2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke first drive: the uncertain diesel pickup truck

April 26, 2018

Dark clouds above. Snow flurries falling. Gloomy view ahead. Seat heater engaged. It may be the end of April, but Colorado Highway 72—known locally as Coal Creek Canyon Road—isn’t ready for spring.

The diesel-fueled 2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke I’m piloting up this winding mountain road on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, is properly equipped for the situation, and not just because of its butt warmers.

But its outlook is also a little gloomy. Under the F-150’s hood sits Ford’s new 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6, an engine that’s been a long time coming and one that isn’t short on expectations.

MORE: 2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke Diesel rated at 30 mpg highway, with a big catch

The F-150 Power Stroke Diesel rarely hints at what’s underhood. Extensive sound deadening quells its 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 to luxury levels of silence. Its badging is subtle: Just a pair of chrome tags on either side of the cab make an announcement.

Even its fuel gauge moves at gas engine-like levels, which is a problem.

While rear-drive F-150 diesels are rated at a headline-grabbing 22 mpg city, 30 highway, 25 combined, the four-wheel drive versions Ford expects to be most popular check in at just 20/25/22 mpg on the EPA’s test. That’s only a tick or two better than the gas V-6s that cost as much as $4,000 less than the new Power Stroke unit, and even Ford’s engineers struggle to explain the disparity. Some comes from parasitic loss inevitable with a transfer case and the higher curb weight, while some of it has to do with the beefier tires Ford fits to four-wheel-drive versions.

Since more than two-thirds of F-150s sold are four-wheel drive, it begs the question: what’s the point of the diesel?

DON’T MISS: Read our full 2018 Ford F-150 review

That’s a fair question, and one that brings us back to Coal Creek Canyon.

The road twists and turns with the topography, following the creek it’s named after on its way toward bohemian Nederland, Colorado. In the F-150, the thick, leather-rimmed steering wheel zigs and zags with the road, and my passengers hardly notice. Ford's full-size truck discarded its chunky driving feel with a line-wide redesign for 2018, and the zippy new turbodiesel V-6 only adds to its driving appeal. The engine builds power quickly, with little discernible turbo lag in thinner air at higher elevations. The 10-speed automatic pops down a gear or two with dual-clutch-like speed when called upon, although paddle shifters would have been a nice addition for descending grades.

What it lacks in efficiency, the F-150 makes up for in towing confidence. My view astern is as bleak as what’s ahead, but for a different reason: Strapped behind the F-150 that I’m snaking up Coal Creek Canyon Road with sports car-like zeal is about 5,000 pounds of horse trailer.

2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke

2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke

2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke

2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke

2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke

2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke

It’s easy to forget what’s back there.

That the F-150 Power Stroke hardly feels winded with the trailer climbing from 5,500 to 7,500 feet above sea level is easily the diesel engine’s biggest selling point. It’s a confidence-inspiring powertrain well suited to larger trailers with its 440 pound-feet of torque rating. Though that torque peak is short—from 1,750 to 2,250 rpm—the transmission aces at keeping the engine in that range.

On paper, the diesel F-150’s 11,400-pound maximum towing capacity is a mixed bag. It applies to a specific cab, bed, trim level, and rear axle configuration and it comes in a staggering 2,000 pounds less than the gas-engined F-150’s highest rating. Typical diesel F-150 configurations come in around 10,000 pounds.

Bragging rights aside, most half-ton truck owners rarely lug more than about 6,000 pounds, so any additional capacity is more about what’s in reserve than what will be used. In this case, it’s about building confidence for those who may tow more frequently.

Ford is, admittedly, bearish about the diesel F-150. The automaker figures about 5 percent of F-150s will be fitted with the engine and even then, the automaker is restricting availability of the engine to high-spec Lariat, King Ranch, and Limited trim levels for consumers. Those with fleet needs can special order XL and XLT trim levels, but they won’t be stocked at Ford dealers. That means a diesel-fueled F-150 will run upward of $45,000 when it goes on sale in May, with a well-equipped F-150 Power Stroke King Ranch like my Coal Creek Canyon companion (say that five times fast) dipping into the mid-$70,000 range.

As Coal Creek Canyon Road reaches its terminus, the F-150 Power Stroke’s mission remains cloudy. For every positive, there’s a negative. It’s expensive, but it’s refined. It’s not that fuel efficient, but then again it can be in certain configurations. It can’t tow as much, but it can tow better.

This one’s for the market to decide.

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