We’ve been around long enough to know that the controlled towing tests manufacturers arrange at new truck introductions are incomplete. They serve as useful demonstrations of engine power, but there are other variables that can’t be explored.

For those reasons, we wanted to examine the 2011 F-250 Super Duty as we towed on our own real-world terms. That included towing through city traffic, stop-and-go situations on hot afternoons, up and down highway passes, through gusty crosswinds and dicing with truckers on the superhighway. It also allowed us to look at transmission and oil temps and gather mileage data, both while towing and when the truck was empty.

To focus our impressions, we came up with a rating system that we’ll share with you in a moment. First, let’s look at what we were driving.

The Truck

Our test unit was a 2011 F-250 King Ranch crew cab with a 156-inch wheelbase and 6.75-foot box. It was powered by the all-new — and much anticipated — 6.7-liter diesel V-8, backed by the new six-speed 6R140 TorqShift automatic transmission.

Because it was a 4×4, it had the mono beam/coil spring front suspension that’s shared with the F-350, and a leaf-spring rear live axle with a locking differential. It also had front tow hooks and manual locking hubs. The four-wheel-drive system is controlled with a dial on the dash. As a rule, two-wheel-drive pickups will have higher tow ratings than 4x4s (because of the lower hardware weight) but in this case, both two-wheel-drive and 4×4 crew cabs can handle as much as 14,000 pounds with a properly configured conventional hitch.

Figuring out what your tow vehicle can actually haul is always an interesting exercise. Actual capability depends on a number of factors, and it’s usually less than the advertised maximum. Our test unit had tallish 3.55 gears, middle-of-the-road all-purpose gearing for a four-wheel-drive diesel, providing an all-around blend of pulling power and highway fuel economy. Gears as low as 4.30 are available on Super Duty trucks, or as tall as 3.31.

Our test unit’s gross vehicle weight rating was 10,000 meaning that the spring pack can handle payloads that bring the vehicle’s total weight up to 10,000 pounds.

Referring to a Ford specifications chart describing typical single-rear-wheel Super Duty payloads and capacities, we saw our test unit should be able to handle another 2,430 pounds of people and cargo before hitting the 10,000-pound mark. However, the door sticker, located on the inside B-pillar of every pickup, is usually a more reliable indicator. The sticker said the combined weight of occupants should never exceed 1,972 pounds, a difference of some 450 pounds. Our understanding is that the door sticker accounts for the specific wheel and tire combination installed at the time of build and is more accurate.

In this case, we had 20-inch wheels with E-rated LT275/65R20 tires, designed to be inflated to 65 pounds per square inch for low rolling resistance under load on the highway. These are the largest wheels available, which could explain the difference between the weight capacities on the generic specifications chart and the door sticker. Generally, smaller steel wheels can carry more weight than larger cast alloy wheels, a sobering consideration for new-truck buyers who like to upsize wheels for styling reasons. By adding oversize aftermarket wheels and lower-profile tires, towing and hauling ratings can be significantly compromised.

This bit of research assured us that this truck could tow, with a weight-distributing hitch, at least 10,000 pounds and possibly as much as 14,000. In either case, we had a wide margin of safety.

The Trailer

Our test load was a 23-foot Airstream trailer, a truly magnificent high-end, all-aluminum RV with tandem axle. When we hooked it up, it had a full load of water and half-full holding tanks, adding at least 500 pounds to the dry weight. Inside was food, silverware, bedding, bags of clothing for three and camping gear, among other things. We did not weigh the rig, but we estimated the trailer’s wet weight at 5,200 pounds minimum. Add to that three people, their personal gear and a pet, and we were looking at roughly 6,000 pounds, ready for a weekend of camping.

We have to admit that this load, potentially a challenge for a half-ton truck, did not seriously tax the Super Duty. We hoped for a heavier load, but Airstream makes a super-light trailer.

The Score Card

Our formula for a great tow vehicle would be defined by six characteristics. They are all important, but some needs might be more important than others. You could make up your own, but our strictly arbitrary ratings system would look something like this:

1) Reliable engine power and torque: 25 points
2) Lockup transmission with gearing for pulling power and mileage: 20 points
3) Great brakes and brake control systems: 20 points
4) A roomy, comfortable interior for the long, slow haul: 15 points
5) Factory towing gear: 15 points
6) Ride and handling, loaded versus unloaded: 10 points

Guys who tow all the time might assign different values, based on what they do and the problems they face, and we think that would be entirely legit. But we think anyone who has towed much will agree that these requirements for a great tow rig are all very real. Based on our driving experience with the new Super Duty, and the framework suggested above, we offer the following impressions.

