Hill­billy pickup shootout

GMC De­nali 2500 vs Ford F250 Su­per­duty vs Ram 2500

Farms & Farm Machinery - - Contents -

An icy feel­ing slowly ra­di­ated through my body like ad­vanc­ing dread. My hands grew hot and sweaty on the steer­ing wheel as I squirmed in the driver’s seat.

I was wor­ried. Was I hav­ing some sort of al­ler­gic re­ac­tion to leather up­hol­stery? Was I los­ing my nerve in the face of so much Amer­i­can heavy metal? Maybe that curry I had the pre­vi­ous evening was a bit past its use-by date? I wasn’t sure what was go­ing on.

One thing I did know was that I felt like I was sit­ting in a bucket of icy wa­ter with my hands on a barbeque. And then it dawned on me.

While I’d been fid­dling with all the switches and but­tons in this ve­hi­cle, I in­ad­ver­tently switched on the seat cooler and steer­ing wheel heater at the same time. The re­sult was dis­con­cert­ing to say the least.

If you’ve ever been on one of those camp­ing trips where your arse ends up parked in an esky, you’ll have some idea of what

I’m talk­ing about.

THE BIG THREE

I was driv­ing a GMC De­nali 2500 pickup truck, the full-on luxo bus of the GM truck line up. And I wasn’t used to such crea­ture com­forts in a giant load-lug­ging ute.

Along with the GMC, we also had the lat­est model Ford

F250 Su­per­duty and the re­cently ar­rived RAM 2500 – the lat­est in­car­na­tions of 4x4 heavy-duty pick­ups from the Amer­i­can big three.

One thing that all three cer­tainly aren’t lack­ing is vis­ual im­pact. On Aus­tralian roads, these things stand out like the prover­bial ca­nine ap­pendages.

Some think they are cool, and oth­ers think they are crass. But what­ever you may think, they do ac­tu­ally have their prac­ti­cal uses. In­ter­est­ingly, car­ry­ing stuff in the tub isn’t re­ally one of them.

While they all do have a siz­able load area, they also have an Aus­tralian pay­load that equates to the same as the av­er­age ‘com­pact’ 4x4 ute on the Aussie mar­ket – just un­der a tonne.

TOW MON­STERS

Where they do ex­cel, how­ever, is tow­ing. These blinged-up be­he­moths can tow be­tween 6.5 and 7.5 tonnes with the right trailer hitch and, of course, trailer brakes.

Their au­to­matic trans­mis­sions are equipped with mas­sive trans cool­ers and have trans­mis­sion tow modes to aid in pulling a load and with en­gine brak­ing. And they’re all fit­ted with ex­haust brakes.

Not only that, all three are four-wheel drive with two-speed trans­fer cases. And as I found out ear­lier, they are also very well-ap­pointed, with lux­ury fea­tures not usu­ally found in lo­cally avail­able load lug­gers. They also have lots of but­tons in­side to fid­dle with.

STEER­ING SWAP

None of these jig­gers have been de­signed to be right-hand drive ve­hi­cles, though. As a re­sult, those want­ing to buy a big red­neck hauler lo­cally need to buy a con­verted one through one of the

Amer­ica’s love af­fair with the pickup truck con­tin­ues un­abated, yet they re­main a niche mar­ket here in Aus­tralia. Matt Wood gets hold of ex­am­ples from the big three and puts them through their paces

many busi­nesses in Aus­tralia that spe­cialise in switch­ing the tiller to the busi­ness side of the truck.

This opens up an in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion. Be­cause, re­gard­less of the badge on the grille, you are es­sen­tially buy­ing a very expensive mod­i­fied ve­hi­cle from a third party, which in some cases has no re­la­tion­ship with the orig­i­nal man­u­fac­turer at all.

This may not be such a big deal if we’re talk­ing about a car from the 1960s or 70s (not that you need to con­vert them these days any­way), but these trucks are now full of elec­tronic giz­mos and airbags that need to be re­cal­i­brated.

The last thing you need to hap­pen in a bin­gle is for the airbags to blow the cup hold­ers out of a side win­dow, rather than cush­ion the blow as in­tended. Or your sat­nav to send you to Punx­sutawney, Penn­syl­va­nia, in­stead of your lo­cal su­per­mar­ket, as de­light­ful as Punx­sutawney may be at this time of year.

So not only did we get three dif­fer­ent trucks, we got them from three dif­fer­ent con­vert­ers. And all three busi­nesses dif­fer in their ap­proach to con­ver­sions.

