2017 Ford Super Duty First Drive: Fetes of strength

August 1, 2016

Looking back at it, we've grown a lot in 17 years. But some things are better left behind.

The Great Recession can stay right where it is—in history. Samesies for toe shoes.

About 17 years ago, Ford split off heavy duty trucks from its F-150 lineup and created one of the most lucrative lineups for the brand. Its timing couldn't have been better. Gas prices have see-sawed, but the Super Duty lineup for Ford has been, excuse the mob parlance, a good earner.

Despite three generations and hundreds of thousands pickups sold across North America, the Super Duty series hasn't changed all that much. Sure, new grilles, trims, toys, and engines have come and gone, but the bones in those behemoths have been the same since the Clinton days. (We mean Bill—for now.)

ALSO SEE: Here's how Ford threw away the old Super Duty and started from scratch

Now for 2017, Ford has significantly overhauled the Super Duty for the first time since it was new. It's not lip-service here either.

The Super Duty's frame is all new, bones and all. Ford ditched the open C-channel frame it had in the last generation in favor of a fully boxed frame with 95 percent high-strength steel, up from 15 percent in the previous generation. Two new crossmembers join the party to make up to 10 ladder steps to climb all the way up to the Super Duty's max hauling capacity: up to 20 tons.

That's half a semi's worth of weight on a frame that you can park in your driveway, jack.

The chassis details on this rig are almost as overwhelming as the eye-popping numbers it's capable of. New fully closed, through-welded middle frame rails are 1.5 inches higher this year than last; increased tubes on front and rear axles are roughly the diameter of a barrel-chested pipe fitter; and the Dana (or Sterling) rear axle housings can take a howitzer. One of those might be made up.

That all adds up to numbers with more commas than the first 400 pages of "Ulysses." In specific configurations, the Super Duty can tow up to 32,500 pounds; a front gross axle weight rating of up to 7,500 pounds; a payload capacity of up to 7,630 pounds; a fifth-wheel capacity of up to 27,500 pounds.

CHECK OUT: Hyundai Genesis vs. Cadillac CTS: Compare Cars

We're missing one comma: The one up front in the new 6.7-liter Power Stroke turbodiesel V-8's torque ratings. It's expected that one of the Detroit 3 will crest the 1,000 pound-feet of torque rating soon, but the 2017 Super Duty won't be the first. The optional oil-burner up front has been rated for 2017 at 925 lb-ft and 440 horsepower this year. A carryover 6.2-liter V-8 gasoline motor that makes 385 hp and 430 lb-ft will get standard duty in F-250 and F-350—but none of the headlines. (A 6.8-liter V-10 is available in the F-450 and F-550 chassis cabs and surprisingly popular, according to Ford, which is why they've kept it in use since the Mesozoic era.)

Ford has an upgraded 6-speed TorqShift-G automatic for gas-powered F-250s with fuel-saving tech and smoother shifts—and it shows. Diesel trucks get the same 6-speed autobox as always. Don't ask if the 10-speed automatic jointly developed with General Motors, of all partners, will show in the Super Duty anytime soon. Ford won't say a word.

2017 Ford Super Duty First Drive

2017 Ford Super Duty First Drive

The cowboy Cadillac... or Lincoln

Ford dealers are well-stocked with King Ranch and Platinum Super Dutys, which only account for 10 percent of overall sales—but that includes a whole heck of a lot of base models sold to commercial fleets. Because Ford sells so many tricked-out trucks, the base vehicle itself has to be pretty darn good to begin with. 

The improvements to the nuclear winter-proof (probably) chassis has resulted in splash damage to ride and handling: the Super Duty is exceptionally quiet and solid. The new chassis is 24 times stiffer than the outgoing Super Duty, engineers say, and it feels like it. On the road, the cab shakes have been quelled; the sound-deadening material (which is partially made from recycled jeans) works less to muzzle creaks and groans from open C-channels; and uprated front radius arms isolate road noise and smooth out the Super Duty's ride.