1. Engine Power and Torque

A great diesel must be strong, powerful, built to last and, now, incredibly clean as well. The new 6.7-liter diesel seems to fit the bill.

It’s built based on a very strong and light compacted graphite iron block with 13-quart oil capacity to reduce the possibility of oil contamination. Like a lot of clean diesels, very high-pressure common rail injection and ultrafast piezo injectors enhance efficiency and control combustion byproducts. The engine produces 390 horsepower at just 2,800 rpm and 735 pounds-feet of torque at 1,600 rpm, significantly more than Dodge’s Cummins straight six, and just a little less than GM’s soon-to-arrive 6.6-liter LML Duramax.

While engine rating numbers can be compared and debated ad nauseum, in the real world it’s all very simple. Bottom line, there is no lack of engine power under the hood of the Super Duty.

Power and response

The next-generation Super Duty diesel engine is different in another conspicuous way. It uses inboard exhaust architecture, meaning that the exhaust manifolds reside in the valley of the engine, while the intake is outboard of the engine. The cylinder heads flow gas in the opposite direction of standard V-8 engine architecture.

This unusual layout — Ford calls it unique; the competition calls it tortured — achieves the goal of placing the turbo close to the exhaust flow where it’s hottest, encouraging quicker turbo spool-up. And it works. The turbo itself is indisputably state of the art, with a double-sided compressor wheel that allows for quicker throttle response and very good compression at higher rpm. Throttle response is direct and linear, with no appreciable lag, steadily building power to 3,000 rpm and beyond. At one point, as we approached a steep highway pass towing at 55 mph, we rolled on the throttle in an imaginary uphill passing situation. The transmission kicked down, and the next thing we knew, we were looking at 85 mph. It’s inevitable that someone will find the performance ceiling of the new 6.7-liter diesel powertrain, but it will take a pretty big load to do it. Configurations are available to tow up to 24,400 pounds.

Emissions

The 6.7-liter is the newest of the next generation of “clean diesel” engines that meet very strict emissions standards. It uses selective catalytic reduction to run clean. The system adds a certain amount of operating cost by having to replenish a separate heated urea tank about every 6,000 miles. Still, it’s a stunning achievement.

At one point, our neighbor with the big RV and 7.3-liter diesel leaned in our window to admire the truck. After 10 minutes, he was surprised to learn it was a diesel. There is zero smoke, zero smell and practically no noise. Urea injection sounds like it might be messy, but in many applications, SCR has proved to be a mileage-enhancing system. Under the circumstances, Ford’s emissions strategy appears appropriate and well executed. The fact that the engine tolerates biodiesel blends up to B20 is another impressive advancement.

Yes, we love the new engine. But long-term durability is also a requirement, and here, while we are optimistic, we are a little reluctant to make predictions. Diesel engines are worked hard, and sometimes they’re asked to do the impossible by owners who overestimate their capacity to absorb punishment.

Nevertheless, fail-safe engineering and predictable long-term maintenance costs are an expected part of the manufacturer/customer relationship, especially in an engine that commands a price of $7,835. We don’t want to beat a dead horse, but previous Super Duty Navistar diesels have been controversial. Even the 6.4-liter, another clean-sheet-of-paper engine designed for durability and performance, was sufficiently disappointing to prompt Ford to sever its relationship with Navistar and develop its next diesel in-house.

Cut to 2011, and we can say the 6.7-liter Scorpion looks like a great diesel power plant. It comes with a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty. But the truth is, only time will tell whether this diesel is as reliable and trouble-free as a great diesel engine should be. It would seem to be designed right, built right, and Ford’s commitment to renewed credibility with its diesel customers seems to be sincere. The smidgen of a doubt that remains prevents us from scoring the engine higher.

Our score: 23 points out of 25

2. Transmission, Pulling Power and Mileage

When a diesel engine really does, excuse the technical term, kick ass, it’s the transmission that becomes the next concern. Here, Ford’s use of one transmission for both the 6.2-liter gas engine and 6.7-liter diesel engine stands out as a break from conventional wisdom. The standard thinking is that a diesel engine’s power characteristics are so different from a gas engine’s that each should have a dedicated transmission — one built for torque, one built for horsepower.

Ford’s approach with the new 6R140 TorqShift six-speed automatic transmission was to adapt an existing architecture for heavy-duty use and to use really smart, specific programming depending on the engine.

The 6R140 has advanced digital controls to optimize the shift schedule, and an improved lock-up clutch mechanism. A long-travel, high-capacity turbine damper is used to help the torque converter to damp out the extreme low-rpm force produced by the new, more powerful diesel engine.

