I got the call. You know, the call. When someone asks you to help move stuff with your truck. If you own a pickup, sooner or later you always get the call. But this wasn't the usual, "I need help moving," or, "Can you help me take some junk to the dump?" This was a desperate plea from the most beautiful woman I've ever seen asking me to help save Bambi.
See, my wife took the lead coordinating volunteers to build a new feed garden at the California Wildlife Center (CWC) near Los Angeles. The noble folks at the CWC selflessly give their time and skills 365-days a year to rescue and rehabilitate injured animals for release back into the wild. And my kids and their classmates were in on this too because this was a community service project for the younger grades at their school.
Love, guilt, and helpless baby animals, there was no escaping this request.
The mission was to haul two cubic-yards of donated topsoil from a nursery in Simi Valley to the animal sanctuary, about 40-miles away. It might not sound like it, but that's a lot of dirt. A cubic-yard is 27 cubic-feet and weighs about 2,250-lb. Carbon footprint counting moms and dads with visions of using their Prius to adventurously haul a bag or two of mulch cruelly found they couldn't complete the circle of life with their alt-powertrain sedans. Not unless they wanted to make ten or twenty trips.
Even half-ton trucks are challenged by loads like this. The most capable 2008 Toyota Tundra (Regular Cab 5.7-liter V8 4x2) has a max payload rating of only 1,925-lb. And most three-quarter-ton and one-ton pickups won't work either. A Chevrolet Silverado 3500 Crew Cab Long Bed Dual Rear Wheel (DRW) 6.6-liter Duramax V8 diesel 4x4 can only manage up to 4,029-lb. (4,706-lb. with the 6.0-liter gas V8).
No, this called for serious hauling capability. If we were going to save Bambi, it was going to be done as efficiently as possible using the biggest pickup we could find - because I was sure I was going to get a call from my wife when we were loading up asking for 'just one more' cubic-yard of soil, which I figured I could negotiate down to a half cubic-yard extra.
The only truck that fit the task was Ford's one-and-one-half-ton 2008 F-450 Super Duty Crew Cab 6.4-liter Power Stroke Diesel V8.
The last time we drove the "Big Dog Daddy" of pickups was during the 2007 Heavy Duty Shootout. We used it to tow a 20,000-lb. trailer up an insanely steep 25% grade, but we didn't drive it unloaded or hauling cargo. Helping out the CWC was all the excuse needed to test the F-450's astounding 5,720-lb. payload rating (the 4x2 F-450 has an even higher 6,120-lb. max payload). That's 1,000-lb. more than either a Dodge Ram 3500 Quad Cab Long Bed DRW 4x4 or the Silverado 3500.
We borrowed the optional 4.88 rear axle version (4.30 is standard), geared for pulling the biggest loads. It's detuned, to 325-horsepower / 600 lb-ft of torque, compared to the standard 4.30 truck rated at 350-hp / 650 lb-ft., to reduce driveline wear.
The F-450 is Ford's Class 4 chassis cab truck with a factory pickup box. It's commercial grade but Ford has civilized this beast so it looks normal, almost. The tell is the widetrack monobeam front suspension and extended axle that adds big front wheel cutouts and bulging arches to the truck. The radius-arm suspension gives the F-450 its bulldog stance but it also shrinks the truck's turning radius to 50-feet, versus 56-ft for a conventional narrow track F-350. The F-450 is surprisingly agile maneuvering at low speeds even though its length is just shy of 22-ft. But it's agile like an NFL linebacker instead of a ballet dancer because the truck is 95.5-in. wide - enough to require side and roof marker lamps.
Driving the F-450 empty was comfortable, as long as the road was smooth and the lanes wide. It has 11,000-lb. of rear spring capacity and rides on 19.5-inch wheels with 12-ply steel belted tires aired up at 80-psi. Hit a bump unloaded and you feel the shockwave from the rear leaf springs in your eyeballs. Taming the F-450's ride requires pushing the truck past the limits of most full-size pickups. If you want to be rewarded with a smooth ride you need to work the F-450 hard.
I called ahead to the plant nursery to setup a time to receive the soil. These guys know dirt. They also know what it takes to move dirt, and they assume you do too if you're asking for a few cubic-yards. I had some fun though asking how they wanted to load up my Prius. There was 5 seconds of silence while the professional gardener figured how to politely tell me a Prius wasn't going to work. Not even if they carved out a space for me to drive the car and filled most of the rest of it with earth, though that might improve its aerodynamics by giving it a lower profile.
I'm not making this up. When we arrived at the nursery there was a half-ton pickup getting ready to head out. Its owner looked shell shocked as he cleaned a foot-high pile of dirt from the roof of his extended cab. He was standing on a gigantic mound of raw soil in the cargo box, which was sagging noticeably over the rear wheels. See, there are two kinds of truck owner. Those who estimate cargo capacity by volume - as in, I can fill my pickup's cargo box with whatever can fit in its dimensions, like furniture, dirt, or matter from a neutron star. And those who logically fill cargo capacity based on a truck's rated hauling capability - as in, I'm not driving home riding on the bump stops.
