State of the Intrepid – The Mighty Furd
The Intrepid is my “rig”, consisting of a pickup truck with a low-profile camper in the bed. The base vehicle – the foundation – has a large influence on how happy or unhappy the owner is with the entirety, since a mismatch can quickly veer things toward the unhappy side. Road handling can get scary, parts and systems can wear quickly and/or fail, or the camper in the bed can start to come apart from stress. Since this is a review of the Intrepid instead of just the Grandby camper alone, I think it pays to include the foundation underneath. Secret clue: I have a mismatch – for my specific purposes.
The good news is that my mismatch is the lesser of two evils. As overloaded with extras as my pickup truck is, it still handles pavement like a champ and, oddly, does not show any drop in MPG in steady-state highway driving, and only a slight drop in stop & go. That’s the weird thing about my 2008 Ford F-250 Super Duty – it’s technically overloaded, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at individual sub-assembly ratings or by driving it. No hint of wallow, lean or marginal brakes. The only thing that the added camper and storage weight noticeably slows is the abrupt punch of its stiff suspension when rolling from side to side, and some of the starch has been taken out of high-speed passing ability, as in 60+ MPH. It’s not as aggressive at braking either, based on pedal feel, though more pressure can override that. The bad news is that off-road “adventures” can still be an unpleasant if not miserable ride – the 10,000-pound GVWR option combined with snowplow-capable front springs and high-pressure E-rated tires are a good combo for road control, but incautious driving off-road can leave one with the sensations of having been mugged. This is not while enthusiastically boulder hopping, but simply while glacially creeping down a trail of rocks or washboard under 1″ high. Going faster doesn’t help much, and tends to break the tires loose. Running bare, that also encourages the rear end to come around at times. When fully loaded, that latter tendency pretty much stops. If anything is going to come loose or break on the camper or its modifications, this match-up should bring it out. A softer-riding half-ton truck suitably optioned for maximum load capacity is the better approach if you intend to take the camper over much difficult terrain. Rough terrain is, after all, what a lightweight pop-up truck camper is made for. At least the FWC is, anyway. The relatively spongy ride is better for both you and the camper.
However, I don’t recommend exceeding the vehicle’s GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating as noted on the doorsill sticker) as I have unintentionally done. For the Super Duty, this is more of a legal liability issue in case of an accident, than it is an overload of one specific system or assembly. Still, the closer you come to any vehicle’s maximum rated cargo capacity, the shorter the service life you can expect from things like brake pads and rotors, ball joints, wheel bearings, suspension bushings, u-joints, wheel bearings, and the clutch or automatic transmission. In the case of undersized or turbocharged engines, or marginal support systems for the engine such as cooling or lubrication, trouble comes much sooner as weight goes up. Virtually any vehicle can dabble with high load conditions, but it’s another matter to last when it has to play Atlas daily for a decade or two.
My truck has a diesel engine. It used to be that a diesel engine was the way to go for high-mileage use, because it combined better fuel economy with less expensive fuel. Treated to a rigidly-kept service regimen for filter, oil and coolant changes, the potential time before an engine overhaul was comparatively spectacular, too. But that was then, and this is now. Diesel fuel today is usually more expensive than gasoline. The MPG improvement is still there, but in the case of big-engined pickup trucks, it stands out only under significant load. The high odometer readings before overhauls can still be there, but those tend to apply to cross-country hauling uses, where the engine spends nearly all of its hours at operating temperature and speed inside of a compressed time frame. Age, repeated cold starts, and stop & go driving work against this.
Thanks to Federally-mandated emissions systems and the complexities caused by the Horsepower Race as manufacturers are scrambling for more bragging points among the more gullible drivers, the staggering initial cost to upgrade to a diesel engine in a new truck is unlikely to be recouped in its lifetime today, at least by the original owner. Mine was a $7,000 option in 2008 and is somewhere around $8,500 today. And these days, you usually must “option up” in order to be able to order a diesel. Regular replacement of fluids and filters is more important now that it ever was, due to the greater complexity and precision of today’s diesel powertrains. Oil changes for $29.95 do not exist in this realm, and you don’t hang onto the oil filter to save a few bucks. The typical oil change cost is over $100 per in Diesel Land, and fuel filters had better be changed out with religious fervor, too. Lubricants need to be added to the fuel, adding to the cost of anything using ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. However clean the combustion gases pushed out the exhaust pipe are, internally the engine has a chemical combination that must stay balanced. Otherwise, ignoring and lunching one system can have a rapid domino effect on other interacting systems, a pilgrimage which leads to the Parts Department for penance. These parts are no longer cheap and generic.