“This damper allows us to lug down to 900 rpm while our competitors lug to around 1,100 rpm,” Ford engineer Al Bruck said. “So we stay locked more, which means the engine can run at a lower rpm and get better fuel economy.”

Sinter-brazed gear set

The transmission also has a unique powder-metal carrier in the compound planetary gear set. The carrier consists of four pressed powder-metal components sinter-brazed together to form a rigid, power-dense structure. This is intended to make the carrier strong enough for both the diesel and gasoline engines.

“With this architecture, the new transmission can handle the enormous low-end torque produced by the new diesel engine, and also, the high speeds produced by the new gas engine,” Bruck said. “The sinter-brazed gear set enables more torque capacity and greater engine speed capability.”

The TorqShift six-speed is notable because of the transmission’s very low first gear, 3.96. (By comparison, the GM Allison 1000’s first gear is 3.10.) Because of that low first gear, we’d say it’s possible to get heavy loads moving at part throttle, without using a lot of fuel. With the transmission’s two overdrive gears, highway cruising is also fuel efficient. With this kind of transmission gearing, it’s possible to take advantage of taller axle ratios for better fuel economy without seriously compromising pulling power.

Our test unit, with 3.55 ratios in the axles, showed 1,500 rpm at 55 mph and 1,750 rpm at 60 mph. While our load was not extremely heavy, the transmission rarely needed a downshift, and it never got hot. Transmission temperatures, which we monitored using nifty digital gauges in the info center, never rose above 189 degrees even after long grades, which tells us the unit is well cooled.

Smart features

The 6R140 also has a manual mode. By shifting manually, the torque converter locks up and holds gears longer. If you forget to manage downshifts pulling up to a stop, the transmission will downshift for you.

It doesn’t apply to us, but the 6R140 transmission also has a power takeoff feature that can be used any time the engine is running. Those who plow or use the Super Duty as a tow truck would appreciate the option.

Clearly, the transmission is an asset when it comes to maximizing fuel economy. We got 14.9 mpg towing, covering 237.4 miles, mostly at speeds below 60 mph on a mix of highway, city and rural roads. With the truck empty, just loafing around town, we averaged 18.1 mpg. These are good numbers, better than prior Super Duty diesels, and for that we have to credit the transmission.

And it feels good, both towing and when the truck is empty. It knows what gear to be in 100 percent of the time, responds well to throttle input, and it shifts smoothly and cleanly. Ford engineers seem to have done their homework, and the 6R140 has great features. Be that as it may, launching a high-torque diesel without a dedicated transmission is something other manufacturers have not attempted. This is new territory, and that makes us a little nervous.

Our score: With the jury still out, we give it 17 points out of 20.

3. Brake Systems

Engine power is one thing, but brakes are what keep you safe when dealing with a heavy load. On the Super Duty, we have ventilated discs on all four wheels, 13.66 inches in size, front and rear. They feel good in the sense that they are not touchy at the top of the pedal, and stopping power comes on strong mid-pedal, proportionally to effort. We never made repeated full-power ABS stops, but we did make a few very hard stops with the truck empty.

The rear discs are a tad bigger than the 13.39-inch rear discs in the F-250 we tested a year ago, and it feels like there really is a little more braking power overall. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes is standard equipment, and Ford’s brake-based anti-sway trailer program is also standard on all single-rear-wheel Super Duty pickups.

Braking while towing

We felt obligated to make a few simulated “panic” stops with the trailer in place. We did these starting at relatively low speed, building to near-highway speeds. It was surprising to see how well controlled the trailer was with this hitch and setup. By the third try, we knew we could stop straight, far harder than we hope we ever have to. Meanwhile, under tow on the highway, the brakes never complained or made us anything less than completely confident. It turns out that Ford has integrated an exhaust brake mechanism that automatically commands a downshift when the driver applies heavy braking. That increases engine back pressure, helping to slow the vehicle without relying on brakes alone. It’s the kind of system you could really appreciate when another driver cuts you off on a downhill section of highway.

Making things easier was the built-in trailer brake controller. We’ve been a little skeptical about these factory controllers in the past because they are not always compatible with all types of trailer brakes. If it doesn’t happen to work with the trailer you have, what good is it? But this one interfaces with multiple systems, and it’s neatly integrated into the dash and covered by the factory warranty. We set the gain on 6, which felt about right when we set out, and we adjusted it just a little one time when we were descending a long, steep hill with lots of traffic because we wanted to be sure the trailer brakes would come on early. With the Airstream, it worked really well, with no bumping or hopping at low speeds.

