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Spy Report: Diesel Half-Ton Trucks

Detroit’s Not Talking… But 2013 Could Be Our Year

Text By , Photography by Courtesy of the Manufacturers

Warning: The following article is full of speculation, wishful thinking, and shameless self-promotion of diesel power. There is, however, so much buzz about ½-ton diesels being just around the corner it’s time to fill you in on what we’ve seen, what we know, and what we believe is coming.

We say, “believe” because much has changed in the automotive industry since 2008. Many of the articles we’ve published about ½-ton diesel pickups—that never showed up—may have in fact been true. But due to the economic implosion of the Big Three, those light-duty diesel trucks never made it to dealer showrooms.

Constant readers will recall that we’ve been talking about the coming of light-duty diesels for seven years. Our knowledge of these diesels dates back to the Delta engines Detroit Diesel showed the world in 2000. Some of you may even remember that Chrysler had a Dodge Durango powered by one of Detroit Diesel’s Delta prototypes at the time.

Diesel Power didn’t exist back then, so there was no central place for enthusiasts to track the development of new diesel powerplants. Our staff’s firsthand exposure to ½-ton diesels also pre-dates Diesel Power. It came in 2005, when we were poking around a clean-diesel display truck during a GM media event at the Milford Proving Grounds. In what we now think may have been an attempt by GM engineers to leak word of a V-6 Duramax, we popped the hood on a modified ’00 Silverado to find a V-6 version of the LB7 (or was it an LLY?—we wouldn’t have known the difference back then) Duramax. Inside the unlocked truck (which is why we think it was a planned leak) was a binder of notes labeled “4.9L Isuzu V-6.” We weren’t allowed to have cameras at the event, and no other media outlet ever picked up on that story—but we know what we saw.

New Information Has Come To Light
This article represents our current take on the state of ½-ton diesel trucks. We’ll break the info we have on the GM, Chrysler, and Ford products into three categories: Fact, Buzz, and Speculation. We’ll note that much of the buzz we’ve heard comes from some pretty reliable inside sources—but the info at that level is so dynamic that what was once true, may not be true anymore. Our Speculation section is just that: stuff we’ve pieced together, heard from questionable sources, or things we’d just like to see.

Here’s one final bit of diesel ½-ton lore we’d like to share: In 2008, Ford, GM, and Ram all announced plans for diesel power in their ½-ton trucks. We could have (should have) all been driving those trucks by now. But we haven’t gotten the chance because the diesel option was deemed too expensive for the economic times by marketing departments in Detroit.

Times are still tough, but the push for diesel continues on. Which company believes in diesel enough to finally bring it to the masses? Well, General Motors offered ½-ton diesel vehicles from ’82 to ’98, so our gut tells us it will be the first company to offer one again. How sure are we? We’d bet money on it.

General Motors: There’s More to Life Than 6.6L
Fact: In 2005, we saw with our own eyes a 4.9L V-6 Duramax installed in a ’99 to ’00 General Motors development truck. The V-6 Duramax was likely ¾ of a 6.6L Duramax and used as many parts from its V-8 sibling as it could. The engine was backed by a 4L80E (or possibly the stronger 4L85E) transmission. The exhaust system was fitted with a number of aftertreatments and was the first time we ever saw a DPF or urea injection system. We’ve never heard a single thing about that engine and assume it fell to the wayside when work on the 4.5L LMK V-8 Duramax began.

GM launched the 4.5L LMK V-8 Duramax engine in fall of 2007. We first laid eyes on this engine when it was installed in a Z71-badged, ¾-ton Suburban show truck at the SEMA Show. The engine featured urea injection and a DPF, and we were told the 4.5L was coming in 2008 as an ’09 model. Then we were invited to a media event in California, where GM walked us through the engine’s layout, and the 4.5L was slated for the ’10 Silverado (“2010 Duramax 4500 Diesel,” Oct. ’08). GM even said the 4.5L would be built at its Tonawanda Engine Plant in New York.

Buzz: We’re hearing that GM is still looking to put a diesel in its Suburbans and ½-ton pickups, but the current thought is the engine might be from Cummins—instead of the 4.5L Duramax. Perhaps the 5.0L V-8 Cummins engine Dodge was going to use in its Ram will find its way under the hood of the 2013 GM trucks.

