The 2002-2003 model year has been a relatively quiet one for new truck and van introductions, as the auto makers took a break from major new product improvements and rollouts of the past couple of years.

Truck sales remain strong, but the overall vehicle market softened along with the national economy. Ford Motor Co. last redid its full size trucks entirely in 1996, which seems like only yesterday but in product years now makes them due for at least a major freshening. Ford followed with introductions of a 4-door extended cab and with its larger Super Duty series.

General Motors Corp. redid its truck lineup in 2000 with the Silverado and GMC Sierra, following it with a major redo of the heavy duty 2500 and 3500 in '01. For '02, changes were relatively minor in comparison, with more concentration on new SUV intros.

The only major intro from any of the Big Three comes from Daimler-Chrysler, which has been running a distant third in this market and the impact of this newest move remains to be seen. The company is sticking its neck out by scrapping the full-size Dodge van completely and replacing it, at least for now, with a vehicle assembled from imported parts in South Carolina - an unusual approach, to say the least. However, the company is also set on building a replacement for the full size van once it selects a new assembly site, also in the South.

On powerplants, there is a continuing revival and interest in diesel engines. While always a staple of the big truck industry, they haven't had as much of a presence in the auto or light truck market, although diesel-fueled cars are common in Europe. That may be changing. According to Ford, "Performance is at the heart of the F-Series Super Duty lineup, and Ford's 7.3-liter Power Stroke? diesel V-8 delivers - now offering 525 foot-pounds of best-in-class torque on models equipped with an automatic transmission."

Super sales

Ford sold a record 360,000 Super Duty trucks in '01, accounting for about 40 percent of total F-Series production, and about two-thirds were equipped with the 7.3-liter diesel. The new 7.3-liter Power Stroke diesel engine provides more peak power sooner than any competitive engine, according to Ford, producing 525 foot-pounds of torque at 1,600 rpm. The engine produces 250 horsepower at 2,600 rpm. This is an increase of 20 foot-pounds of torque versus last year's Power Stroke engine.

"Both commercial and personal use customers need torque to get the job done, and appreciate this increase," said Tim Stoehr, F-Series Super Duty marketing manager. "We wrote the book on diesel pickups. This is just another chapter."

More torque allows a diesel engine to move or tow heavier loads, while enhancing the vehicle's performance feel. High torque ratings allow drivers to maintain speed without frequent transmission shifting and enable drivers to easily launch highly loaded trucks from rest. In addition, torque also enables drivers to maintain speed while negotiating steep grades.

Since its introduction in 1994, the Power Stroke diesel has received power improvements five separate times. In addition to torque enhancements, noise vibration and harshness improvements have been made to the engine to make it quieter and more refined.

The 7.3-liter Power Stroke turbo diesel V-8 engine features direct injection, part of a low-pressure electro hydraulic fuel system. Direct injection delivers fuel under extremely high pressure with precise electronic control, contributing to improved fuel economy and clean diesel emissions. The Power Stroke is built with cast-iron heads for increased reliability and durability.

Roughly 70 percent of all Super Duty trucks sold are equipped with a Power Stroke diesel engine. Of the 1.2 million Power Stroke engines sold during the last eight years, close to 100 percent are still on the road today. The engine is built for Ford by International Engine Group, a division of Navistar International Corporation.

Ford F-250 pickup with V10 engine.

Test drive

Snips test drove a SuperCab 4x4 pickup with the 6.8 liter Triton V-10 engine in June, a truly massive vehicle with good looks and lots going for it. The V-10 engine is rated at more horsepower (310 vs. 250-275) but less torque (425 foot-pounds at 3,250 rpm vs. 505-520) than the big diesel; it's a matter of preference. For heavy-duty, long-distance hauling and durability, choose the diesel. For tooling around town, take the gas engine.

Adjustable pedals, a six-CD changer, heated seats (a $220 option), chrome tubular cab steps ($75), and bigger wheels and tires made this vehicle top out at $36,055. It's a lot of money, but then it's a lot of truck.

Any truck this big is going to present some handling problems, no matter how well built and designed. At first, I thought the engine was a disappointment, the brakes squishy and the ride jumpy. But after a day in it, I grew used to the ride and accepted it for what it really is: a cross between a Mack truck and a sports car. After all, this truck weighs nearly 6,000 pounds. The engine is built more for torque and hauling than it is for quick speed. It can tow from 8,000 to 14,000 pounds, depending on which model and how it is equipped.

Two new colors were added: beige and gray. Not very exciting, so they're called Arizona Beige Clearcoat Metallic and Dark Shadow Grey Clearcoat.

On the F-150, air conditioning is now standard on all models. On the F-250, map pockets and cup holders were added on the rear doors. Options include an advanced security group, power adjustable pedals and forward-fold mirrors on telescoping trailer tow mirrors. The instrument cluster now has a temperature gauge for the automatic transmission, which could be a lifesaver.

