.
Another nice feature: the V10 gasoline engine powering T.O. shares a lot of components with Ford’s Super Duty line, meaning fleets would need to stock fewer parts if they operate Ford’s Super Duty and medium-duty trucks in their operation. That’s a cost and time saver for sure.
Another nice addition: The V10 powering T.O. sported a compressed natural gas (CNG) package already built into the engine. So if a fleet wanted to switch to CNG fuel, this particular engine would be ready to run on it.
(Koester noted beverage fleets in particular are looking more closely at CNG for medium-duty; especially fleets running high hours on their engines.)
Now, this is not to say medium-sized dump trucks like the F-650 are suddenly riding and driving like high-end pickups and sedans. Oh no. Unloaded, the truck hops and jumps around like any empty dump truck would.
The brakes feel very different compared to those on a pickup, too, and you need to give yourself a lot of room to maneuver, plus of course keep in mind your much higher center of gravity when going around corners - especially in traffic.
Yet the key, I think, is this: if some tie-wearing journalist can hop in and start hauling dirt with one of these things easily and safely, with little to no prep about the truck’s characteristics, pretty much anyone can do it.
And in today’s trucking environment, where drivers are getting as scarce as snow on a hot summer day, that’s a great characteristic for a medium-duty work tool like the F-650.