By the numbers, this truck is quite simply the largest and most capable vehicle we've ever tested. At more than nineteen feet long, over eight feet wide, and tipping the scales right around four tons, we're no longer talking about a casual means by which to commute to work or run the kids to a ball game; no, this truck is intended to do one thing -- moving more material than any other pickup on the market. Ford gives the truck a payload rating of 5,720 lbs, but more impressive is the gross combined vehicle weight of 33,000 lbs. That's sufficient to allow towing a trailer of up to 24,000 lbs for the 4x4 pictured here (2WD fans can add another 500 lbs) - a whopping two and a half tons more than any one-ton on the market, and the answer to any question pertaining to this truck's purpose in life. In fact, the massive Reese 22K hitch that was included as a factory-installed option can't even take full advantage of this truck's capabilities, and on top of that, the driver will need a CDL to be legal at maximum weight. This, folks, is a lot of truck.
Much credit for the F-450's capabilities goes to the new 6.4 L Powerstroke diesel. Upon popping the hood, we found the largest cooling package we've ever seen in a pickup; on the other hand, little of the actual engine was visible under a maze of plumbing. A bit of poking around revealed twin sequential turbochargers; the second-stage scroll features electromechanical variable-vane technology, and both units combine to provide an amazing maximum indicated boost of 32 PSI. Piezo injectors force in enough low-sulfur fuel to burn all that intake air to the tune of 360 HP and 650 lb-ft of torque. The massive power is routed through the Torqshift five-speed transmission (little known fact - there's actually a sixth ratio used during warm-up), and finds its way to the tires via ultra-deep 4.88:1 axle gears.
The combination is enough to provide authoritative acceleration for this four-ton vehicle, and makes light work out of any typical hauling and towing. The gearing that doesn't allow much boost to build in the first couple of gears when the truck is empty, but at highway speeds, the engine is right in the meat of its powerband in fifth gear - an absolutely perfect setup for full-time towing. The Tow/Haul mode makes for perfectly-timed up- and down-shifts, and greatly reduces the need to use the service brakes while decelerating.
At idle, the multiple pilot events offered by the new injectors keep all those usual diesel noises to a minimum, but oilburner fans will still delight in the rattle, clatter, and turbo whine that result as the tach and boost gauge swing towards the right. Our only complaint about the engine - and it's a very mild one - was the somewhat unusual exhaust odor in some conditions. We also would have preferred somewhat better economy than the 10.0 MPG we obtained during our time with the truck, but keep in mind that this vehicle isn't set up for our wussy usage profile.
Stopping and turning are provided via enormous solid axles at each end, with 14.5" disc brakes up front and huge 15.5" rotors in the rear (keep in mind, this split makes sense considering that the vehicle carries more than 60% of its weight on the rear tires when loaded). Due to the lack of manifold vacuum in a diesel engine, a hydraulic booster provides power assist to the brakes, and as a result linearity and pedal firmness are both far better than we would have expected. As well, the steering has a precision that is worlds' beyond anything we've previously experienced in any with a solid front axle, and with such a wide track, body roll during normal driving isn't objectionable. That wide front track also allows some pretty extreme steering angles, and as such the turning radius of the F-450 is actually a bit tighter than lighter Super Duty trucks.
The ride can best be described as being somewhere between "firm" and "jarring", which is about what we'd expect from a ton or so of unsprung weight, sky-high spring rates, and those gorgeous forged 19.5" wheels and commercial-grade Continental HSR tires. As for off-roading, forget about it - with the F-450's mass, skinny tires, lack of articulation, and low breakover angles, we barely made it a few feet off the pavement before getting stuck. Considering that most tow trucks are smaller than this, we recommend staying out of situations that require recovery operations.
Inside the cabin - which is larger than some living rooms - the same sort of hit-and-miss execution that plagued our recently-tested Expedition was also present in the F-450. Areas such as the dash and door panels were a bit disappointing for a brand-new design, but the quality of the seating and carpet was outstanding; the leather is in fact some of the nicest we've ever experienced in an automobile, and looks better-suited to horse tack than to a pickup truck. More importantly, the big seats are comfortable enough for all-day drives.
The instrument cluster includes an array of white-faced gauges suitable to the vehicle's intended function - yes, including a trans temp gauge - and a multifunction display takes care of other driver alerts. Ford's standard touchscreen nav and audio system was included in our tester, and performed superbly. The rear seat passengers can be entertained with a flip-down display and DVD player, and when it's time to haul gear instead of bodies, the seats fold up to reveal a very clever package tray setup that yields a flat load floor. Additional cargo can be stowed in the colossal center console, which is large enough to swallow a laptop or small briefcase.
The external rear-view mirrors fold and extend with fingertip ease due to powered operation for both functions, and do an excellent job of providing visibility - or at least as good as it's going to get with those huge rear fenders in the way. We give huge props to Ford for providing four auxiliary switches and an integrated trailer-brake control; this is exactly the sort of equipment that we want to see in a heavy-duty truck. Speaking of highly-desirable features for pickups, the inventor of the integrated tailgate step should get a medal of some sort, as it's a godsend even for those of us largely unaffected by the aging process.
The exterior styling takes the familiar Super Duty theme to an extreme, but it's functional - the aforementioned radiator basically mandates a grille the size of a barn door, and the headlights take on their odd shape as a result of the placement of the low-beam lamps. They're lower to the ground than in most trucks, which not only makes them more effective in inclement weather, but also is kinder to those in vehicles of normal height. The dip along the lower edge of the side window improves visibility, and the purpose of the flared fenders should be obvious.
Our final assessment of the Ford F-450 is quite straightforward - it is indeed the hardest-working pickup truck we've ever encountered. Like most other single-purpose vehicle, compromises are made along the way that probably make this truck totally unsuitable for the vast majority of the population. Don't fret over that; instead, just think of this as the rancher's equivalent to a Lotus Elise, and sleep well at night knowing that such a capable vehicle is hard at work on America's farms and construction sites. The only area of concern we have with the F-450 is the price - it'll take nearly $48K to put you into a base model, and the King Ranch version shown here will require parting way with $62,300. That's a lot of coin, but then again, this is a lot of truck.