If those were the only improvements, the 2017 Super Duty would qualify as a "nicer ride" than the outgoing truck.

But Ford's optional adaptive steering setup borrowed from the Edge and upcoming Lincoln Continental makes the new Super Duty a "much nicer ride" than the outgoing truck.

In short: adaptive steering uses a quicker ratio around town for better maneuverability and slower ratios at higher speeds to tighten things up and improve highway tracking.

Ford set up a truck rodeo in the parking lot of Denver's Mile High stadium to let us compare the system to competitors. We didn't need the data streaming from sensors Ford installed in its Chevy and Ram rivals to tell us that the Ford's adaptive steering had a noticeable impact on maneuverability and a reduction in the amount of wheel turning we had to do. 

The Super Duty's hydraulic rack still built up effort at the same rate at low speeds—the wheel doesn't go lighter at slower speeds—but rather our inputs were barely exaggerated in a slalom course at 10 mph. Adaptive steering won't over-exaggerate movements like super-futuristic bionic arms, but over the course of a day, we say the system could reduce fatigue while navigating job sites.

On the highway, adaptive steering will also smooth out your corrections, according to Ford. Bombing canyon roads probably isn't in the cards for many Super Duty owners, so we don't expect much stink over high-speed cornering from buyers. At highway speeds, a 2017 Ford Super Duty F-250 Platinum was settled and calm, even without a load on. After tracking more than 1,300 miles in a 2016 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 recently, this writer can report that the Super Duty feels just as relaxed—when can we drive to Chicago?

2017 Ford Super Duty First Drive

2017 Ford Super Duty First Drive

Get a load of this

Convincing Ford or Chevy faithful to switch sides happens less often than a Hatfield switching their last name to McCoy.

The new Super Duty isn't likely to convince many "bow-tie guys" to turn in their keys so much as it'll probably convince current owners that the Super Duty in their driveway just became a Compaq 486.

Most of the Super Duty's new tricks are for hauling: adaptive cruise control—even while towing; up to seven (!) cameras to point, pull, or sashay their rigs into tight spaces; multi-contour seats to calm frazzled boating nerves; and advanced safety features, to you know, keep you alive.

Dial up the cab-mounted, rear-facing high camera and its overlaid guide line and hook up a gooseneck trailer like you're playing Nintendo. Pull forward and use the 180-degree front-facing camera to peek around the corners. The trailering system (borrowed heavily from the F-150) even remembers up to 10 trailers for length so the blind-spot monitors can check your six while you're driving. While stopped, a factory-installed, owner-placed camera on the rear of the trailer lets you actually watch your six if you need.

READ: 2017 Ford F-250 Super Duty review

In concert, the advanced trailering functions and cameras are a huge upgrade for Ford and help prevent a slew of mishaps including jackknifed trailers and missed connections (not on Craigslist, please).

Over several hours, we swapped gooseneck trailers with conventional trailers, unladen F-250s and maxed-out F-450s (you'll need a CDL to drive those) and chewed through Colorado miles. We weren't expecting the Power Stroke to struggle and it didn't disappoint. Up and down rolling foothills, we towed a trailer full of an F-150 through the stifling Colorado heat. Smart features such as automatic exhaust braking activated during cruise control and speed memory without cruise helped keep the Super Duty from setting its brakes on fire. Those are smart features we're guessing owners will appreciate even in the flatlands.

They all add to a driving experience that had to change for Ford.

To be blunt: The GM heavy duty twins had the Super Duty beat in ride comfort and quality. The 2017 Super Duty draws closer in those respects with an interior they managed to purloin from the F-150 body shop and a massively upgraded frame. 

It's possible that undecided shoppers may be swayed by the Super Duty's tech and comfort upgrades, but we're guessing it's more likely that the built-in customer base of Super Duty owners will look at their 17-year-old frame tomorrow and decide it's a senior at this point. Time to graduate.

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