GMC DE­NALI

Which brings me back to the afore­men­tioned GMC De­nali.

GMC is the pre­mium GM truck brand that sits higher in the GM food chain than the Chevro­let Sil­ver­ado. That didn’t, of course, pre­vent me from con­stantly re­fer­ring to it as a Chevy. My brain was clearly strug­gling with the con­cept.

The De­nali sports a 6.6-litre Du­ra­max V8 diesel that pro­vides 402hp (300kW) and 1037Nm of torque, be­hind which sits a six- speed Al­li­son au­to­matic. It will take a tonne in the tub and tow up to 6.5 tonnes.

This truck came from Queens­land-based Per­for­max In­ter­na­tional, which spe­cialises in RHD con­ver­sions on a range of Amer­i­can ve­hi­cles.

As with all of the con­vert­ers in this test, Per­for­max has full vol­ume com­pli­ance, es­sen­tially mean­ing that the Aus­tralian Govern­ment recog­nises them as au­to­mo­tive man­u­fac­tur­ers.

I have to come clean and say that from the start I wasn’t nuts about the GMC’s styling. The wheel arches looked as if they needed square wheels to fill them, and the front is just a lit­tle too gar­ish Cadil­lac for my tastes.

The leather in­te­rior, how­ever, is plush – it feels like a qual­ity luxo bus in­side. As men­tioned ear­lier, there’s heated and cooled ev­ery­thing, and a neat digi-dash that pro­vides vi­tal sta­tis­tics such as coolant tem­per­a­ture and oil pres­sure. The dis­play changes when you se­lect tow mode to dis­play trans­mis­sion tem­per­a­ture.

A touch­screen in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem domi­nates the cen­tre con­sole, though the sat­nav kept play­ing up. It re­fused to shut up no mat­ter how much we tried to re­pro­gram it. We ended up just re­mov­ing the sim card for some peace.

Hav­ing the ped­als sit­ting in what used to be the pas­sen­ger footwell does make it a lit­tle cramped for the left leg on a long drive, and I found my­self mov­ing my foot around al­most sub­con­sciously to get com­fort­able.

The De­nali also gets a safety pack that in­cludes for­ward col­li­sion warn­ing and radar cruise con­trol.

Else­where in­side, there is storage ev­ery­where, and the seat bases flip up out of the way to cre­ate a flat floor space, which is no doubt handy if you’ve got lug­gage you want to keep out of the weather.

As you’d ex­pect, the back seat is plush, com­fort­able and spa­cious. Three adults could lounge in the back com­fort­ably.

As much as I dis­liked the De­nali’s styling, I had to ad­mit that it was a lovely thing to drive, helped by an in­de­pen­dent fron­tend that gives the GMC ex­cel­lent road hold­ing – whether loaded or empty.

The V8 had a suit­ably ma­cho growl when booted, but at the same time was happy to idle along smoothly in traf­fic when re­quired. The auto, in com­par­i­son, seemed a lit­tle harsh at times when shift­ing. It was much hap­pier when ac­tu­ally tow­ing a load.

I’m stat­ing the bleed­ing ob­vi­ous here, but these are big trucks. As a re­sult, they all have a planted feel on the open road. But the GMC was def­i­nitely the smoothest.

When it came to off-road­ing, how­ever, we had to bear in mind that these trucks were a lit­tle too wide for most bush tracks.

Plus, we didn’t want to scratch or dent some very expensive ve­hi­cles. But we did tackle a par­tic­u­larly gnarly hill climb, as well as some mild ob­sta­cles.

Shift-on-the-fly 4x4 is stan­dard on all three trucks. Again, the De­nali sur­prised, though it’s worth men­tion­ing the GMC was fit­ted with af­ter­mar­ket shock ab­sorbers, which no doubt helped in the wheel ar­tic­u­la­tion stakes.

The De­nali is also fit­ted with an auto locker on the rear diff, which also gave it a help­ing hand as it jumped, roared and bounced up the hill­side.

The chas­sis of the GMC felt very sup­ple both on- and off-road, and I never thought I’d ever use those words to de­scribe the han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics of a pickup truck!

We then had to ac­tu­ally tow some­thing. All of these trucks were fit­ted with 50mm tow balls, mean­ing a max­i­mum load of 3,500kg.

So we stuck a rel­a­tively mod­est 3,000kg be­hind all of these trucks to see how they hauled. Given the 3,500kg benchmark set by the lo­cal ute mar­ket, that’s still a pretty good load.

In short, the De­nali towed beau­ti­fully and barely no­ticed the weight. The Al­li­son tranny set­tled into a smooth shifter un­der load, and in tow mode pro­vided in­tu­itive shifts.

