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Northern Passages in an F350

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Fresh from the Canadian Car of the Year tests, I got out of Ontario ahead of tropical storm Sandy, landed at Vancouver and prepared to drive a truck full of winter driving-school equipment to Terrace, B.C.

I was piloting a 2012 Ford F350 4x4 crew cab, long box, powered by the mighty Powerstroke diesel. Horsepower was around 400, but torque, which is far more important for towing and load carrying, comes in at around 800 lb-ft. Backing this up was a six-speed TorqShift automatic.

On the short run through Vancouver to Whistler, the vehicle was pleasant enough. It wasn’t hard to work through city traffic, with good sightlines and all-round visibility. In those circumstances the steering felt very light and the four-wheel disc brakes had a nice positive feel.

U.S. tests show a stopping distance of around 170 ft from 60 mph for the F350. A Ford Fusion manages the same stop in under 130 ft, while the best cars are closer to 110. That’s something the driver of a pickup should consider in establishing following distances.

In Whistler, a couple of girlfriends asked to borrow the truck to move some furniture while I sorted gear for the trip north. Melanie has done some rallying, while Alana has been through our advanced driving school, so I was interested in their comments.

"Great engine", Melanie said, "far more refined than older diesels, but still has a bit of a background snarl from the exhaust. Decent brakes. The steering is too light, with virtually no road feel."

Alana put it this way. "Because of the steering, it’s as though you’re aiming the truck more than directing it precisely. I like the styling, it looks the part."

Melanie had a funny comment about the name Powerstroke, as well as Dodge’s Ram and GM’s Duramax. "Macho in a juvenile way. I suspect the advertising guys drive hybrids and are afraid of girl power."

I’m not sure how to research that particular line of thought.

The first part of the drive north was the Duffy Lake Road across the Coast Mountains. The motor pulled like a freight train and the handling was okay for a one-ton truck. Ride, with lots of gear in the box, was firm but comfortable. The brakes faded badly on the steeper downgrades unless I slowed way down and got engine braking from a lower gear. Again, standard truck stuff.

Because the gearbox upshifted and downshifted frequently, which caused surges of acceleration, I used the manual mode. Gear selection was with a shift lever mounted switch, and surprisingly easy to use.

This F350 was equipped with a 40/20/40 split bench seat and cloth upholstery. At first it felt comfortable, in a lounger kind of way, but after a few hours I had to place a rolled up towel behind my back for lumbar support.

Having dodged Sandy, I drove into the first big winter storm of the season. The roads became slippery after One Hundred Mile House, about four hours into my journey, and got progressively worse. Here the lack of steering feel proved a liability. The steering transmitted no useful information about the road surface. Hard-packed snow felt about the same as dry pavement.

I did frequent brake tests, pushing down hard enough to get the anti-lock brakes to kick in, in order to get some idea of the available grip. Again, I used the manual transmission mode. Left in drive, unexpected downshifts caused instability on low-traction surfaces. I ran in 4-wheel drive most of the way; 2wd was far too twitchy on snow. The vehicle was equipped with winter tires.

I drove the big Ford 2,600 kilometres in a week. Half that distance included towing our 10-foot enclosed utility trailer. Fuel economy, considering the mountains, snow and towing, was surprisingly good, averaging 17 litres per 100 kilometres. Adding a bit of pressure to the front tires improved steering feel slightly, but Dodge and GM do this better.

A one-ton truck is way more than I need, so the diesel F250 would be a more reasonable choice and handles better as well. If the F150 had a diesel option it would be attractive to a lot of folks who need a basic work truck with pulling power.

At the moment, Ford’s new Ranger, with options including a diesel, doesn’t appear to be coming to Canada. Too bad, GM will do well in that market with its new Colorado. I do hope they offer a diesel version.

If you can live with the numb steering, the F350 is an excellent choice for long-distance towing and heavy hauling. I don’t know if Ford has changed the steering for 2013. That Powerstroke diesel is a nice piece. If I were ordering one, a seat upgrade would be mandatory.

Do some comparison shopping though. The Dodge and GM one-tons have, in my experience, better overall driving dynamics when the roads get twisty, and they can still haul the freight.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at www.spdt.ca


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