2011 Heavy-Duty Hurt Locker: Eisenhower Pass Climb

Words by Mike Levine, Mark Williams and Kent Sundling, Photos by Ian Merritt

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Eisenhower Pass

Our second major climb was the eastbound ascent from Dillon, Colo., to the top of Eisenhower Pass on Interstate 70, the highest point in the U.S. interstate system. The grade starts at approximately 5 percent for two miles and then increases to about 7 percent for the remaining six miles, to the entrance of the Eisenhower Tunnel — the highest vehicular tunnel in the U.S. It’s perhaps the toughest stretch of road a loaded truck will encounter on a major cross-country highway; we call it the Nürburgring of pickup trucks because nearly every bit of towing and braking hardware is stressed to the max for many miles at a very high altitude.

We started at 8,776 feet in Dillon and finished at 11,000 feet above sea level, climbing 2,224 feet over nearly eight miles and 7,500 feet higher than the finish on Davis Dam Grade.

We drove each truck up the grade in tow/haul mode and two-wheel drive. Runs during which the driver let off the accelerator, braked or both were not counted. The fastest time was used for our comparison. We ran each truck up the grade in sequence, two times total. Each run included five adult males inside, adding another 1,000 pounds to the trucks. The trucks were at a dead stop before each run. The driver ran wide open throttle from start to finish. We didn’t encounter any traffic on the road during the late-night climbs.

Topographical map of Eisenhower Pass based on GPS data collected by our VBOX and exported to Google Earth. The red line representing our timed course up I-70 starts near the upper right, in Dillon, Colo., and finishes 40,000 feet (7.6 miles) later in the lower left, near the entrance to the Eisenhower Tunnels at 11,000 feet above sea level.

Temperatures at the start of the runs in Dillon ranged between 54 degrees and 62 degrees, according to the trucks’ outdoor temperature readouts.

Like the Chevy Silverado 3500 that won the Rumble in the Rockies test, the Duramax-powered GMC Sierra 3500 was the fastest truck up Eisenhower Pass. It finished in 8 minutes, 46.8 seconds – 84 seconds ahead of the F-350 and 152.6 seconds ahead of the Ram 3500. The Sierra’s average speed cruising up to 11,000 feet was 51.70 mph, 7.2 mph faster on average than the Ford and 11.35 mph faster on average than the Ram. The GMC’s top speed was 68.77 mph for a few seconds before the grade changed from 5 percent to 7 percent.

The Ford F-350's best time up the grade was 10 minutes, 16.6 seconds, at an average speed of 44.51 mph. The top speed was 58.5 mph, and it happened just before the point where the grade increased from 5 percent to 7 percent.

Some may notice that the Ford was much closer to the GMC in performance this time around compared to the Rumble in the Rockies. We noticed that improvement, too, even before we looked at the numbers.


This chart shows each truck's speed climbing Eisenhower Pass against the clock at wide open throttle. The GMC Sierra 3500's fastest run was 526.8 seconds, the Ford F-350's best time was 611.1 seconds and the Ram's quickest climb was 679.4 seconds. The sloped lines represent each truck's position climbing the mountain.



This chart shows the speeds of the three trucks relative to each other over the 40,000 foot (7.6 mile) run to the top of Eisenhower Pass. Note how similar the speed patterns are for each truck as the grade changes throughout the climb.



It seems as if Ford has improved the Power Stroke V-8 diesel’s performance at high altitudes. Last year, we tested a Ford F-450 and an F-350 in the Rocky Mountains, and neither truck was able to exceed 2,100 rpm at wide open throttle up I-70 when towing a heavy trailer. But in this test, we repeatedly saw the Ford hit and hold rpm levels as high as 2,700 rpm – just below its peak horsepower, which is critical for pulling with confidence and strength over long distances. And, in general, driving through the Rockies, without instrumentation running, there were times the Ford Super Duty could pull away (slowly) from the Sierra while climbing grades. If we assigned a ratio to our impressions, the Ford outpowered the GMC about 25 percent of the time in the Rockies while towing.

How was this F-350 able to dig deeper than the other 2011 Super Dutys we’ve driven? We suspect that Ford has continued to refine the Job 2 engine and transmission calibrations (Job 3?) to improve high-altitude performance. We have asked Ford for a comment, but we haven’t received a response as of this writing. We stopped at a Ford dealer in Denver to identify the firmware version, but the service computer only said the firmware did not require an update.