Speculation: The right engine for a Silverado would offer 25 to 30 mpg, be backed by a six- or eight-speed transmission, and make 250 to 300 hp. A V-6 version of the 6.6L Duramax is likely too expensive to be cost effective in a base-model ½-ton, but perhaps Cummins has figured out a way to cut the cost of its engine (or aftertreatment) to the point the market will bear it.

Chrysler: The Ram ½-Ton Is All About Fuel Economy
Fact: Chrysler has never been in a position to manufacture its own diesel engine, but it successfully partnered with Cummins to push the diesel pickup into the modern age. Chrysler was set to do that again in 2009 by offering a 5.0L Cummins V-8 in the Ram 1500. The financial crush meant Chrysler lacked the funds to bring its ½-ton Rams to fruition. Chrysler had quietly walked away from diesel power in its Ram 1500, but the company’s new European leadership clearly values diesel—and is exploring new ways to increase its trucks’ fuel economy.

Buzz: The cost of the diesel engine is only part of the expense of putting a diesel in a ½-ton. It turns out the exhaust aftertreatments can be so costly that it’s like buying a second engine for the vehicle. We were told that for the amount of money Chrysler would have to spend on the just the exhaust system (diesel particulate filter, selective catalytic reduction system, diesel oxidation catalyst, or lean-NOx trap) for a ½-ton diesel, it could pay for a 5.7L Hemi engine and five-speed automatic transmission. You read that right—just the exhaust system for a diesel Ram 1500 would have cost as much as the entire gas engine powertrain!

Speculation: If the cost of the diesel engine option is feared to be too much for American truck buyers, Chrysler has to find a way to cut the option’s cost. One way to do that is to use an engine that fits in more vehicles than just the Ram. Perhaps the 3.0L VM Motori V-6 diesel that will be offered in the Jeep Grand Cherokee could be tuned for use in the Ram 1500. Could that same engine be offered in the Charger or Durango SUV? We think so. Remember, Chrysler has a history of doing more with less.

Ford: Diesel Vs. Direct-Injection Gasoline
Fact: In 2002 we traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, to see some preliminary mock-ups of the ’04 Ford F-150. At the time, the chief engineer of the program said the truck would be offered with a V-6 diesel. That engine would have been the 4.5L V-6 version of the 6.0L Power Stroke. For reasons that seem related to the falling out between Ford and International, that program was shelved. Ford’s interest in diesel, however, continued.

In 2008, at a Las Vegas dealer meeting, Ford showed a 4.4L V-8 diesel (known as Lion) to the attendees. This engine was used in European-spec Land Rovers (then owned by Ford) and is produced in the same Mexican assembly plant as the current 6.7L Power Stroke.

Buzz: It seems that Ford has considered nearly every diesel option for its F-150. There were rumors that Ford too talked with Cummins about using its V-6 and V-8 engines. Our sources tell us the Cummins V-8 was too large to fit in the F-150, and that the Cummins V-6 was deemed too small. When the 4.4L Ford-built engine was being considered, there was even talk that the engine might also be offered in the Super Duty. Ultimately, Ford seems to have shelved its diesel F-150 ambitions and has instead decided to offer customers a direct-injection, turbocharged gasoline V-6 branded as Ecoboost. Our insiders say Ford will likely only offer a diesel after GM and Ram bring them to market.

Speculation: We hate to admit this, but Ford’s Ecoboost gasoline engine is tough competition for a diesel F-150—especially considering the volume of those gasoline engines Ford sells. To compete with that, a diesel F-150 option would have to offer a fuel economy and durability advantage that the customers will be willing to pay a premium for. While we like the idea of the twin-turbo 4.4L V-8, engineers within Ford mentioned “scaling down” the 6.7L Power Stroke for other applications. Could that mean a V-6 version of the 6.7L? Perhaps…but a 5.0L V-6 diesel seems too big in this market. What about an inline-four-cylinder version of the 6.7L Power Stroke? A 3.3L four-cylinder using one 6.7L Power Stroke head, the 6.7L’s current rod and piston combination, and Bosch-based injection system could make for a bulletproof combination. The only concern we might have about that configuration is the engine may not be smooth enough for certain customers, and because the diesel F-150 would almost certainly have to be the premium engine option for the truck, we wonder if customers would be willing to pay more for a four-cylinder diesel than they would for a gasoline V-8. We know we would.

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