SAN ANTONIO – Ford Motor Co. has vowed to retain its pickup truck leadership, as upstarts Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. try to encroach.

With the Super Duty pickup, Ford draws a line in the sand, presenting Toyota, Nissan, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group with a significant obstacle to overcome if they wish to usurp Ford’s position atop the pickup segment.

Ford’s desire to stay No.1 is not to garner bragging rights over its competitors. Rather, it’s the auto maker’s last bastion of strength in North America, and a significant profit generator. The F-Series pickup is by far Ford’s most important product, and Super Duty sales account for a staggering 40% of all F-Series sales.

For ’08, Ford completes a significant overhaul of its Super Duty lineup, upping payload capacity and ratings for gross vehicle weight and towing. Three cab styles are available – Regular Cab, SuperCab and Crew Cab – as are two bed lengths.

A new model also enters the fold – the F-450, which has a towing capacity in excess of 24,000 lbs. (10,000 kg) and a maximum payload of more than 6,000 lbs. (2,722 kg).

Due to inclement weather during our test drive here, we had very limited seat time in the F-450 and were unable to do a proper evaluation.

A base-level F-250 also is available. We spent most of our time in the King Ranch edition of the F-350, which is less powerful than the top-of-the-line F-450 but still no milquetoast. Our long-bed Crew Cab, 4-wheel-drive tester, with an all-new Power Stroke V-8 turbodiesel, boasted a towing and payload capacity of 15,200 lbs. (6,895 kg) and 4,400 lbs. (1,996 kg.), respectively.

Like its ’08 Super Duty stablemates, the F-350 gets a redesigned exterior to resemble a “big rig,” at the request of Ford customers.

The changes weren’t solely for aesthetics. Ford says the larger grille and lowered headlights made the engineers’ job easier, providing more grille surface to better cool the big engines.

At first glance, the Super Duty’s new look is over the top. However, with time, the sheet metal becomes a warm blanket, conjuring childhood memories of Tonka trucks, which may have been Ford’s goal. The Super Duty seems deliberately reminiscent of the Ford Mighty F-350 Tonka Concept that bowed in 2002 at the Detroit auto show.

This type of “in-your-face” styling worked well for Chrysler Group’s Dodge Ram, and it could be a hit among Super Duty loyalists.

Other exterior styling changes include sharply sculpted fender flairs and fender-mounted air vents, which Ford says announces “Super Duty is all about working hard.”

The truck’s powerdome hood follows the “working hard” theme and accentuates the truck’s aggressive stance.

Around back, the Super Duty gets redesigned tail lamps and a deeper rear bumper, making it easier to access the bed.

Perhaps the niftiest new addition to the ’08 Super Duty is the optional integrated tailgate step, an idea that seems obvious, yet Ford says has not been done before.

With an easy release of a latch, a single step pulls down from the tailgate, and a grab handle extends from the bed, making it easier to climb in.

Ford also offers a stowable bed extender, which can be split in half at its apex, and each piece can be slid into storage slots that run along either side of the bed so that unlike traditional bed extenders, it doesn’t take up any room in the rear when not needed.

Another industry first, Ford claims, is the Super Duty’s integrated power-fold, power-telescoping mirrors, which allow the oversized mirrors to extend outward up to 2.75 ins. (7 cm) at the touch of a switch. We found this feature to be particularly useful while trying to maneuver the massive F-350 in and out of parking spots. And although we didn’t get a chance to test the telescoping mirrors while trailering, it’s a sure bet they would help keep a closer eye on whatever is being towed.

All of the Super Duty’s exterior accruements are but gravy on what really counts in a heavy-duty truck: the powertrain.

New for ’08 is the 6.4L Power Stroke Diesel V-8 that produces 350 hp and 650 lb.-ft. (881 Nm) of torque. The engine features Ford’s new clean diesel technology, with ultra-precise piezohydraulic fuel injectors and a diesel particulate filter that reduces soot output 90% compared with its predecessor.

’08 Ford F-350 Super Duty
Vehicle type Front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger pickup
Engine 6.4L (6,400 cc) OHV diesel V-8, iron block/heads
Power (SAE net) 350 hp @ 3,000 rpm
Torque 650 lb.-ft. (881 Nm) @ 2,000 rpm
Compression ratio 17.2:1
Bore and stroke 3.86 x 4.13 (ins.)
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase 172.4 ins. (438 cm)
Overall length 262.4 ins. (667 cm)
Overall width 79.9 ins. (203 cm)
Overall height 81.0 ins. (169 cm)
Curb weight 6,823 lbs. (3,095 kg)
EPA Fuel economy N/A
Market competition Chevrolet Silverado Heavy Duty, GMC Sierra Heavy Duty, Heavy Duty Dodge Ram

An upgraded high-pressure, common-rail fuel system, supplies the piezo injectors that deliver up to five fuel-injection “events” for every combustion cycle, improving efficiency and refinement, Ford says.

The 6.4L diesel boasts two turbochargers, one small unit for initial launch and a larger one to boost midrange power.

The Power Stroke propels the Super Duty one second faster than the outgoing 6.0L V-8 turbodiesel Ford says.

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

The big trucks also are available with 6.8L SOHC V-10 and 5.4L SOHC V-8 gasoline engines mated to either a 6-speed manual with overdrive or a TorqShift 5-speed automatic transmission.

The entire Super Duty lineup is offered with both 2- and 4-wheel drive.

During highway driving, the diesel chugs along nicely, with just the slightest hint of clatter normally associated with diesels and the occasional suction sound created by the turbochargers.

The transmission and engine are in perfect sync, with no searching for gears, and at highway speeds the 6.4L diesel never seems taxed, with power distributed nicely through all five gears.

Body roll is at a minimum in the F-350, despite its gargantuan proportions, although abrupt maneuvers in a vehicle this size is never recommended, nor were they attempted during our test.

The suspension is well suited for the Super Duty, with a twin-coil mono beam and shocks up front and a live axle with leaf springs and shocks in the rear. Front and rear stabilizer bars help keep the F-350 firmly planted during turns.

While the engine is remarkably quiet, it’s even more hushed inside the cab due to extensive use of “Quiet Steel,” a composite laminated steel sheet that makes up the dash panel. When combined with extra damping on the dash and floor, a rear bulkhead panel and thicker side glass, the result is an exceptionally muted ride for any pickup, let alone a Super Duty.

The cabin of the Super Duty is well appointed and functional. The top-of-the-line King Ranch edition has a real cowboy feel to it, with Chaparral leather saddle-like stitching.

The cab boasts plenty of storage space, and the Crew Cab provides loads of room for passengers, both fore and aft.

The instrumentation is fairly intuitive, although some of the switches, such as the one to operate the rear sliding glass panel, are awkwardly placed and hard to reach.

The Super Duty doesn’t come cheap. The King Ranch edition is priced at more than $53,000, although an entry-level 2-wheel-drive F-250 can be had for $23,305 for a Regular Cab XL 4x2 model. Options can jack up the price quickly.

Trucks such as the ’08 Super Duty keep Ford one step ahead of the competition.

bpope@wardsauto.com