Our tow test route was up and down the Bris­bane Ranges in Vic­to­ria. On de­scent, the en­gine brake worked ex­tremely well with the gear­box, down­shift­ing early and hold­ing high rpm to max­imise ex­haust-brak­ing ef­fect.

The Per­for­max con­ver­sion does feel like a qual­ity job, sat­nav nig­gles aside. But with­out pulling things apart, it can be hard to judge from the driver’s seat.

Aside from footwell room, the only other jar­ring note is that the steer­ing col­umn is slightly off-cen­tre with the seat­ing po­si­tion.

Over­all, the De­nali it­self is a smooth, cos­set­ing hauler that would eat up the miles with ease – loaded or un­loaded.

Of course, none of this comes cheap, es­pe­cially when tied to the va­garies of the Amer­i­can dol­lar, and our GMC had a list price of $152,500 (this truck was also fit­ted with an op­tional lon­grange fuel tank). Per­for­max ve­hi­cles also come with a four-year, 120,000km war­ranty and 24-hour road­side as­sis­tance.

FORD F-250 SU­PER­DUTY

Amer­ica’s love af­fair with pickup trucks doesn’t look to be dis­si­pat­ing any­time soon. The Ford F-150, for ex­am­ple, has been the best-sell­ing ve­hi­cle in the US since 1978.

Ac­cord­ing to last year’s Amer­i­can sales stats, the sec­ond ve­hi­cle on the list is the Chevro­let Sil­ver­ado 1500, and in third place is RAM. To put that in per­spec­tive, in 2015 nearly twice as many Amer­i­cans bought F-150s than Toyota Cam­rys.

The F-250 Su­per­duty is the steel-clad big brother to the now alu­minium bod­ied F-150 and, if num­bers on pa­per mean any­thing, it’s a brute.

The 6.7-litre Pow­er­stroke V8 diesel makes a whop­ping 440hp (328kW) and 1166Nm of torque, which gets power to the paws via a six-speed Se­lect-Shift au­to­matic trans­mis­sion. With the right hitch and brak­ing, it will also haul 7600kg.

This truck comes from Har­ri­son F-trucks, which uses Mel­bourne based F-series con­verter VDC for the steer­ing switcheroo.

VDC spe­cialises in Ford con­ver­sions and handles the whole F-series range. The com­pany also has a sub­sidiary based in Detroit to han­dle con­ver­sions for the global mar­ket.

VDC has ve­hi­cle mod­i­fi­ca­tion cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from Ford, which ba­si­cally means that head of­fice trusts them to mess with their stuff. The VDC trucks are sourced from a Ken­tucky dealer, and just to make sure that the con­ver­sion passes safety muster, VDC has also crash-tested one of their con­verted trucks to make sure ev­ery­thing works should the worst hap­pen.

Sit­ting in the leather lounge that is the in­te­rior of the 250, the truck feels ev­ery bit as big as it is. And I ac­tu­ally like that big chrome grille. The in­te­rior feels very much in line with Ford’s global de­sign, though the plas­tics feel a lit­tle hard-edged, which cheap­ens the feel of the cock­pit.

As you’d ex­pect, the rear seat­ing has plenty of room, and there’s lock­able storage un­der­neath as well. It’s well laid out and less busy than the in­side of the GMC.

The in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem and touch­screen is Ford’s Sync 2 sys­tem, so any­one fa­mil­iar with the Aussie Sync sys­tem will find their way around it eas­ily.

The driver’s footwell is a lit­tle cosy. As these trucks weren’t de­signed to be right-hand drive, there tends to be more fire­wall in­tru­sion into the cock­pit on that side of the truck.

That said, VDC has man­aged to gain some more left legroom over the last 18 months, but I still found my­self hook­ing my left leg across the floor to rest be­hind my right foot.

Fire up that chunky bent-eight and you are re­warded with a sub­dued yet gruff rum­ble that em­anates from the twin dump-style ex­haust tips. It sounds and feels tough.

Put the foot down and the Effie launches, the rear wheels scrab­bling on black­top un­til the trac­tion con­trol grabs hold. With­out a load on board, this thing’s a beast.

On road, the 250 was a smooth per­former; the Ford tranny is a re­ally nice bit of gear. How­ever, the Ford doesn’t steer all that great – it has a ten­dency to bump steer, which keeps your hands mov­ing the wheel more than I’d like.

Off road, the F truck snarled its way up our hill climb with sheer brute force. Even with­out the rear diff-lock en­gaged.

