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Ford's bigger, badder Super Duty

New line of F-Series pickups aims to lasso more sales despite tough economy, shootout with GM.

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

Super Duty
2008 Ford F-450 Super Duty Crew Cab 4X2
Engine: 6.4-liter Power Stroke diesel
Horsepower: 350 @ 3,000 rpm
Torque: 650 lbs-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Max. payload: 6,120 lbs.
Max. towing: 24,400 lbs.
Curb weight: 8,290 lbs.
Source: Ford Motor Co.

DALLAS -- The Texas State Fair will provide a fitting backdrop as Ford Motor Co. unveils its new F-Series Super Duty truck lineup today, including the biggest production pickup ever: the new 2008 F-450.

Ford's massive new flagship pickup sets the tone for a redesign of the Ford's Super Duty lineup, which will debut as 2008 models early next year.

Looking to cement its leadership of the profitable heavy-duty pickup segment, Ford has equipped the new trucks with additional towing capacity, a new 6.4-liter diesel engine, a tailgate that turns into a step, a refined suspension and other new features, the company said.

Analysts are impressed with the new Super Duty lineup -- a staple at American job sites -- but raised concerns about the economic environment for selling commercial trucks. Heavy-duty pickups are popular with contractors and others working in the deflating housing industry.

Others contend Ford has little choice but to upgrade the high-margin trucks if it wants to regain its footing in the domestic marketplace.

"The Super Duty is incredibly important for Ford because, not only does it represent some pretty serious volume for them, (but) it's also quite profitable," said Erich Merkle, an analyst with IRN Inc. "Of course, these days, every launch is critical for Ford."

For five years, the Super Duty has outsold all other brands in the in heavy-duty commercial pickup segment, which nearly reached 750,000 vehicles in 2005. Super Duty pickups traditionally account for 40 percent overall F-Series sales.

But Ford is facing a new challenge from its longtime rival, General Motors Corp., which is also scheduled to introduce new versions of its heavy-duty pickup models early next year.

Ford plans to cut them off at the pass with the F-450.

While Ford's F-350 already offers best-in-class payload, towing capacity and gross vehicle weight ratings, the F-450 is designed to set the bar well beyond the reach of GM and other rivals. It offers a payload capacity of more than 6,000 pounds and a towing capacity of more than 24,000 pounds.

"The biggest challenge with the 450 was making it a legitimate pickup," said Pete Reyes, chief engineer of the Super Duty line.

Ford already makes an F-450 chassis truck that is widely used as the foundation for flatbed haulers and small dump trucks. But Reyes said pickup truck buyers expect a lot more from their vehicles.

"The challenge with a pickup is providing excellent ride, excellent handling and excellent stability -- both empty and fully loaded," he said. "It's tough luxury."

That theme extends to the truck's interior, which has been redesigned along the same lines as the F-150 and takes its inspiration from the look and feel of high-end power tools.

"We looked at it as another tool inside the toolbox," said Gordon Platto, chief engineer of the F-series. "We refer to it as the DeWalt Tool design."

The Super Duty name is boldly embossed on the interior and exterior. The truck's big grille is another unmistakable icon.

"We wanted to make sure that, when this truck pulled up on someone, the grille filled the whole rearview mirror -- not just part of it," Platto said.

Truck customers also have strong opinions about what they want in a heavy-duty pickup, and Reyes said Ford has been listening.

Because 90 percent of Super Duty owners use their trucks for towing, Ford has also added several features designed to make that job a little easier. These include power mirrors that extend, retract or fold flat at the push of a button.

"Finding what the marketplace wants is key to us," Reyes said. All of these improvements will be featured on the rest of the Super Duty lineup -- which includes the F-250 and F-350. That's important, because the F-450 will likely only account for small percentage of overall Super Duty sales.

Ford is offering its new 6.4-liter Power Stroke clean diesel as an option on all 2008 Super Duty trucks, and each model is available in a variety of cab and bed configurations. About 75 percent of Ford's Super Duty trucks were diesels. Ford also offers premium versions like the Lariat and King Ranch editions.

"They're really releasing the hounds here creatively," said Jim Sanfilippo of AMCI.

The economy could be a drag on the sales of the big pickup. In recent years, Super Duty sales have been buoyed by the nation's housing boom, but that boom is rapidly turning into a bust.

Merkle worries that a continued decline in the housing segment could undermine Super Duty sales.

"It has everything to do with the macroeconomic headwinds we're facing," he said. "That's really what's going to hurt the product more than the product could ever hurt itself."
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