Ford Likes Turbocharging In Trucks, GM Dodges It: Which Is Better?

January 21, 2013
The Ford Atlas concept from the Detroit Auto Show, which gives a first glimpse of the all-new, next-generation versions of the F-150 pickup, has a lot of tech and design ideas packed into it. But truck shoppers often need to think about horsepower, torque, payloads, and pulling power first and foremost. So perhaps just as noteworthy is what Ford pointed to under the hood: a next-generation turbocharged 'EcoBoost' engine.

Ford Motor Co. [NYSE: F] has sold about 43 percent of its current light-duty pickups with the EcoBoost V-6, which made its debut for 2011, and it says that its 3.5-liter EcoBoost F-150 sales alone were greater than some rival full-size truck models' entire lineup. And the majority of F-150 models are now ordered with a V-6.

EcoBoost a success in trucks

2013 Ford F-150 Limited

2013 Ford F-150 Limited

According to Ford, the gamble has paid off; the EcoBoost engine has been very successful, with take rates much higher than even the automaker had anticipated. And it all but confirms that Ford will continue to use the ‘EcoBoost’ moniker into its next-generation trucks.

On the other hand, General Motors [NYSE: GM] has no immediate plans to downsize its pickup engines or introduce a turbo. Instead, it's completely re-engineered the V-6 and V-8 engines that go into its latest, heavily revised 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and 2014 GMC Sierra pickups. While all three of those engines are expected to post higher horsepower, torque, and fuel economy numbers, they're the same size as their predecessors (4.3 liters for the V-6; 5.0 and 6.2 liters for the V-8). And in each of these, GM is turning to cylinder deactivation technology (along with direct injection and variable valve timing) to make its traditional-sized engines more efficient.

GM currently sells less than 15 percent of Silverado models with the outgoing V-6 engine, and only five percent with the top 6.2-liter V-8; with 5.3-liter V-8 models comprising the rest. But it expects that the new V-6 will account for 15 to 20 percent of sales, possibly more.

“In brief, there are two ways to provide the power and torque needed for towing and hauling, while also improving fuel efficiency,” said GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson. “One is to start with a smaller engine and boost the output when needed with turbocharging or supercharging; the other is to start with larger engines, then reduce the number of cylinders in operation to improve efficiency when less power is required.”

“We think the second approach is better suited to the way many owners use their trucks,“ summed Wilkinson.

GM argues that bigger is still better for trucks

To push their point, GM is pointing to ‘duty cycle’—or the way that a truck is used—as the reason why their new EcoTec3 engines might be better for more shoppers.

At the introduction of GM’s 2014 pickups last month, the company argued that its trucks are better on fuel than Ford’s when towing and hauling (EPA ratings are run without a load).

“With these engines, we can control detonation without having to aggressively retard the spark...or overly richen the fuel mixture,” said executive chief engineer Jeff Luke, going on to note the “complex hardware” in the Ford engines.

But Ford is offering both a 5.0-liter V-8 and a 3.7-liter V-6 in addition to the EcoBoost engine, so shoppers who drive under load every day have other options.

“Clearly duty cycle is a big decider of what’s the right engine choice for you; not only what specific powertrain but also what kind of truck you want to order, or moving up to a Super Duty,” said Raj Nair, Ford Group VP for Global Product Development. “So it’s a discussion we have with our customers, with our personal-duty customers we have in the showroom and our fleet customers who we talk to in Dearborn and other places.”

Start-stop on the way in next-gen EcoBoost?

The next-generation Ford truck EcoBoost engine (likely a V-6) in the concept is also fitted with a start-stop system—something that might also be in the cards for the production version, which by the time it comes out will need to offer significantly better EPA fuel economy ratings than today's version.

Ford EcoBoost badge on 2010 Ford Flex

Ford EcoBoost badge on 2010 Ford Flex

Looking ahead to those second-generation EcoBoost engines, Nair says that mileage and capability will only get better. “We’re very pleased with the progress,” said Nair. “We’ll continue to work on development of the EcoBoost series...we’ll have better efficiency, better emissions, better power than we have now.”

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