Overall, we never could find a weakness in the brake setup, not with our load, anyway. Some people might think the pedal is a little squishy at the top, but we like that in a tow rig. We’d rather have progressive brakes than grabby ones when we’re rolling down a steep mountain pass.

Our score: We give the brakes 19 out of 20 points, just because there’s always a bigger load out there.

4. Interior Comfort

Ford has long been known for comfortable, well-appointed cabins. The King Ranch crew cab interior has got to be one of Ford’s best, blending leather with wood panels, lightly accented with chrome. It’s generously spacious, with wide, flat seats upholstered in a sea of fragrant two-tone leather. The seat bottoms can be heated or cooled, and they are power adjustable with a wide range of motion. This is exactly the type of seating we’d want for long days in the saddle, year in and year out. During our three-hour drives, we found plenty of room to shift around, readjusting the 10-way seats when we began to feel uncomfortable.

The front seating area is dominated by a large, lockable storage bin, large enough for a laptop, notebook or binder, and there are provisions for hanging folders. There are cupholders with removable liners everywhere, along with all manner of modular trays, slotted holders and false bottom compartments that can be adjusted to create larger, or smaller, storage areas. The wood looks real, and the leather materials contribute to a tangible sense of quality. There is some plastic used on the dash and glove box door, but it is quite nicely shaped and textured.

Rear seating

The rear-seat accommodations on this crew cab are equally generous and well thought out, designed with long-haul comfort in mind. Rear legroom is sufficient for adults — and not just average-size people, either. The center seat on the rear bench is slightly less accommodating but still entirely functional. Air conditioning flows rearward through the center console, and the vents are adjustable.

There is a 110-volt power plug in the console so backseat occupants can plug in a laptop. Sockets for 12-volt chargers and appliances are at the rear of the console and inside the main bin, which is designed for cords to be passed through with the armrest lid closed. Under the right rear seat is a storage compartment just about the right size for a drawbar and ball combination. There is satellite radio, a voice-activated navigation system with touch-screen and a plug-in port for an MP3 player.

We could go on, but you get the idea. But the bottom line is, the interior keeps people happy on long trips. That’s a quality that makes the Super Duty perfect for towing at 55 mph in the slow lane. Even our teenage girl had everything she wanted in the back, and we never heard “Are we there yet?” once.

It’s true that all three of the major manufacturers now offer a true crew cab, and they are all roomy and well appointed. But we think the Ford King Ranch crew cab interior is the best we’ve seen. It’s comfortable, attractive, practical and highly versatile.

Our score: We have to give it 15 points out of 15 … maybe 16 out of 15.

5. Factory Towing Gear

A lot of people feel the need to customize their tow vehicles, slowly adding upgraded connecting plugs, hitch setups, gauges, brake controllers, towing mirrors and beefed-up electrical systems. These are the little things that make all the difference when it comes to towing. Original equipment manufacturers have noticed and have begun to supply these kinds of upgrades specifically for those who tow. With the 2011 Super Duty, Ford has run with the concept.

Like a lot of new tow rigs, our test vehicle included a factory Class IV receiver, plus flat 4-pin and round 7-pin plugs. We also had towing mirrors and the built-in trailer brake controller.

Getting the towing mirrors deployed and adjusted was a cinch. These are power extending mirrors, which have both a large power-adjustable mirror and a smaller, manually adjustable wide-angle section. With the inside rearview mirror completely blocked by the Airstream trailer, it took us about 30 seconds to extend and adjust the towing mirrors to regain a good view of everything around us.

Most impressive is how towing-specific features are integrated into an on-dash information system. By calling up a series of screens, you can customize your setup for a given trailer. You also can save multiple setups, so if you switch from your RV to your work trailer or your boat, for example, your setup is already tuned. You can track mileage, trailer by trailer, and store the gain settings you developed the last time out.

The screen allows the driver to go through connection checklists for any kind of hitch, including fifth-wheel hitches and goosenecks. The checklists amount to reminders to check the wheel chocks, tongue jack, running lights, safety chains and the like. This kind of preflight checklist is the professional way to go for any pilot, no matter how much towing you do. Follow it, and dumb mistakes can be eliminated.

Gauges and feedback systems

Another thing we appreciate is the early warning system. Call up Gauge Mode, and you can monitor actual oil and transmission temps. We drove with these digital gauges turned on so we could see the effect of hills and steady operation as we drove. Sure enough, chug up a steep hill, and the transmission temp ticks upward. Activate Tow/Haul mode, and the temps stabilize. Glide down a hill, and they tick downward.

