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In its never-ending quest to keep the F-150 America’s best-selling pickup, Ford Motor Co. has a new idea: diesel fuel.

The Blue Oval says its new 3.0-liter Power Stroke diesel engine — the first diesel for the F-150 — delivers best-in-class EPA-estimated fuel economy to its most popular vehicle. And that could make the so-called 2018 “pickup wars” even more competitive.

Ford’s move comes as OPEC oil stockpiles dwindle and oil prices have climbed recently close to their highest point in three years. Rivals General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV will debut all-new full-size pickups this year, which will compete directly with the aluminum-body F-Series. Ford refreshed the F-150 for 2017, but snagging the highest EPA rating with the diesel engine on 2018 models may give the Blue Oval an edge.

It’s an added bonus for a vehicle that’s been a favorite for years among Ford dealers. Tim Hovik, owner of SanTan Ford outside of Phoenix, Arizona, said there’s demand for a diesel F-150 from both fleet and retail customers. And the new engine keeps Ford moving, preventing the truck from getting stale as competing products hit showrooms.

“I’ve been getting asked about this for probably the last two years,” he said in an interview Thursday. “There’s pent-up demand and a pent-up excitement for this. It’s going to pour some gas on an already hot fire of buyers. You always want to add another advantage when you’re playing from a position of strength.”

Diesel fuel cost roughly 10 cents more per gallon than gasoline in the U.S. last year. Hovik said his customers typically look to a diesel engine for more power, and many of them are more comfortable with a diesel truck. The fuel economy on the Power Stroke is more or less a bragging point for Ford.

The diesel engine is also the sixth engine option on the F-150. It adds a product to Ford’s truck lineup that its direct competition won’t have available for at least a year.

The Power Stroke will be available on the F-150 to retail customers in both the 4x2 and 4x4 variations of the 2018 Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum edition SuperCrew F-150s. Fleet customers can order the engine on all trim levels with SuperCrew 5 1/2-foot or 6 1/2-foot beds, or the SuperCab with a 6 1/2-foot bed. The engine will cost between $3,000 to $4,000 more than standard engines on those vehicles.

“An EPA-estimated 30 mpg highway enables Ford to win today’s fuel economy brochure war with a meaningful benefit,” said Stephanie Brinley, auto product analyst with IHS Markit. “The F-150 has two all-new competitors for 2019 model year and wants to demonstrate continued improvement as the GM and Ram products come on line. Ford’s ability to achieve 30mpg highway sets the bar at a new level.”

Ford says the 2018 F-150’s diesel engine officially has an EPA-estimated 30 mpg highway and 22 mpg city rating, for a 25 mpg combined fuel economy rating. That’s the highest EPA-estimated rating available in a full-size pickup.

Mated to a 10-speed SelectShift Transmission, the engine offers 250-horsepower and 440 lb.-ft of torque. Those factors give the truck best-in-class diesel towing and payload, according to Ford. The F-150 can tow 11,400 pounds, and haul 2,020 pounds in the bed.

“Even a few years ago, customers wouldn’t have imagined an EPA-estimated rating of 30 mpg highway would be possible in a full-size pickup, but our team of crazy-smart engineers rose to the challenge,” Hau Thai-Tang, Ford executive vice president, product development and purchasing, said in a statement.

The F-150 is built in Dearborn, Louisville and Kansas City, Mo. Prices will range from around $28,600 to nearly $64,000 for the upper-trim levels. Ford began taking orders for the new engine configuration in mid-January, and it is scheduled to start arriving in dealerships in May.

Hovik said he wanted to get closer to launch before pushing to sell the new engine. He’s been selling Fords for more than two decades, and hasn’t had a diesel F-150 in his cache. He doesn’t know how many will sell, but he expects the new engine will be popular in big truck markets in the U.S. south and west.

“It will be a question of will Ford be able to make enough of them,” Hovik said. “The demand will be considerable.”

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

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