Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.
If pulled to the upper limit, Ford's max tow capacities now require a commercial driver's license.

For years, automotive brands competing in the heavy-duty pickup category have engaged in a game of one-upmanship over their respective trucks' tow capacities.

After Ram raised the bar two years ago with the introduction of heavy-duty models able to tow up to 30,000 lb, it was only a matter of time before rival manufacturers pushed that already impressive number to extremes. With the debut of the 2015 Ford Super Duty lineup, that moment has arrived.

Calling these pickups new would be a bit of an overstatement, as the F-250, F-350 and F-450 have returned largely unchanged for the 2015 model year. However, one upgrade that contractors and commercial buyers may find useful is the extensively redesigned second generation of the Blue Oval brand's popular Power Stroke turbodiesel V8.

Topping the list of changes to this optional 6.7-liter diesel engine is a bigger turbocharger that bumps up output by 40 horsepower and 60 lb-ft of torque, for a total of 440 hp and 860 lb-ft. Ford engineers also claim the new motor is more fuel efficient. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn't issue fuel economy ratings for heavy-duty pickups, so prospective buyers will have to take Ford's word for it.

All this extra muscle translates into dramatic increases in towing capacity. The F-450's maximum fifth-wheel, or gooseneck, tow rating is now a staggering 31,200 lb, an increase of 6,500 lb. That means, in order to stay road-legal, you'll need a commercial driver's license to make full use of the truck's new capabilities.

Similarly, F-350 models with the Power Stroke turbodiesel now have a maximum towing capacity of 26,700 lb, an increase of 3,500 lb. The F-250's max tow rating remains the same, at 16,800 lb. Prior to this summer, Ford had not adopted the industry's standard formula to arrive at these ratings, making apples-to-apples comparisons between brands difficult. However, Ford on Sept. 2 announced that the 2015 Super Duty line met the towing standard and its own internal testing requirements.

During a test drive Ford recently hosted for the media, ENR had the opportunity to do repeated laps up and down a 7-mile section of Interstate 64 near Beckley, W.Va., known for its steep grades of up to 7%. Switching between comparably equipped Ford F-350, F-450 and Ram 3500 models towing identical twin-axle gooseneck trailers loaded to capacity with palletized cinder blocks, the Super Duty repeatedly pulled ahead of the Ram going up the hill. That said, throughout, all the trucks managed to maintain speeds at or near the posted limit.

We spent most of our time driving the F-350 King Ranch model, which, inside, came equipped with features designed to make towing easier, safer and less stressful. These features include a built-in trailer-brake controller, power-extending and -folding side mirrors, and a rearview camera. While having a rearview camera is nothing new, this version includes a handy moving centerline that made hooking up the trailer a quick, one-person job.

Another plus is the diesel-exhaust brake, which is now more effective, thanks to the Power Stroke V8's larger turbo. Combined with the six-speed automatic transmission's tow-haul and manual shift modes, we were able to safely descend a long, steep gravel road filled with switchbacks and 10% to 15% grades with a 6,500-lb trailer with no more than an occasional tap on the brake pedal to keep our speed in check.

Overall, driving the 2015 Ford Super Duty models left us impressed with this latest salvo in the towing-capacity wars, despite our feeling that these popular workhorses are long overdue for a redesign.