Photography by Evan Sears
By the end of our 1,600-mile King of Beasts test drive, our drivers had a clear idea of how these two behemoths performed towing the most extreme amounts of weight. There's no question that the manufacturers have a done a stellar job of making the 2013 Ford F-450 and the 2013 Ram 3500 Heavy Duty the most powerful, strongest and even the smoothest-riding heavy haulers we've ever seen in this segment.
We needed to see how these two creatures performed in the wild, stressed to their limits, each yanking its own huge trailer back and forth across and over the Rockies. Unlike some other comparison tests we've done, this contest was about watching the two combatants as they moved from one extreme venue to another and from one extreme situation to another.
Rather than score each category or each test as if these were two equally matched competitors, which they weren't, we decided to just toss them into the ring, lock the cage behind them and find out which was the last one standing: bull elephant versus lion, whale versus giant squid, Godzilla versus King Kong. We know a 3500 doesn't match up directly with an F-450. In fact, we're not really sure any truck buyer would ever comparison shop those two trucks, but that wasn't what this test was about. We wanted the biggest hauling pickups out there (certainly with the biggest gross vehicle weight rating and gross combined vehicle weight rating numbers), and we wanted to test them together. So we did.
Here's what we found as these two heavy-duty fifth-wheel tugboats took on some of the most serious hill climbs and descents this country has to offer. We can comfortably say that both trucks handled them with incredible skill. But to say there weren't significant differences wouldn't be honest either, so here are our findings.
There's no question that with 400 horsepower and 800 pounds-feet of torque, the Power Stroke engine delivers gobs of smooth power and low-end grunt. For all-around big-truck comfort and capability, this used to be the ruler of the land, but it's now showing its age. There's always been something regal and majestic about the F-450 because it's been the bar everyone else has been trying to clear since it was introduced in 2008.
It's got plenty of strengths:
- Visibility: We like the tremendous visibility from the driver's seat with its rounded hood corners, gigantic elephant-like movable ears for mirrors, and large side and rear windows. Even the funny-looking rear dualie fenders make visibility easier for a driver who is pulling narrow or long trailers.
- Mobility: While you wouldn't expect it, for the most part we like how well it moves around town and on the highway when empty. With only a small bit of bothersome rear-end stiffness, it is impressive to see a truck of this size (and with 4.30:1 axle gears) regularly hit the 14-mpg mark driving around town.
- Smart Trans: We were very impressed how often the transmission stayed in 6th gear, even while driving on high-altitude grades. It was a challenge to get it to downshift sometimes.
During our time in the Super Duty we did find a few quibbles:
- The jitters: When fully loaded, we found the ride a bit stiffer and bucky at times, especially when the roads were bad.
- Interior: Our Platinum edition had a very nice sound system, but it didn't seem much different or offer the upgraded materials we believe truck buyers deserve in a nearly $70,000 pickup.
- DEF gauge: Not having an easy-to-find diesel exhaust fluid gauge that lets you know exactly how much you've used and how much you have left is something customers should not settle for, especially those who are going to tow. The Super Duty only offers a "Level OK" readout.
Unfortunately, the biggest areas where the F-450 let us down was in controlling the heavy loads on the steepest hill descents, something we've known from past heavy-duty comparisons as well. The strategy to integrate the turbocharger along with the grade braking of the transmission is perfectly fine about 80 percent of the time, but when we needed it most, it wasn't there. We found ourselves having to combat the engine bumping into the rev limiter several times with only the brake pedal between us and a runaway rig. Maybe it needs bigger, stronger brakes and a stronger transmission, or maybe a more aggressive turbocharger is the simple fix, but something has to be done if Ford wants its crown back. Interestingly, from what we saw at the 2013 State Fair of Texas, Ford could do it with the upgrades it has planned for its Super Duty chassis and upgraded Power Stroke for 2015.
Although it may not look like it on the outside, there were quite a few significant changes to the 2013 Ram 3500 HD, not the least of which was employing a higher tensile-strength frame and moving from a five-link front-end suspension design to a heavier-duty three-link setup.
All it takes is a quick look under the front end at the massive lower control arms (more similar now to the Super Duty strategy now) to understand why the new one-tons are so well-behaved and much less prone to the jitters when road bumps or choppy surfaces hit. Likewise, the steering feel is vastly improved as we navigated (at good speeds too) our way through mountain canyons and picked through tight city streets and Wal-Mart parking lots (not easily done with a 32-foot trailer).
Another standout feature was the new-for-2013 Smart Brake, which allows the driver to select one of three settings — off, auto and fully on. We liked letting the computer control the amount of engine braking in "auto" mode for most of our real-world driving, but we appreciated being able to set the exhaust brake into a more aggressive mode when headed toward a big downhill grade. It gave us more control (and a stronger sense of safety) and clearly helped the Ram HD manage its downhill speed.
The overall quality and level of detail offered in the Laramie Longhorn interior package impressed us. This was a cabin that we had to live in for seven straight days, sometimes for 16 hours at a time. The material choices, seams and switch layout seem to be the standard for the industry right now, something that others should be shooting for.
Finally, an important detail that could easily go overlooked is how well this package is integrated. From the engine and transmission working through the midlevel gearing, to the grade braking in the transmission software working in concert with the exhaust brake, to the level of seating comfort and support to make long hauls feel like an easy day's drive, it all works and fits seamlessly together.
This new Ram 3500 HD controls huge amounts of weight as if it were carrying a much smaller load, and you get out of the truck at the end of a long day of towing feeling like you haven't been. What more could you want from your beast of burden?
However, as much as we like this Ram 3500 HD, it is not a perfect truck. There are still characteristics of the Cummins B-motor that take some getting used to, like the trainlike torque at takeoffs that often had us sluggishly tugging away from stops rather than smoothly taking off. Also, visibility over the large front hood and all around the truck could be much better. And we would have liked an option for a larger fuel tank because long-haul towing with just a 220-mile range got old real fast.
Other things we liked:
- Powertrain: The new Ram and Aisin transmission surprised us with how well it carried the big loads with minimal effort, and it gave us respectable fuel economy.
- DEF gauge: We appreciated the dedicated DEF gauge that allowed us to see how quickly that eight-gallon tank can run dry when pulling the grade out of Vail, Colo., or over the 11,000-foot passes to get to Denver. Between our two trucks, we burned through 12 gallons of DEF fluid.
Our testing showed that Ram engineers have done a pretty good job of liberating the Cummins power and giving it a lot of midrange "umph" to move strongly up steep grades. Likewise, the brake-touch testing and the brake temperatures we measured really drive the point home that controlling the weight through engine management (auto grade braking) and turbocharger tuning (multimode exhaust brake) can help keep you away from the safety limits of your truck, offering a wider margin for error.
The Ram also had higher top speeds up the steepest grades, handled the heavy loads with more control, and kept the drivers more comfortable and less stressed. With all that said, we finally say congratulations to the 2013 Ram 3500 HD, our winner and last beast standing in this bloody two-truck battle.