LOUISVILLE, KY – Ford Motor Co. says it invested $65 million in a new flexible trim line at its Kentucky Truck Plant here to accommodate its ’08 lineup of F-Series Super Duty pickups that began rolling off the line Dec. 18.

The new trim line includes a doors-off assembly process, in which the doors are removed from the body after being painted to make it easier for line workers to install seats and instrument panels.

In all, the ’08 Super-Duty lineup will be available in 12 wheelbases; five different axle ratios; three different engine choices and either a manual or automatic transmission, says Robert Keller, marketing manager-Super Duty, who adds that cross-town rival General Motors Corp. is abandoning a manual transmission option in its new heavy-duty pickups and has cut its engine offerings to two.

“We don’t sell a whole lot of manuals, only about 5%, but GM’s getting out of that part of the business,” he says, meaning that could translate into an opportunity for Ford.

New for ’08 is a 6.4L Power Stroke diesel engine producing 350 hp and 650 lb.-ft. (881 Nm) of torque. The mill features Ford’s new clean-diesel technology, which includes piezo-hydraulic electric fuel injectors and a filter system that reduces particulate output 90% more than its predecessor.

The 6.4L diesel boasts two turbochargers, a small unit for initial launch and a larger turbo to boost power through the middle of the torque curve.

The new mill propels the Super Duty 0-60 mph (97 km/h) one second faster than the outgoing 6.0L, Ford says.

Traditionally, the take rate for diesel in the segment has been 75%, a spokesman says, adding Ford expects that to be the case with the ’08 model, as well.

The big trucks also are available with 6.8L V-10 and 5.4L V-8 gasoline engines mated to either a 6-speed manual with overdrive or a TorqShift 5-speed automatic transmission. The lineup will be offered with both rear- and 4-wheel drive.

The new truck is based on a modified version of its previous Super Duty platform, Keller says.

“It’s exclusive for Super Duty,” he says of the platform. “It’s not an all-new frame, but there were some enhancements to the cross-members. The front part (of the platform) is all-new and parts of the suspension are also new.”

The standout among the ’08 Super Duty lineup is the new F-450, which offers towing capacity in excess of 24,000 lbs. (10,000 kg) and a maximum payload of more than 6,000 lbs. (2,722 kg).

The model rides on a unique chassis and incorporates a new rear leaf spring and radius arm suspension from the F-450 chassis cab.

Mark Fields, Ford president-The Americas, describes the F-450 as a “new species,” and says it has no direct competitors.

“To get this kind of capability you almost need a medium-duty truck, and those are big and they’re not exactly the easiest vehicles to maneuver,” Fields tells Ward’s. “And you get those capabilities – the lower end of a medium-duty truck – in a pickup truck. That’s what we think is really going to set this truck apart.”

For ’08, Ford adds several new features, including an industry-first integrated tailgate step; stowable bed extender; and PowerScope power-fold, power-telescoping trailer-tow side mirrors, which provide a range of vantage points that make it easier to maneuver while backing up with large loads.

The Super Duty exterior gets a “big rig” look, something Ford says its customers have asked for. The large grille and lowered headlights made the engineers’ job easier, providing more grille surface to better cool the big engines.

The ’08 Super Duty is scheduled to hit the market in the latter half of first-quarter 2007, Fields says. Currently, inventory levels of ’06 and ’07 models are “in pretty good shape,” he says, but adds, “They’re a little heavier than I would like right now.

“We took a big production cut in the fourth quarter,” Fields says. “I strongly believe in this business you have to manage your inventories, because you can watch it one day and the next day you can be in a world of hurt.

“We have a very small amount of ’06s, and have a short model year of the ’07s, and this will be the ’08, so we want to make sure we have an orderly sell-down, because you don’t want ’06s, ’07s and ’08s sitting on a dealers’ lots,” he says.

The typical Super Duty buyer is a “male in his mid- to late-40s, who believes in America, is typically a contractor and uses his truck for work and for his family,” Keller says, adding that about 85% of Super Duty buyers are men.

Roughly 40% of total F-Series sales are Super Duty models, and that statistic should hold up for the ’08 model as well, Ford says.

Through November, Ford sold 46,288 medium-duty F-Series pickups, according to Ward’s data.

As for launching the ’08 Super Duty at a time when the housing market is in a slump, gas prices remain high and more competitors have entered the segment, Fields says it will be interesting to see “how 2007 plays out.”

“When you look at the market in general, the housing market is the most truck-related, and we’re seeing a slowdown in the housing market,” Fields tells Ward’s.

“That being said, if you look at the past when people have introduced new pickup trucks, it actually stimulates the market. But our aim on this truck is to maintain our leadership in this segment. We have a lot of loyal customers, (but) we have to earn that loyalty every day.”

bpope@wardsauto.com