We don’t think Ford submitted a “ringer” for this test. If there’s a firmware update for this truck, you could take your 2011 Super Duty in for service and have it flashed to the same version as this truck. Wherever the change comes from, it’s welcome.


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When it matters the Duramax prevails....

Anybody else notice that whenever the Duramax wins, there is always a "but" that goes with it? They just had to add the part about their "feeling" that the Ford outgunned the GMC with the testing equipment off 25% of the time, just like they added the part in the shootout about running in 4x4 up the 16% (I think it was) to get the Ford to beat the GM. However, whenever the Ford wins one of these tests, thats the end of it, no extra comments? What gives?

I still suspect Ford has issues with turbo know how. EB hill climb towing suffers at altitude as well.

@norcal Greg

Greg you're clearly a gm fan and in parts of this test and many previous I would've said the same in opposite. Many times when the ford won to me it seems like there is always a "but the gm..." so I think it's just our internal biases

@Matt: The Ford did beat the GMC up Davis Dam in one of the runs. I've got the graphs that show it. However, we show the fastest runs for the trucks and both the Ford and GMC were significantly faster on their second runs up the mountain. But even if you average or total up both runs together, the GMC still "beat" (by a few seconds) the Ford up Davis Dam.

@ Matt
You're right, I do favor the GM; I in fact own a 2011 Chevy LML Duramax and feel they're the best, which all tests seem to prove, although Ford has made it a lot closer this time around. Also, I would like to add that its Mike Lavine's tests that showed the Ford's critical weakness of downgrade braking that steered me away from buying it (I really wanted that plush interior of the Ford).
I gave you two examples to go with my claim, now you give me at least one to support yours and I'll retract what I said because I will admit that ones bias' does seem to cloud your mind when reading about your favorite truck.

@- Mike I would like to see how these trucks perform in 4x4 , maybe in the snow :) . Also I'm curious on how the Fords 3.55 axle performs compared to the GM and Rams 3.73

I still think that there needs to be testing of these trucks on gravel roads. The only negative to that is that it is harder to ensure consistent road surfaces.

Congratulations G.M.C.!

For these extreme towing tests, there needs to be some more data acquisition.
Air temperatures: outside air temperature, after turbocharger, after charge cooler.
Exhaust gas temperature.

This would be vary informative.

So ford was rigged?

Did GMC not win this one, if the ford out powered it should be first , you guys are so ford biased , like NorCal Greg has been saying there is always a "but" in fords favour, let the tests speak for themselves would be more appreciated :If we assigned a ratio to our impressions, the Ford outpowered the GMC about 25 percent of the time in the Rockies while towing?

Another GM win. Love it. Hey Lou why all the excuses???

@Snowman - please point out any excuses I've made for Ford loosing.

@lloyd...if Ford outpowerd the GMC 25% of the time that means that the GMC out powered the Ford 75% of the time....is it really that hard to figure out!! And I am sure most of that was a variable in driving styles, and gear selection since they were not "testing"

@ Mike L.

You said the powerstroke was much closer in perfomance up the Eisenhower climb this time. Do think outside temp had something to do with it or did Ford step it up? I think RITR was a lot colder.

It's funny how people bring up that Ford may have been "rigged" but the GM could also have been rigged.
There was an engineer fom GM there for the test he could have easily gave the crew back at the office the vin# and they could do a quick update via "onstar" and there you go you now have a winner.
The Ford was first on the first Davis Dam run, then the GM got some more power all the sudden and beat it the second time. Hmmm kinda fishy.

The Ford and GMC trucks overall seem pretty equal. Dodge lags behind. BTW - Ford may be the best selling truck, but it's the only one Ford Motor Co. offers. With GM, you have a choice between the Chevy and GMC. If you add Chevy and GMC together, they sold more light duty trucks than Ford. Just sayin'.

Not always true jessman.

having driven the Ford and the Chevy I just have to say I find the run to the top of I70 results hard to believe. (I don't own either one). I wish Ford would speak up a bit and explain these results. I also wish you could have immediately dynoed these machines, but as long as are things like Onstar around questions will remain.

I just wish GM would get their new interiors in.

If you guys think that Onstar has the ability to tune the ECM remotely then you are giving it far too much credit. I would like it to be able to make a phone call in Southern Utah just once successfully.

So all you cummins fans what do you think about that.I thought that cummins was supposed to pull the best of the big 3 but guess i not. v8 diesels kicked ass.

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