The range of temperature changes was moderate, perhaps 20 degrees up or down, which told us the cooling system was doing its job and the entire powertrain was copacetic. On the road, oil temps hovered around 195 degrees; transmission temps were between 170 and 190 degrees. You could pay a lot to have temp gauges installed in a standard pickup; in the Super Duty, they’re already there.

Speaking of gauges, it’s also possible to monitor maintenance down to a very fine level. A digital engine hour gauge told us our engine had 187 hours on it, of which 43 were consumed with the engine at idle. There is also an oil life monitor and a way to adjust or turn off various features such as headlights, compass zone and operating schedules for different maintenance requirements.

Fuel economy data

Drivers who want to monitor fuel economy can use any of five resets and watch average and instantaneous consumption. The data can be sliced a few different ways — trip time, mileage, gallons used, miles per gallon — and it’s possible to record history from two different trips. We drove with the miles-to-empty calculator on, calibrated for towing.

Our test unit also had a bank of four auxiliary switches, a $125 option that would make it easy to install lights or other appliances without tearing up the dash. Another upgrade, a 200-amp alternator, is priced at $75 and would be well worth the investment. For those who tow loads over 16,000 pounds, a factory fifth-wheel hitch is available. It has the electrical connection mounted inside the bed wall, and the hitch.

We think Ford has broken new ground here, by integrating so many truly useful features into the Super Duty. They are all covered by a factory warranty, and their costs can be rolled into the purchase price. We admit it. We’re impressed.

Our score: 15 out of 15

6. Ride Quality and Steering

As a rule, an empty tow vehicle is the world’s worst ride. It’s bouncy, the rear tires are too stiff to hook up without weight in the back, and the springs will let you know every time you hit a ripple in the roadway.

We’re not sure how it managed to do it, but our test unit was surprisingly compliant when driven empty, with reasonably good grip. At the same time, it was easy to handle when loaded.

When the truck is empty, ride quality is firm but not jarring — actually quite nice for a 10,000-pound GVWR suspension. On the highway, the truck steers and handles in a relaxed, low-effort manner, without requiring much concentration from the driver. It cruises steadily in-lane, without wandering, and is precise around town for a truck this size. Even when towed our Airstream over the Cahuenga Pass into Hollywood, using crowded, cracked urban surface streets, we felt confident and relaxed.

Parking, always a back-and-fill process in a full-size truck, is made easier by hydro-boosted power steering and a rearview camera. Sure, it’s a big truck and you have to be careful with it, but all in all, the attention to driving dynamics and ease of operation by Ford engineers seem to have paid off. We think the King Ranch F-250 is a nice truck to operate, with or without a load.

Our score: 9 out of 10

Pricing, and the Bottom Line

So we like the truck, pretty much everything about it, with just a few reservations that only time will resolve. Of course, like a lot of great things, the price becomes the balance point between “want” and “need.”

Our F-250 crew cab test unit was based on a $48,860 MSRP, plus the cost of options. Standard equipment includes the Sirius Satellite Radio, the power towing mirrors, power window locks, four-wheel ABS, a security locking ignition, a three-year bumper-to-bumper warranty, plus other niceties.

Added to that is the cost of the 6.7-liter diesel ($7,835), 20-inch wheels and tires ($1,375), navigation system with upgraded audio system ($1,875) and a power moonroof ($995). Those and other options — including a spray-in bedliner, tailgate step, bed extender and a tool cable lock — bring the total price to $64,405, including a $975 destination charge. So it’s not cheap.

During our time at a San Diego beach campground, Super Duty pickups were by far the most common tow vehicle. As you might imagine, we were approached by Ford owners curious about the new 2011 and the diesel engine, which allowed us to conduct a small survey.

A couple of owners in particular stood out. One of them was a 2005 F-250 owner with 6.0-liter diesel who regularly towed a 30-foot fifth-wheel trailer estimated at 17,000 pounds. He’d had negative history with the engine, but kept the truck. Another had a 28-foot triple-axle trailer with lots of gear, and a large family, probably towing well over 10,000 pounds behind a 6.4-liter diesel. Both were Ford owners towing far more than we did, with older Super Duty diesels.

After a quick tour, and a review of specs, we asked these owners for their thoughts. Both believed that the truck we had, as equipped, would be easily sufficient to handle the kinds of loads they had towed for years. Despite mixed feelings about the diesel engines in the trucks they now own, they loved everything else about their Super Duty rigs. We have a feeling they will be switching to the 6.7 when the time is right. And that says a lot.