It wasn’t as com­posed as the De­nali be­cause it lacked the more sup­ple, af­ter­mar­ket sus­pen­sion. In­stead, it just growled and threw rocks at the climb like an en­raged Ne­an­derthal. There is just so much grunt on tap that you can’t help but grin when giv­ing the loud pedal a nudge.

In­ter­est­ingly, the F truck has man­u­ally lock­able front hubs as well as the now usual shift-on-the-fly setup.

With our trailer on board, the Effie treated our pid­dly load with the con­tempt it de­served. It hauled ef­fort­lessly. The auto’s tow mode also worked well, pro­vid­ing ex­cel­lent en­gine brak­ing on our de­scent. The rear end felt planted, but again the front end doesn’t feel set­tled.

The rest of the truck is smooth, but per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, it handles like a truck. How­ever, I’m told that even F series trucks in the States don’t han­dle that well ei­ther.

Our F-250 Su­per­duty Lariat has a list price of $152,990 and comes with a four-year, 130,000km war­ranty that in­cludes three

years of 24-hour road­side as­sist. The F-truck’s VIN will also show up on an Aussie Ford dealer’s data­base.

ASV RAM 2500 LARAMIE

In such lairy com­pany, the Ram looks al­most sub­dued. The styling cer­tainly isn’t lack­ing any vis­ual im­pact, though.

In fact, the ori­gins of the Ram’s face go back to the rec­om­men­da­tions of a French med­i­cal an­thro­pol­o­gist, who Chrysler em­ployed to find out what evoked a tough, ma­cho im­age. Ap­par­ently rep­til­ian and snake-like works … go fig­ure.

The Ram is still of­ten re­ferred to as a Dodge, but Fiat Chrysler has dropped the Dodge moniker and is us­ing Ram as the badge for all its com­mer­cial of­fer­ings in the US.

The re­cently launched ASV RAM is the re­sult of a joint ven­ture be­tween Ateco Au­to­mo­tive and Mel­bourne-based Walkin­shaw Au­to­mo­tive Group, called Amer­i­can Spe­cial Ve­hi­cles.

The con­ver­sion process was de­vel­oped with the bless­ing of

FCA head of­fice in the States.

A right-hook steer­ing box from the factory sup­plier is used, and new dash pan­els are man­u­fac­tured lo­cally. The trucks are es­sen­tially re-man­u­fac­tured on the Clay­ton assem­bly line.

Un­like the other two trucks, the Ram uses six cylin­ders for mo­tor­va­tion in the form of a 6.7-litre Cum­mins turbo-diesel. This donk makes 375hp (280Kw) and 1084Nm of twist, which feeds into a six-speed auto. The 2500 will also tow 6989kg, and carry 913kg.

Any­one who is fa­mil­iar with the Jeep prod­uct will feel right at home in­side the RAM. It feels the most like a factory ve­hi­cle out of the three.

Smat­ter­ing of wood­grain pan­elling high­lights a more sub­dued in­te­rior. A touch­screen pro­vides ac­cess to the Ucon­nect in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem. And, as you’d ex­pect, the rear seats are roomy and ac­com­mo­dat­ing.

All three trucks also have re­verse cam­eras fit­ted as stan­dard – a must for a ve­hi­cle this size. And it makes hook­ing up a heavy trailer a breeze!

The footwell con­ver­sion would have to be the best one that I’ve seen. The driver’s footrest has even been moved to the right-hand side. It looks like a factory job. As a re­sult, legroom is the best of the bunch. The jar­ring note, how­ever, is the park brake pedal.

All of these trucks have a foot-op­er­ated park brake. How­ever, the Ram’s park brake pedal hinges on the right hand side of the footwell, above the ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal. So if you have your foot on the brake, you have to switch feet and use your right foot to en­gage it. Ei­ther that, or put it in park first.

No doubt the rea­son it’s there is be­cause that side of the footwell has enough struc­tural in­tegrity to han­dle the pedal. But a rum­mage around in the Jeep/Fiat Chrysler parts bin would surely find a push-but­ton elec­tric park brake avail­able, which I reckon would be a much bet­ter so­lu­tion.

The Ram is also a good thing to drive on the open road. For some rea­son, it feels more nim­ble than the other two trucks. This truck was the only one with a coil-sprung rear end, which you may think would make it a bit softer than the other two leaf sprung trucks. How­ever, the Ram had the stiffest rear end of all three.

