Chevy has a classic, wide stance.Dodge sports a throaty, 6.7L Cummins.
Tudor Van Hampton / ENR
Chevy has a classic, wide stance.Dodge sports a throaty, 6.7L Cummins.
Chrysler LLC
Chevy has a classic, wide stance.Dodge sports a throaty, 6.7L Cummins.

The old diesel workhorse of 3/4-tons and up is riding into a new frontier. Its popularity among weekend warriors is Detroit’s motivator to add features as foreign car makers  look to grow profits here. For now, there are changes to ponder in the new heavies, and all are still Detroit-brand trucks. ENR drove them this summer to assess ability at the work site.

General Motors and Ford Motor Co. dropped off units in Chicago with a full tank. ENR tooled around for a week before returning the keys. It was tougher getting a Dodge. Chrysler LLC, now privately owned, was more eager to lend us a beefier 4500 or 5500 Ram. After some horn jousting, we located a 2500 BLUETEC Ram at a dealer in Skokie, Ill. It was running on empty, so ENR filled it up.

ENR sweated the metal of the Silverado 2500, Ram 2500 and Ford F-250 Super Duty to learn if these machines are still true to their heritage. Pickup trucks are some of the most prolific pieces of equipment at construction work sites, with their rugged reliability, power and torque in prime demand.

ENR encountered a wider range of trims than ever before. Heavy-duty pickups used to be bare-bones versions of their half-ton siblings. Not so these days. Ford’s “King Ranch” version comes upholstered with cosseting leather and clad with chrome step bars. Dodge’s new “Resistol” Ram comes with a cowboy hat. Sarsaparilla-sipping sissies, these trucks are.

Detroit has not given up on blue collars. More than two-thirds of all heavies come with a diesel, and at least half go to work users, many who lease or negotiate a deal that is heavily discounted off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). Prices have been climbing just a steady 5-6% a year, overall.

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  • Vehicle types are diversifying. Extended cabs, handy for throwing tools and boots in the back, are popular options. Fuel-conscious firms are getting into midsize sport-utility vehicles, hybrids and cars. Some are switching to light-duty, gas pickups when diesel is not critical. Others are consolidating with crew cabs to carry more workers. The diesel war is just beginning. Diesel comes with economy advantages, so as fuel prices rise, many expect diesel hybrids and diesel-powered light-duty pickups to arrive by the end of the decade.

    One thing that has not changed is the range of sizes and powertrains, and construction uses them all. Whether you are a surveyor, mechanic, superintendent or CEO, there is an engine, suspension, cab, bed and axle for you. ENR also found some new bells and whistles worth considering.

    Dream Diesels

    Chrysler rolled out an updated version of its venerable Ram this year. It is still in need of fresh cladding, due in a year or two, but under the hood it sports a souped-up version of its celebrity engine.

    This year’s Indiana-built Cummins comes in a 6.7-liter block that spits out 350 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque, enough to bring it head-to-head with Ford’s 6.4L Power Stroke and just shy of General Motor’s 6.6L Duramax. Replacing a 5.9L, the new Ram is 50% quieter. It is the only pickup diesel with a straight-six-cylinder lineup. It also has the advantage of being the cleanest, the first to meet federal emission requirements for 2010, thanks to a “BLUETEC” nitrogen adsorber and particulate filter and engines that run on ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD).

    Ford’s engine is a smaller, Navistar-built V-8 with twin turbochargers. It is a quiet ride that packs a wallop as the second turbo kicks in. But it comes with potential problems. A cramped layout squeezes in more meaty pieces than a Texas-sized brisket sandwich. ENR counted five coolers stacked together and wondered how mechanics can service them without pulling the engine. Thankfully, the hood design lifts the grille out of the way, which helps. Regular service points like oil and fuel filters are within reach on top of the block.

     Particulate filters replace mufflers on this year’s diesel pickups.
    Ford Motor Co.
    Particulate filters replace mufflers on this year’s diesel pickups.

    The 6.7L Cummins has 30% fewer moving parts than a comparable V-8. Contractors tell ENR that Dodge comes with a lower re­sale value for its premium price, however. The new Chrysler is now is focusing more on large commercial trucks and vans. If that strategy succeeds, Dodge could easily wield the biggest lineup of clean-diesel pickups.

    Ford has a reputation for ruling the dirt. The brand also is known for breakdowns and parts recalls. Twin-turbo means Ford has two exhaust-gas recirculation (EGR) coolers double the parts. ENR also is skeptical of its twin-tip tailpipe, pockmarked with perforations to increase backpressure on the particulate filter so it can purge soot effectively. These holes could be access points for foreign objects and tough to clean after a day in the mud.

    The Power Stroke V-8 burned more fuel per mile than the others, though admittedly, ENR drove it far less on the highway. Fuel options are limited. It is the only truck restricted to 5% biodiesel, or B5. The others allow blends up to B20.

    Change is coming. Ford is still battling with Navistar over warranty claims from previous Power Stroke units and has entered into court-ordered mediation. If it cannot reach an agreement soon, Ford may build its own diesel for the next emissions cut in 2010. It also is working on a retrofit kit, expected to by year-end, that…