Amidst the usual stream of crossovers, sedans, and two-doors passing through the Automobile Magazine garage, a heavy-duty truck is an anomaly. The slow steering, the graceless ride, and the hard-shifting transmission are strange qualities for a modern four-wheeled vehicle, even if they are the designed-in traits of massive capability. Every time we drive a heavy-duty pickup, we're keenly aware that this segment requires a unique mindset more so than a minivan, a Ferrari, or a Can-Am Spyder. Actually, no. There's nothing more queer than a three-wheeler. Even so, a little perspective on the heavy-duty truck is always helpful in evaluating these brutes.
To that end, I was grateful for the four-day span during which I split time between a Ford F-250 Super Duty and a hairy commercial truck. The Ford's foil, a twenty-foot box truck, wasn't just a U-Haul emblazoned with come-ons to the motoring middle class (Air conditioning! Automatic transmission! Lowest load deck!), but an International chassis-cab complete with an air-suspension driver's seat, a six-speed crash box, and a hydraulic lift.
Before I could drive the International, I had to rent it. And that proved to be nearly as entertaining as getting behind the wheel. If reality TV ever becomes so desperate that it takes interest in the dynamic truck rental scene, Mike at Star Truck Rentals will undoubtedly land on the cast. He is loud, cheerful, and animated, with a Midwestern friendliness that could be confused for naïveté. Insurance on the truck will cost 29 percent, he informs me but it's never totally clear 29 percent of what. When I ask him if that covers just the listed driver or anyone, he answers by clapping his hands over his ears and singing like a child: "LA LA LA!" But the most interesting exchange with Mike, who has a mustache as wide as his glasses, comes when I ask him whether I need to fill the truck's fuel tank before I return it.
Mike advises: "If you put any diesel in it, bring me a receipt, because this is a CDL vehicle."
"I don't have a CDL. Is that a problem?"
"Not if you bring me the gas receipts."
Having completed Mike's version of commercial driver training, I'm now qualified to drive the rented rig. I'm not sure what exactly is under the hood, but it is most definitely a diesel and it creates a soundtrack clearly intended to mask how slow it is. The usable power band stretches from 1500 to just 2500 rpm, at which point power doesn't just taper off, it instantly evaporates. Acceleration doesn't exist at anything less than full throttle and even then I still find myself apologizing to those behind me as I lead parades of traffic through every intersection. The anxiety of driving such a slow vehicle puts me on edge such that I feel the need to hurry everything I can control. I'm hyper attentive to changing traffic lights, I'm reluctant to slow to recommended speeds for curves, and I feel the need to execute gear changes like I'm running a quarter-mile. That last effort is, of course, exactly the wrong move. The International's manual gearbox is an unsynchronized, sliding-mesh affair, which is to say each shift requires patience and a touch of finesse to perform smoothly. Instead, I'm hurrying through shifts--grinding, grinding, grinding--until the three-foot long stick finally falls into place and the transmission clunks into second. I eventually get a hang of the shift technique, but I never quite master the wooden brake pedal, which has neither travel nor feel. Consequently, every stop starts and ends with an abrupt lurch.
All of this turns out to be great, novel fun. It also greatly skews my perspective of the F-250. When did Rolls-Royce start building pickup trucks? The driver's seat adjustment in the International doesn't work, so I'm constantly pounding against the bottom of the seat's travel. And in contrast with that, the Ford feels utterly limo-like. Things get even better once I load 600 pounds of water into the bed, introducing some weight to the stout rear leaf springs. The F-250 uses a 6.7-liter, turbo-diesel V-8 with a stratospheric 4200-rpm fuel cutoff and can punch out 800 lb-ft of torque at just 1600 rpm. Apologies are now in order for every driver that I embarrassed at each stoplight. Then there's the six-speed automatic, which now presents itself as soft and tame compared to the surly manual in the International. In conjunction with comfort features like dual-zone climate control, heated and ventilated front seats, and satellite radio, the Super Duty's civility is actually quite shocking. Compared to a commercial truck, the Super Duty is a common passenger vehicle. But compared to a car, it's not just any passenger vehicle--it's one with a 14,000-pound towing capacity and 3190-pound maximum payload.