A rather unnerving addition this year, I found, was incorporation of a back-up beeper like you'd find on the big rigs. This is presumably for those who don't know when they are driving in reverse.

For the E-series vans, Estate Green clearcoat metallic was added as a color, along with those popular optional six-CD in-dash players. Speed control is now available as a stand-alone option. It was annoying to have to order speed control as part of a package.

A new version of the F-150 pickup is planned for '04 and will launch next summer.

Sierra, Silverado

Cosmetically, GM's '03 full-size trucks get slightly fancier controls and instruments. Chevy Silverado gets a new face with slanted headlights, resembling the look of Chevy Avalanche and Trail Blazer.

GMC and Chevy pickups are nearly identical and are built at the same factories. Together, they outsold the Ford F-series last year, 926,205 to 911,597, according to Autodata. Of course, Ford calls these separate models in order to claim the title of top-selling pickup.

GM plans to expand the availability of its "Quadrasteer" or Q-steer four-wheel steering system on full-size trucks, beginning with standard-duty 2002 models this year and '03 versions of heavy-duty models.

Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra extended-cab, full-size pickups offer Q-steer in '02, followed by so-called three-quarter-ton models, designated 2500, of GMC Yukon XL and Chevrolet Suburban sport-utility vehicles and GMC and Chevy crew-cab pickups in the '03 model year.

Quadrasteer, where all four wheels turn at low speeds for a shorter turning radius and improved maneuverability, currently is standard on the GMC Sierra Denali luxury pickup but available on no other models. Q-steer reduces turning-circle diameter by about 10 feet, so big trucks turn about as sharply as a Saturn. But it spreads the rear wheels about 5 inches farther apart, requires commercial-style clearance lights and will add several thousand dollars to the price.

Daimler-Chrysler's Sprinter is assembled by Freightliner in South Carolina.

A brand new van

This year marks the beginning of the end for the venerable full-size Dodge van, practically an hvac contractor's staple for many years. The last models are slated for 2004.

Daimler-Chrysler decided not to spend the millions it would have taken to update the B-vans, choosing instead to pull the plug on this dinosaur before it brings out an all-new version. But what to do in the meantime? A new entry in the market is the Sprinter, a full size work van (a passenger version is also available), which is basically a Mercedes-Benz vehicle in knock-down form assembled by Freightliner at a non-union plant in South Carolina.

The Sprinter would seem to have a lot going for it. The powerplant is a five-cylinder M-B diesel engine, a workhorse that requires little in the way of maintenance yet provides all the necessary power and torque for a work truck. Fuel economy is good, at a combined city/highway 22 mpg, and you have the reliability of a diesel engine that should easily last more than 100,000 miles. Freightliner is an acknowledged big name in big trucks, although it hasn't done as well, profit-wise, since it came under Daimler-Chrysler's wings a few years ago.

Snips was among the first to test drive a production Sprinter for several days. Early observations included:

Strong points - the engine, the interior room; the ac, storage space and forward visibility.

Minuses - rear visibility (in models without rear glass), noise level (from the shelf accessory package), some of the controls; lack of armrests (optional).

Three things jumped out immediately on our test drive. First, the amount of interior space: It's cavernous. I stood up in the back cargo area without having to slouch, although a 6-footer would have to bend a bit unless ordering the 9-in. higher roof option. Still, there's plenty of room to work.

Second: the inter-cooled, turbo-charged diesel engine. As soon as you fire this baby up and drive off, you know it's an engine you can grow to love. It's spirited and not at all shy. I merged easily into freeway traffic. And the fuel economy is great, purported to be in the 20-plus mpg range, although I didn't check it.

The worst thing was the interior noise from the bulkhead and shelf package. It sounded like I was hauling around a bowling alley. The metal bulkhead rattled and clanged. The metal shelves reverberated. Metal drawers to hold parts slid out of their housings, further adding to the decibel level. This should, in all fairness, be improved if you pay attention to the shelf package you order.

Minor glitches came in some of the controls: Icons could be larger. There should be fold down armrests on the seats, which were comfortable enough. Exterior mirrors should be larger (although they were fitted with remote controls, a nice feature), especially since rear visibility was so limited - there was no glass behind of the driver compartment. Some contractors like their vans this way for security reasons. The instrument panel was actually very attractive, with plenty of storage space. Bigger controls on the radio would also be helpful.

The Big Three have been making vans for years based on a pickup truck chassis. The Freightliner Sprinter, according to the company, "is not just a product, but a tailored business solution that raises the bar on efficiency, ergonomics, safety, reliability and quality? it is a unique and intelligent response to the demands on commercial vehicles placed by today's burgeoning business-to-customer sector."

In other words, you can order it equipped just as you would like, according to the nature of your business. It would hold plenty of sheet metal, as well as parts and service equipment.

