Stick It To High Fuel Prices!
Road Test: 2008 Regular Cab Ford F-250 Manual Diesel V-8

By: Mike Levine Posted: 07-08-08 09:37 PT
© 2008 PickupTrucks.com

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Times are tough for diesel truck owners. New emissions hardware and advanced automatic transmissions have pushed diesel powertrain prices to their highest levels ever. Diesel fuel costs a record $5 a gallon or more in many places ($4.80 a gallon is the national average), making filling up a 35-gallon heavy-duty pickup a $175 wallet shredding experience.

You can’t control diesel prices, but you still can manage hardware costs and how your truck burns its valuable fuel, if you’re willing to get hands-on.

I recently drove a three-quarter-ton two-wheel-drive 2008 Ford F-250 XLT Super Duty with a 350-horsepower, Power Stroke 6.4-liter V-8 diesel (650 pound-feet of torque) and six-speed ZF manual transmission. For hard-core diesel enthusiasts, nothing says, "I'm in control" like an oil burner with a 22-inch-tall, floor-mounted hand-shaker to swap gears.

Though there are six forward gears, the transmission's true first gear is an extra-low 5.79:1 cog to get heavy loads moving when you’ve maxed out towing or payload capacity. When the truck is unloaded, you can skip low and use the truck's standard 3.30:1 first gear. Sixth gear (fifth, if you're skipping low) is an overdrive that works best on the highway, so what you’re using most of the time are the F-250’s four middle gears.

The truck’s clutch is stiff (like five times stiffer than the clutch in my 1.9-L Jetta TDI commuter car, which I nearly pushed through the floor shifting the first time after driving the F-250 for five days) but not overly heavy, which is surprising considering how much mass is being moved as you shift gears. It’s the throws that beat you up if you’re driving in stop and go traffic. They feel as long as the truck’s 137-inch wheelbase, but you’re rewarded with a satisfying “shoonk” when the shifter finds its notch and you release the clutch.  During some of the shifts I heard extra clacking from the gears, usually in the lower numbers.

It took shifting through the entire tree several times before I was comfortable with the transmission’s feel and pattern. Twice I accidentally started rolling unloaded from a dead stop in 3rd gear. I immediately noticed the truck bog down, but there was so much torque from the Power Stroke that by the time the F-250 hit 1,100 rpm it was moving without lugging. Not recommended but doable without stalling.

The engine's sweet spot is between 1,500-2,100 rpm. It’s a rocket ship in that range and I think it responds noticeably faster than the five-speed automatic when you accelerate. The 6.4-liter V-8’s dual sequential turbos barely lag if you upshift through the gears just right.

I also like the extra control the manual transmission provided during braking in the F-250. The engine and transmission work extremely well together to slow the truck. If you want to crawl up to a stoplight, you can leave it in first gear and the truck will inch its way forward without needing the accelerator and without stalling until you shift the transmission to neutral and apply the brakes.

It's spooky how smart automatic transmissions have become in heavy-duty pickups during the past five years. Automatics use tow/haul mode to hold rpms and downshift on steep grades when you're moving big loads, but there’s something infinitely more rewarding about controlling those same mechanisms manually with all four limbs working in sync to drive the truck.

But it seems it’s only a matter of time before this last bit of control is lost in heavy-duty pickups.

General Motors has stopped offering manual transmissions in its heavy-duty pickups and, according to our friends at Four Wheeler magazine, there are rumors that Ford could soon follow. Only Dodge would be left with a hand shaker, which could also disappear when the new 2010 Ram HD pickups arrive next year.

While Ford hasn't entirely pulled the plug on manuals, it seems Ford is trying to discourage their purchase. You can’t order a manual shifter for trims above Lariat, so if you want a King Ranch or Harley-Davidson version you’ll have to order those trucks with an automatic. Captain’s chairs and adjustable pedals aren’t available as well.

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