We recently had a chance to drive one of the newest hybrid plug-in pickup trucks available. Now that it's over, we think this could be the moment in time we look back to in 20 years when we're driving hybrid micro pickups with payload capacities of more than 5,000 pounds.
All right, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but not by much.
The truck we drove in the Los Angeles area was built by XL, a Massachusetts company that develops and provides electric vehicles for commercial and municipal fleets. In April in Detroit, we drove a Ford Super Duty F-250 equipped with XL's hybrid power assist system. Our short drive in that truck, which was equipped with a 6.2-liter V-8 engine, resulted in a 25 percent gain in fuel economy over a regular Ford F-250 without any substantial trade-offs. The only thing we noted was that the engine dropped about 500 rpm during normal conditions. The hybrid-assist system consisted of a power-assist module that sits in the middle of the driveshaft and a 1.8-kilowatt-hour battery pack that replaced the spare tire. The cost of that upfit system runs around $9,000.
This time we drove a light-duty 2018 Ford F-150 (maybe a better fit for XL systems than an F-250) equipped with XL's plug-in hybrid system featuring a 15-kwh battery pack. The regular-cab long-bed F-150 in XL trim had the 3.3-liter V-6 and six-speed transmission with auto stop-start. This XL system has a top speed of 80 mph and comes with a three-year/75,000-mile warranty. It works with 4×2 and 4×4 drivetrains.
How It Works
At first glance, the Ford F-150 looks like a normal fleet truck — if you can ignore the attention-grabbing XL stickers. But once you look in the bed, you notice a good-sized steel black box that houses the liquid-cooled battery pack. Additionally, there are two downsized cooling radiators outboard of the frame rails, electric traction motor grafted to the rear driveshaft and a funny-looking bumper flap near the license plate that houses the charging cord. XL chose a bumper mount because it was easier to place it there than in a body panel and many fleet buyers reported that they back their vehicles into the same spots each night. So, putting the charging apparatus at the back of the truck makes sense.
We immediately took the truck to our local scales to weigh it and discovered the system weighs about 700 pounds, which is what XL reports in its spec sheet. According to the door tag, our truck had a gross vehicle weight rating of 6,170 pounds and a payload of 1,948 pounds. That meant the Ford F-150 still offered about 1,200 pounds of usable payload. The truck was equipped with 3.55:1 gears. Looking under the hood you would never know there was anything special about the truck, and that's the way XL wants it. Inside the truck there is no way to know you're getting hybrid powertrain assistance unless you download the XL app that allows owners to see, in real-time, how much juice is left in the battery pack and how many miles they have until the truck enters a more aggressive regeneration mode to keep a minimum charge flowing. It does so by creating a small amount of resistance in the electric motor during braking and off-throttle coasting.
How It Works Empty
To test this plug-in system, we created a city-biased drive route following U.S. Route 66 through Los Angeles. We drove from stoplight to stoplight in city traffic for more than three hours over 100 miles. For the empty run, we had the transmission in Normal mode (there are also Tow/Haul and Sport modes), all the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on. We used a moderately sensitive throttle foot. For both our test loops (empty and fully loaded), we fully charged the truck overnight, plugging it into a 20-amp Level II Leviton charging station.
The battery pack assisted acceleration for the first 90 miles, then switched to battery regeneration for the rest of the route. Auto stop-start was active, engaging at just about every stoplight. For our empty run, the XL Ford F-150 achieved 34.3 mpg.
As for the driving experience, we didn't notice anything different about how the hybrid truck drives on the streets when empty compared to a regular F-150 with the same specs. The only thing we noticed is that the V-6 in this application seemed unusually energetic when touching the throttle. We have to say it's not a bad feeling at all. Likewise, when easing off the throttle, coasting had a small drag to it. Enough of a drag that we found ourselves looking ahead to use longer distances than we usually would to slow down when approaching the next light. If you've driven hybrids, this feeling and drive strategy will be familiar to you. However, unlike other hybrids, there aren't any dashboard displays that provide the driver with the fuel benefits you're achieving. We think that needs to change with the next iteration.
How It Works Loaded
For our loaded run, we duplicated the procedures outlined above but loaded 1,100 pounds of gravel over the rear axle. Although the XL representatives assured us we could put any appropriate load on top of the battery box, we opted to keep the load on the bed floor. This pretty much maxed out our calculated payload capacity and we saw a good amount of squat from the F-150 rear end along with rear tire bulge.
To conduct more of a real-world test, we put the transmission in Tow/Haul to accommodate the load just as a normal driver might do and the owner's manual suggests. Using Tow/Haul eliminated auto stop-start. We kept longer distances in front of us in case of an emergency braking situation and found ourselves needing to give the throttle more input to get us moving from a stop. Again, we started our mpg loop with full battery levels after an overnight charge.
At the end of our loaded run, the XL F-150 returned 21.2 mpg, which is close to the gas Ford F-150's EPA combined rating of 22 mpg; the F-150 XL regular cab gets 17/25 mpg city/highway.
When driving with a load, we discovered that the hybrid's regeneration system becomes much more pronounced, almost as if it was using a more aggressive program. Both braking and acceleration provided significantly more peddle feedback. During acceleration, the truck felt like a normally loaded pickup with only a slight hint of resistance or extra drag; however, when letting off the throttle for an upcoming stop or coasting situation, it seemed like the re-gen braking couldn't accommodate the extra inertial forces of the truck at its max GVWR. It almost felt like the software parameters didn't quite expand to the heavier truck ratings, which, we assume, should be an easy computer programming fix. At the end of our test loop, we experimented with Tow/Haul, Sport and Normal modes but found no appreciable difference in the ride feel between any of them.
Putting our payload at the rear of the bed could have created some strange readings and possible driveshaft angles that, in turn, could have affected the hybrid-assist operation. Once we removed the gravel, the slight chattering when braking or coasting went away. Still, more than 21 mpg at max GVWR in exclusively city driving is impressive.
Will It Be Successful?
It's difficult to judge whether a hybrid plug-in system like this will work for today's popular half-ton trucks, especially given their expense. The additional cost means it will take longer for a fleet manager see a return on his investment in this technology, and much of that will be determined by the duty cycles of the trucks themselves. If you need a truck to drive the same 85-mile densely populated city loop for 10 years, saving more than $1,000 in fuel a year could make sense.
Right now, the company's standard hybrid system (called XLH) costs close to $9,000 and the more sophisticated plug-in system tested here (called XLP) costs more than $20,000. That's on top of the cost of the Ford truck. Both systems are relatively simple retro-fits and do not affect the Ford factory warranty because XL is one of Ford's certified partners.
Of course, all cutting-edge powertrain technology has a steep cost curve, but as we see more iterations of these systems we would expect to see the price come down by half or even more. Then, we're guessing, the big truckmakers might start getting interested. With as much as a 25 to 50 percent gain in fuel economy, we're guessing that quite a few consumers might be willing to spend the extra money up front to save even more money over time, especially if fuel prices continue to climb. Of course, at this stage that means holding onto a vehicle for at least 10 years or so to make your money back.
We'll have to wait and see if more companies start to offer similar hybrid power-assist options for big pickups or if the major truck players come to market with their own solutions. Until then, smaller diesels and more efficient gas engines in the half-ton class will have to do.
Cars.com photos by Mark Williams