While the Ram’s power fig­ures may seem a lit­tle mod­est when com­pared to the other two, the Cum­mins 6 has a great spread of us­able torque. And while it wasn’t the beast that the Effie was, I didn’t find my­self wish­ing it had more grunt. The six is a lit­tle more grumbly than the V8s, how­ever, which does make it sound a lit­tle more com­mer­cial.

The stiff sus­pen­sion didn’t help the Ram off-road. It made it up the hill climb, but it strug­gled to get power to the ground as it was prone to lift­ing its legs into the air, even though it does come with tru-lock dif­fer­en­tials as stan­dard kit.

The 68RFE au­to­matic, how­ever, was a great unit and an in­tu­itive shifter. Though, given the size and price of these trucks, I doubt many will be beat­ing through the bush in them.

With the trailer on be­hind it, the Ram’s bum didn’t ac­tu­ally get much closer to the ground. It tended to stand up and haul rather than squat and pull.

Per­for­mance was more than ad­e­quate when climb­ing, as the Cum­mins seems to have quite a low torque curve – it just lacked the V8 snarl of the other two trucks.

The ex­haust brake and gear box tow mode worked well to­gether. In fact, the Cum­mins ex­haust brake sounds a lot like a baby Ja­cobs en­gine brake.

The re­al­ity is such that, with a load on, it sat on the road bet­ter than the F-250. The Ram drives and feels like a factory truck.

The ASV Ram 2500 has a list price of $139,500 and is be­ing sold through a na­tional dealer net­work, of­ten a part of an ex­ist­ing Fiat Chrysler deal­er­ship. The Ram also comes with a three-year, 100,000km war­ranty and 24-hour road­side as­sist for that pe­riod.

THE VERDICT

All these trucks have their pros and cons. While they are all ‘real’ 4x4s, most will be tow­ing rather than rock crawl­ing. The 4x4 ca­pa­bil­i­ties are more likely to be tested in mud or sand.

There are only a hand­ful of de­cent op­tions for tow­ing a big load over long dis­tances on the Aussie mar­ket. It’s a niche mar­ket, but based on re­cent Ram sales fig­ures, a grow­ing one.

If it’s an all-rounder you are after and you don’t mind the styling, the GMC De­nali does ev­ery­thing right. It’s a great truck to drive on the open road, tows like a train, and is very well-ap­pointed.

Though, for a truck that’s over $150k, I’d like to see a bet­ter fin­ish on the con­ver­sion. The footwell and the steer­ing wheel lo­ca­tion were an­noy­ing.

For sheer grunt and au­ral drama, it’s hard not to like the Ford. The VDC con­ver­sion is a tidy one. It’s handy off-road and tows like a meth-af­fected mule. It’s a shame it’s let down by com­par­a­tively or­di­nary on-road han­dling.

At this price level of the mar­ket, you don’t want your truck to drive like a truck. You want a lux­ury tank with a tow bar.

But the Ram im­presses both on price and per­for­mance. Not only that, the ASV con­ver­sion is the neat­est job I’ve seen yet. Fit and fin­ish is su­perb.

It doesn’t win the brag­ging com­pe­ti­tion in terms of power, but it has the goods when re­quired. Park brake aside, it feels and looks like a pro­duc­tion ve­hi­cle.

And, in my opin­ion, it doesn’t feel 12k cheaper than the other two trucks.

ABOVE: The big Amer­i­can three: Ford F-250 Su­per­duty, GMC De­nali 2500 and Ram 2500

2: An auto locker on the rear diff and af­ter­mar­ket shocks gave the GMC a help­ing hand off-road. It was the most

civilised in the dirt 2

1: The RAM’s stiff sus­pen­sion ham­pered it a lit­tle off-road, but most buy­ers will be us­ing it to haul 1

3: The F-250 is nicely laid out and easy to find your way around. The hard plas­tics let it down a lit­tle, though 4: There’s no mis­tak­ing the Fiat Chrysler fam­ily feel to the in­side of the Ram 5: The De­nali had plenty of bells and whis­tles in­side; it’s a cos­set­ing ride 6: There’s no mis­tak­ing the bold nose of the Effie, it makes a bold state­ment! 7: With a load on the back, the RAM shoul­dered the load beau­ti­fully 5

3

4

6

7

8: The Ford Pow­er­stroke V8 is a mon­ster that puts out 440hp 9: The Ram donk is the only six-cylin­der here, but it makes 375 horses and has a nice spread of torque 10: 402hp doesn’t tell the full story. The GM Du­ra­max V8 is a very smooth en­gine 11: Off-road­ing didn’t daunt the 250 at all; it proved quite ca­pa­ble 10

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