Outboards and towable boats have significantly increased in size. Today, vessels with multiple outboards are towed hither and yon on custom trailers, adding up to weights exceeding 15,000 pounds. And on many occasions, it’s not a professional driver behind the wheel of a behemoth big rig doing the towing, but instead a boat owner or captain in the driver’s seat of a large, domestic pickup truck.
Just like in the marine industry, the auto industry is using technology to make things, in nearly all cases, better. On boats, joystick controls and self-docking have taken a big bite out of one of the most stressful aspects of boating. On the road, tech is playing an increasing role in Ford’s Super Duty lineup, whose towing capacity I tested in the Sonoran Desert outside Phoenix.
A long drive allowed me to get comfortable with the big pickup on highways, single-lane rural routes and long, dusty desert roads. Its power plant is a beast, the third generation of Ford’s 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel V-8 rated at 475 hp and with the pull of a pachyderm — a whopping 1,050 foot-pounds of torque. The horsepower and torque are best in class. The truck easily cruised at 75 mph, the tachometer reading just under 2,000 rpm. In parking lots, it handled like a pickup, but at highway speeds, the F-250 is a comfortable cruiser that can be optioned out like a luxe SUV. The gas engine is no slouch, either, with 430 hp and 475 foot-pounds of twist; both are also best in class.
We arrived at the towing grounds, and the intimidation factor started to kick in (bad memories of trying to back down trailers and decipher someone’s hand signals, only to jackknife both truck and trailer). There was a bevy of setups to choose among, with conventional, gooseneck and fifth-wheel trailer packages to well more than 30,000 pounds. Not only was I able to give the systems a go in close-quarters maneuvering, but I also got the chance to drive them straight up a mountain pass.
I looked up at the steep, single-lane switchbacks and chose a diesel F-350 with a conventional setup and load, and with a weight and size — a 26-foot, 9,400-pound trailer — that closely matched a similarly sized center console with twin outboards.
According to Larry Rhein, Super Duty’s transmission calibration specialist, the Super Duty lineup rules the roost with best-in-class towing in all three packages, from 24,200 pounds for conventional up to 37,000 pounds with a gooseneck trailer. That kind of power would’ve helped me during some of my experiences driving much smaller loads, I told Rhein.
“What good is it [when towing] if you arrive at your destination stressed and exhausted?” he asked.
Heading uphill at the start of a mountain pass, I felt confident with the help of the F-350’s smooth 10-speed transmission, a yaw-rate sensor that keeps the load in line, and the big diesel’s power. I even passed an SUV towing an Airstream on the way up.
However, I still had to come downhill, a task that’s easily more stress-inducing than the climb. With nearly 17,000 pounds of truck and trailer coming down the mountain, one can imagine the stress on the brakes, not to mention the driver.
I simply steered and paid attention, thanks to the engine exhaust brake. Useful heading up or down, the exhaust brake is activated with the press of a button. The driver can set a speed — in my case, 30 mph — and the vanes on the engine’s turbocharger adjust to create back pressure (the turbo’s exhaust is restricted) to maintain a cruise control-type experience with no need to ride the brakes. Applying the gas or brakes in “on” mode controls speed (per usual) but then returns to the preset; “automatic” does it all for the driver. And for heading up steeper inclines in the on mode, it’ll help reduce constant gear shifts.
Seamless System Solutions
Fully confident, I was ready to give parking a try. “A lot of people have the fear of backing up a trailer,” Rhein said as we pulled into a lot where a series of cones were set up. He echoed the reassurance I received from Super Duty performance engineer Alan Costantino, who said: “Something that once took two or three people can now be done by one person. The systems provide a highly confident driving experience.”
And he was right. While I needed a little more practice with the much larger, less-responsive fifth wheel, I was able to master backing down a conventional setup within minutes.
With the integration of Ford’s Pro Trailer Backup Assist, one of the most stressful things about getting a boat in and out of the water or parked in a tight spot is eliminated. Utilizing seven camera angles — with standard rear view, 360 (from above), wide angle, a reverse split and three others that can be set up in a split view on the truck’s touch screen — Backup Assist made it feel as if I were playing a video game. Using the system is not unlike going from a wheel and throttles to full joystick control; in the truck’s case, you turn the toggle left, and the trailer goes left. It’s the same for the other direction.
If you choose to use the steering wheel, then a Trailer Reverse Guidance system works in tandem with the cameras, showing the driver an overhead view of the truck and trailer with a virtual steering wheel that directs you how to turn to complete the job. After utilizing Ford’s automatic system and watching the steering wheel spin wildly to respond to the toggle’s controls, I realized the system obviates the acrobatics I’d performed so many times. This system will save a lot of friendships and marriages at the boat ramp.
Last year, F-Series pickups were the best-selling vehicles in America for the 42nd consecutive year. With the 2020 Super Duty line, Ford continues to push the technological envelope. “We design all the systems in-house to talk to each other,” Costantino says. “The integration of the truck and its features is top-notch.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.