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Mechanics Corner: Pickup trucks: More diesel choices than ever before

Allen Schaeffer Published on 30 June 2014

In 2013, about two million full-size pickup trucks were sold in the U.S., and though it has not been verified, I will go out on a limb and say that every farm in the U.S. has a pickup truck. Pickup trucks have long been associated with the farm, the ranch and the job site.

Vinyl bench seats and three-on-the-tree manual transmissions, an AM radio with a few mud mats thrown in, made the old models fully equipped. If you lived in the city, you never had one. If you lived in the country, you always had one. We bond with our trucks. They just drive cars.

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As we all know, these days pickup trucks are everywhere, used for everything – maybe more for hauling kids to school than hauling feed bags. But for farmers, contractors, horsemen, landscapers and anyone else who needs maximum towing and hauling power, the pickup truck is an essential tool, and as many as eight in 10 buyers choose a diesel to power their trucks.

The truck brands with diesel options have been consistent and few: Chevy, Ford or Dodge (now Ram with a Cummins diesel engine). Competition between these three manufacturers has always been keen, all to the benefit of the consumer in pricing, options and constant innovations in these now everyday trucks.

Once you know you’re going all in for a heavy-duty pickup truck, the first major decision is powertrain choice, where there are typically three options: standard gasoline (which are better than ever), optional gasoline (larger displacement and HP) and the new clean diesels.

The diesel engines are the real workers and typically have 70 percent more torque and 28 percent better fuel efficiency over the optional gasoline engines. Comparing diesel to the optional gasoline engine, the diesel still has 40 percent higher torque (at just 54 percent of the engine speed) and a 54 percent fuel-economy advantage.

Investing in diesel engines in pickup trucks carries with it a $7,000 to $10,000 premium over the basic gasoline engine option. But as with most things, you get what you pay for. In the diesel case, that means a more robust powertrain, brakes, transmission and rear axles able to safely handle the torque and payloads of heavy-duty hauling and towing.

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Typical maximal towing capacities are up to 11,000 pounds for the basic full-size pickup and 11,000 to 15,000 pounds for ones powered by diesel engines.

A recent study of five million pickup trucks sold between 1994 and 2007 looked at heavy-duty pickup truck buyers that chose the diesel engine option over the gasoline option.

Sixty-seven percent chose the diesel, 30 percent chose the standard gasoline engine and 2 percent chose the optional gas engine. It turns out that while the diesel customer paid a 21 percent premium per unit of torque improvement versus optional gas, diesel pays the customer back.

The average diesel pickup truck owner will save $5,500 in fuel versus the alternative high-torque gasoline engine. The diesel customer recovered a $6,370 trade-in premium compared to the standard engine-buyer. As always, it’s important to look at all the pieces of the big number picture together – fuel prices, initial cost, operating cost and resale value.

Translating the diesel option choice to society: The choice to buy a diesel over gas has resulted in significant fuel savings to the U.S. economy, more than 48 billion gallons of fuel saved over the lifetime of those diesel pickup trucks purchased from 1994-2007, equivalent to over $85 billion dollars to the economy – and real money in the wallets of diesel pickup truck owners.

For some out there, the beefy pickup truck has just been the means to the end. It was the only way to get a diesel engine in a pickup truck; whether it towed a 10,000-pound hay trailer once a day or once a year was of little concern. For many, the heavy-duty option has been just too much truck and too many dollars just to get the diesel.

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But things are changing. This year for the first time a diesel engine option is now available in a full-size half-ton truck, a Ram 1500 full-size – but not heavy-duty – pickup truck. The 3.0L EcoDiesel V6 engine in the Ram 1500 has 420 pounds per foot of torque; that’s 56 percent more pulling power than the 3.6L gas-engine option. It’s rated at 28 mpg highway fuel economy compared to the gasoline version at 25 mpg.

And there are more diesel options coming for pickup trucks as well. Nissan has announced a partnership with Cummins to deliver a V8 diesel option for the Titan in 2015. On the smaller end of the scale in compact trucks, Chevrolet announced that a diesel engine will find its way into the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado in 2016.

Why are we seeing more diesels now? Increasingly stringent fuel economy standards are being phased in over the next few years, and the fuel-efficient diesel engine goes well with the pickup truck’s size and weight considerations. And all these full-size trucks can use a blend of B20 biodiesel, making them an even greener choice.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that more diesel engine options are coming just as sure as having red ripe tomatoes by the Fourth of July. You have to wait, but it’s worth it. PD

Allen Schaeffer is the executive director at the Diesel Technology Forum. Contact him by email .

allen schaefer

Allen Schaeffer
Executive Director
Diesel Technology Forum

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