Payne: Stealthy Ford F-150 diesel is tech-tastic

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

In Broomfield County, home to Colorado’s “Creative Corridor” 30 minutes north of Denver, the disparate forces of high-tech office parks, traditional oil and gas development, and farmland collide like oil paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas. The result is a dynamic co-existence of cultures in one of the fastest-growing communities in America. It’s Washtenaw County on steroids.

The Ford F-150 diesel is advertised for its towing ability — but it’s no slouch on a muddy, off-road course either.

Appropriately, Ford chose Broomfield for its media debut of the 2018 F-150 Power Stroke Diesel pickup — a tech-tastic, old-world oil-burner built for the open spaces of rural America.

It’s the Blue Oval’s first diesel in the light-duty segment, expanding on its years as the stump-pulling, steroid-fed heavy-duty champ. But this is a kinder, gentler light-duty.

Start with the technology. It will unite families and save marriages.

The Power Stroke was my first opportunity to drive the F-150 since its 2017 mid-cycle refresh that brought even more innovation to this oversized Swiss Army Knife. There is 10-device 4G Wi-Fi and smartphone app connectivity and automatic braking. But most notable is Pro Trailer Backup Assist. Married couples of the word, rejoice.

My grandma used to say the greatest threats to marriage are finances and mixed doubles. Add backing a trailer to a boat slip.

How many unions have been strained when Spouse A tries to line up the trailer with Spouse B at the wheel? Nerves are rubbed raw as the driver tries to align trailer with boat. A miss there. A jack-knife here.

Just turn the wheel to the left. No, the other left! No, right, now left ...

Dang it, just start over!

All the while dozens of boaters look on at the town idiots, ridiculing, correcting ... and dreading their own moment in the backup spotlight.

After an initial calibration of truck-to-tow vehicle involving grade-school math and camera guidance stickers, the F-150 will self-steer to the desired spot. Just point the truck in the right direction using the console knob, then sit back and let technology do the rest. My tester parked a 6,240-pound car trailer into a perpendicular parking spot. Take a bow, big fella.

The autonomous wonder is similar to self-parking (first seen on the Escape SUV) — a whizzbang feature also optioned on the F-150. Get them both. Trailer backup-assist comes with the tow package for $995.

These are must-buys because diesel trucks are aimed at people who tow. A lot.

I’m thinking about my buddies, Chris and Tom, who have contracted the Airstream bug. Nature nuts, they want to see the country — Yellowstone! Georgian Bay! The Grand Canyon! — up close. No hotels. No restaurants. Just man, nature, campfire ... and a diesel truck.

Diesel? The scourge of VW? Isn’t diesel dead? What outdoorsman would invade the Outback with a smoke-belching, old-world dinosaur?

Well, Phoenix-saurus has risen from the ashes because customers love it. It’s powerful, fuel-efficient ... and clean. Credit technology again.

Contrary to popular perceptions of diesel as dirty clatter-traps (right there with other perceptions like “toads cause warts” and “broken mirrors mean seven years bad luck”), modern common-rail-injection diesel cleaning-fluid scrubbed diesels are quiet workhorses.

Last year, sales of diesel trucks nearly matched the combined sales of hybrids, plug-ins and electric cars: 537,000 diesels to 553,000 battery-mobiles.

Oil-burning giants like the Ford F-450 and Silverado 3500 and Ram 3500 in the heavy-duty segment have long clashed like robots in “Pacific Rim: Uprising.” Sporting sick specs like F-550’s 935 pound-feet of torque, these behemoths throw around 30,000-pound trailer rigs like matchsticks.

But the light-duty Power Stroke is hardly Heavy-Duty Jr. Where the 6.7-liter big brother is the ripped clean-and-jerk towing champion of the world, the F-150 diesel is happy with efficient refinement.

With its low 1,750-rpm peak torque and 10-speed transmission, my 3.0-liter diesel effortlessly towed a 3-ton trailer. It delivered power more smoothly and predictably than the higher-strung, twin-turbo V-6. It’s the V-6, not diesel, that boasts best-in-class 13,300-pound towing capacity. The Power Stroke is content with 11,400 pounds of capacity. If you want to pull a house, let Ford show you the heavy-duty aisle.

Through the Rocky Mountain foothills, the 3.0-liter Power Stroke was whisper-quiet. So quiet that if I did a blindfold test (not recommended at 60 mph), I couldn’t tell it was a diesel without reading the 4,500-red line tachometer. Even under the cane, the Power Stroke sounds like a gas V-6. Contrast that to my old 2003 Ram 2500 that sounds like a cement mixer.

Quieting the diesel beast ain’t cheap. The Power Stroke up-charge is $4,000 on the Lariat (versus the 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6’s $1,600), and diesel cleaning fluid refills will set you back $24 every 7,000 miles. So Ford only offers the diesel to individual buyers on premium trims — Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum — a space where customers likely own other pricey toys like Airstreams and horses.

The payback, I tell Airstream Tom, is in convenience rather than recouping lower fuel costs.

The diesel gets about 20 percent better fuel economy than the twin-turbo V-6, which translates to about 400 miles of range at 15 mpg highway (trucker rule of thumb: towing a 6,000-pound trailer cuts gas mileage in half. The Power Stroke’s EPA rating is 30 mpg). The V-6 will stop every 310 miles — or worse, given turbo’s notorious thirst under load.

Diesel means fewer stops on your way to Shangri La, U.S.A.

Speaking of paradise, my $63,435 Lariat interior was a luxury suite. Only luxe sedans rival Detroit trucks for premium cabins. Heck, with the Airstream, the whole family can fit easily in the palatial SuperCrew cab. Take a $70,000 King Ranch Power Stroke up north and its interior will rival nearby yachts.

The light-duty Power Stroke takes aim at the Ram 1500 diesel. Ford has thrown down the gauntlet with its record-setting 30 mpg highway, besting Ram’s 27. Chevy and GMC have their own diesels suiting up in the locker room for 2019. Ram, too, will counter with its own upgraded, 2019 diesel.

I got a preview of Ram’s upscale platform when I test drove the 2019 gas model last month. It sees the F-150’s tech and counters with a Tesla-like tablet interior display and a digital rotary shift knob opening more console space. Oh, yeah? Ford’s console knob will autonomously back up its trailer. Game on (if you’ve got $50,000 to play).

Premium sedans once introduced new technology. Now big, bold, diesel pickups are the new canvas for tech innovation.

2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke Diesel

Vehicle type

Front-engine, rear- and four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup


$46,410 base ($63,435 4WD Lariat and $70,360 4WD King Ranch as tested)

Power plant

3.0-liter, turbo diesel V-6


250 horsepower, 440 pound-feet of torque


10-speed automatic


0-60 mph, 7.2 seconds (Car and Driver est); towing capacity: 11,400 pounds; payload: 2,020 pounds


5,077-5,335 pounds (diesel adds 350-pounds to comparable gas-powered trucks)

Fuel economy

EPA fuel economy: 22 city/30 highway/25 combined (4x2); 20 city/25 highway/22 combined (4x4)

Report card

Highs: Diesel fuel economy; self-driving towing, parking features

Lows: Diesel $3,000-$4,000 premium; diesel does not out-tow cheaper, twin-turbo V-6


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.