That doesn't mean you won't overload a truck. Almost all pickups are engineered to handle an overload situation, but only for a few moments, like when a cubic-yard of earth is being dumped in the back of the truck from a skip loader. And the guy at the nursery is the last person you should depend on to tell you if your truck can handle a load. He just wants to sell you dirt.
We took care of the donation paperwork first, out of sight from the F-450. So ready or not we were committed to receiving about 2.5-tons of soil, or the equivalent of 1.6-Priuses. When we arrived at the truck the skip loader operator, who was basically the Yoda of dirt, knowingly approved our choice of hauler for the task. "Good for hauling earth the F-450 is," I swore I heard him murmur.
Almost before I was able to get the camera ready, the gardener was belted in the loader dumping soil from a height of about 5-feet over the bed. The dirt tumbled out like a waterfall into the cargo box. It was amazing to watch as the F-450 received it all in about 6-seconds with barely a shudder, sound or sag. 2,250-lb. down, 2,250-lb. to go.
The second load was dumped just like the first. By the time it was done we had a pyramid of dirt in the back of the F-450 but the rear suspension squatted only about 2 or 3-inches, almost unnoticeably.
We leveled the pile so it was even, just below the bottoms of the cargo rails. Turns out we didn't need any more soil because the CWC had overloaded their half-ton the day before hauling one cubic-yard back to the future garden.
The last step was sprinkling several gallons of water over the dirt before covering it with a tarp, to prevent leaving a bread crumb trail of soil and amendment on the freeway.
The improvement in ride and handling was immediately noticeable leaving the nursery. The F-450 was better planted (no pun intended) on the road. Rear bucking over expansion joints and tarmac flaws disappeared.
With its 4.88 rear axle, acceleration wasn't quick unloaded but torque was always present. Now, loaded, acceleration felt only marginally slower than empty - testament to the Power Stroke V8 diesel's lower gearing, dual sequential turbos and strong 600 lb-ft available at only 2,000-rpm. If you want to see hard performance metrics for a similar truck, read our Heavy Duty Shootout for empirical data.
The transmission's tow haul mode helped in stop and go city traffic, holding its gear and reducing the need to constantly foot brake and accelerate. On the freeway we cruised at 60-mph and a lazy 2,250-rpm. Tow haul mode helped again climbing and descending hills in the Santa Monica Mountains. But while steering was nimble at low speeds, the 8,600-lb pickup, with 4,500-lb of soil, had moderate understeer doing reasonable speeds on the twisty hills between Calabasas and Malibu.
The last step was hauling the load up a steep, narrow driveway to the Wildlife Center. We pulled up to a fenced area where the garden was planned and backed the F-450 into a pen with only two-inches of clearance on either side of the pickup's rear wheel arches. It was so tight we had to fold the side mirrors in to get the truck all the way back.
Finally, we lowered the tailgate, grabbed some shovels and tossed out the fresh soil into a pile to be spread by the volunteers the next day. That's the only time I've even been thankful for having a thick plastic drop-in bedliner instead of a spray-in liner. And, to be filed away for future reference, if you're moving dirt in back of a pickup, lay down a tarp on the bottom of the cargo box. It would have made cleaning the last few pounds of dirt from the bed much easier, simply sliding out the sheet.
But the most painful part of the soil hauling expedition was still ahead. We stopped to fill the truck with diesel on the way home. Contrary to rumor, it's not called an F-450 because that's the price of a gallon of diesel at some stations around Los Angeles. We got away with $4.09 per gallon.
After driving 180-miles over three days around LA County, loaded and unloaded in almost every traffic condition possible, we averaged a gut clenching 9.2 9.5 miles-per-gallon. The truck consumed just shy of 20-gallons of ultra low sulfur diesel for a grand total of $81.36. Yeah, that hurt our wallet, but at least it felt good knowing we helped Bambi.
TEST VEHICLE SPECIFICATIONS:
2008 Ford F-450 Super Duty Lariat 4x4 Dual Rear Wheel Crew Cab
Engine Size and Type: 6.4-liter V8 Power Stroke Diesel
Horsepower (hp): 325-hp
Torque (ft-lbs): 600 lb-ft
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Rear Axle: 4.88 Limited Slip
Base Price: $50,355
4 Rear LT225/70Rx19.5G BSW Traction Tires and
2 Front LT225/70Rx19.5G BSW All Season Tires: $190
4x4 Off Road Package: $225
Extra Heavy Duty Alternator: $75
Electronic Shift on the Fly: $185
Engine Block Heater: $35
Rapid Heat Supplemental Cab Heater: $250
Powre Slide Rear Window: $185
Power Moonroof: $995
Memory Group: $225
Upfitter Switches: $85
Reverse Vehicle Aid Sensor: $245
Tailgate Step: $375
Power Adjustable Pedals: $120
Sirius Satellite Radio: $200
Traction Control: $130
Navigation Radio with Audiophile 6-CD: $1,875
Heated Front Seats: $220
Rubber Floormats: $25 Price as Tested: $55,995
Destination & Delivery: $925
Total MSRP: $56,920