The Sprinter is available in three different wheelbases - short, 118 inches; intermediate - 140 inches; and long - 158 inches, in two configurations: passenger or cargo van. There are even three different standard seat fabrics to choose from, and 12 exterior colors including brilliant blue, orchid green and hyacinth blue. Suggested retail price, depending on model and options, is around $26,300.

The only snag is the dealer network, which was still being established at our test drive. Their Web site will direct you to a dealer: www.daimlerchrysler-vans.com.

The dope on diesels

Dan Ustian, president, International Engine Group, recently shared his thoughts about emissions, the public perception of diesel power, the importance of promoting diesels and the future of diesels in consumer and business vehicles.

When asked if he felt the public perception towards diesel was changing," Ustian answered: "The perception is one of our largest challenges. We are working very hard to address the issues consumers may have with diesel ? Noise and vehicle harshness as well as the perception of diesel being dirty must be addressed. As we introduce new products, you will see designs and implementation of technologies that address the sound quality of diesel engines produced by International and technologies that eliminate the perception of diesel being dirty.

"Today, our new International VT 365 engine is designed with a rear gear train and digital fuel injection to reduce noise and cooled EGR to reduce NOx emissions. We also have introduced Green Diesel Technology' vehicles in California, using a catalyzed particulate filter and low sulfur diesel fuel, International school buses can operate with cleaner emissions than CNG engines. In terms of diesel acceptance, I am very encouraged by the acceptance of diesel by Ford Super Duty pick up truck owners who have switched to diesel. Today the power stroke diesel market has seen its greatest growth come from consumer use. This is very encouraging when you look at the future potential for diesel in North America."

Asked why he felt it was important to promote diesel technology, he said, "In any industry, you see the leaders take an active interest in securing the future of the industry. If we didn't think diesel was the answer, we'd be working on alternative fuel technologies. But we aren't. Instead, we're developing advanced technology engines that burn diesel fuel.

"There are many reasons to support diesel: low sulfur diesel fuel is clean burning, it is safe to handle, there is an existing delivery system in place. In short, diesel provides real transportation solutions. Why reinvent the wheel? Instead, we are advocating open discussions about diesel power to dispel common myths held by consumers and the industry itself.

"Communication will pave the way for improved transportation in the future? Today's diesel powertrains are quieter, cleaner, and easier to drive than in the past. No other fuel technology today allows for clean air solutions, low cost of operation, and produces the power needed for heavy-duty jobs, such as regional delivery, construction, logging and even towing a travel trailer."

Accessories, packages

A fleet of vans showcasing modular T-slotted extrusions is taking its show on the road with a fleet of demonstration vans. These rolling billboards come fully equipped with product samples and sales gurneys that allow a hands-on approach to learning the benefits of utilizing T-slotted extrusions.

The demonstration van and gurney feature more than 3,800 fractional and metric components and accessories including T-slotted aluminum extrusions, fasteners, bearings, joining plates, and panels. Request an on-site product demonstration and experience hundreds of solution ideas for your next guard, machine frame, workstation, or material handling unit. There is no limit to what can be designed with this modular framing system.

To make arrangements for a product demonstration or to request a FREE catalog or CD-ROM, go to www.8020.net or contact: 80/20 Inc., 1701 South 400 East Columbia City, Ind. 46725-8753; or phone: (260) 248-8030 or (877) 248-8020; fax: (260) 248-8029. E-mail: info@8020.net or visit: www.8020.net.

A word on leasing

Most consumers are by now well familiar with the process of leasing versus buying their personal use vehicles. Advantages are: opportunity to always drive a new or relatively new vehicle; minimal initial investment, etc.

Nor is leasing new to the commercial sheet metal contracting industry. However, not everyone knows there are additional advantages to the commercial customer leasing from private companies not directly related to the automobile manufacturers.

For one thing, leasing can eliminate the tedious and time-consuming process of locating and negotiating the price of a new vehicle. Many of these private companies are recognized as large fleet buyers, and thus are able to obtain quantity discounts from the vehicle manufacturers. They can pass this savings on to their customers.

According to Brent Levee, president and general manager, JEB Leasing Company, Chicago, "It's often overlooked how large a capital expenditure company service vehicles really are. In fact, service vehicles are generally one of the largest capital expenditures contractors make each year."

Levee said this expense often causes contractors to "borrow down" on credit lines that can be better used for other more profit-generating activities, or worse, they use up valuable working capital needed for daily operations. "Since leasing is basically an alternative method of financing, leasing service trucks can often help mitigate these borrowing and cash flow problems," he added.

Many drivers resist leasing a vehicle because of mileage constraints, or fear of excessive charges for wear and tear at lease end. However, some independent leasers offer leases with no mileage limits or mileage penalties.

Contact JEB Leasing Co. at (773) 722-2400 or www.jebleasing.com.

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