In the case of the Mighty Furd of 2008 vintage, its Navistar-supplied 6.4-liter sequential twin-turbo diesel is problematic. Stem to stern, this powertrain was engineered for heavy towing in challenging conditions. Sounds great, is great, and I originally got it in order to pull a fully loaded 12,000-pound horse trailer up and down abrupt Wisconsin hills. Transitioning from that to hauling a mere 7,000-pound travel trailer worked even better for those long, steep grades out West, but the question of whether the performance benefits are worth the initial cost, fuel and maintenance becomes highly debatable. So, doing nothing but carrying an overloaded lightweight camper, e-bike and cargo box (somewhere short of 3,000 pounds) makes this engine become unnecessary overkill, period. It’s loafing, and more modern diesels output considerably more power than mine. The financial impact for this “easy” use stays well into the negative numbers. The only way to minimize further loss is, as usual, to keep taking care of it carefully in order to bring out as much of its longevity potential as possible. It’s generally much cheaper to stick with what you’ve already got than it is to exchange it for something else. Only when a critical system like the wiring harness goes south, or something else that can’t effectively be repaired any more, is it financially better to replace the vehicle. There are exceptions, and I’ve seen some, but overall the odds are with those who stay the course. If you choose not to maintain a diesel-powered vehicle properly, this exception may apply much sooner because of the very high repair costs. Saving money by ignoring maintenance will come back to haunt you even more than doing the same with a gas-powered vehicle. Saving money in the short term by delaying maintenance servicing is not always the same as saving money over the long run.
Navistar’s approach at that time towards Federal emissions requirements worked, but compounded external complexity and hurt fuel mileage as well as overall reliability. The Navistar 6.4L, used from 2008-2010, is today considered as a Russian Roulette choice. It may well last for 350,000 miles when used for cross-country work, or it may self-destruct at 30,000, as originally supplied to Ford. Most will reach somewhere in the middle. Regular maintenance plays a large part in its odds, as does hard use while the emissions system is in “regeneration” (self-cleaning) mode – where just two cylinders are fed extra fuel to burn clogging deposits out of a downstream filter canister.
Short version: unless you are buying used and just prefer the muscular driving characteristics of diesel engines, it makes little financial sense to stray away from gasoline engines just for carrying an FWC pop-up camper in a full-size pickup. Wretched excess. The small $5,000 Fiat-supplied 3.0L Ecodiesel available in the Ram 1500 pickup gets very good fuel mileage, but seems to be having teething problems on a par with Ford’s ill-fated Navistar 6.0L at its 2003 introduction. Right now does not seem to be the time to buy that engine, if your funds are such that you must commit long-term. Perhaps Cummins’ 5.0L diesel in the Nissan Titan may fare better, though it’s still a financial loss for the buyer. Again, more power than is necessary for this purpose, at a high cost, and I don’t know what its cargo capacities are limited to.
On the flip-side, with gasoline engines in such sizable vehicles, whatever the “standard” engine is has historically been chosen to both lower the base cost of the vehicle and to provide better CAFE fuel mileage ratings. Having owned a few of these, I’ve found that they can be durable, if seriously underpowered at times. But, since they spend much of their lives working much harder than a modestly larger engine would, the odds of attaining high odometer readings with them are poorer, and decreases in performance as they age are more pronounced. So I have come to automatically gravitate toward whatever the next engine size up is, as the minimum. Less stress and less complexity are usually the winning combo when it comes to durability over the long run. That rules out turbochargers and other such costly add-ons. Sophistication usually – but not always – works against durability when an engine has to last, and this applies to external devices more than the bare engine itself. The indicator for a base engine that is too small for the job is EPA fuel mileage ratings that are only marginally better than the next optional engine size up. Mind you, some brands have offered adequate standard engines, and this trend has tended to improve in more recent times, so my maxim is not universal. Also, by long term, I’m talking 10-20 years in an attempt to reach 200K miles for a gas-engine vehicle. That’s become more common since the 1990s, but I’m not yet aware of anything more sophisticated than dumpy iron lumps that have done it without surgery along the way.
Were I to start over with my Grandby in mind instead of a loaded 3-horse trailer, a full-size half-ton 4×4 pickup with a suitably high cargo capacity option (rated for at least 2,200 pounds) would be more appropriate. Given all of my added junk, I’d have to go for as much cargo capacity as I could get. With a 15-year+ service life in mind, I’d gravitate towards the larger, non-turbocharged side of the gas engine scale, and a manual transmission. And skid plates under the transfer case and fuel tank, at the least. But that’s just me.
The extra interior space in stretch cabs comes in mighty handy, but if you don’t require the extra storage space, don’t get it – it lengthens the wheelbase, which effectively reduces ground clearance on rough terrain and makes tight turns difficult on both trail and in parking lots. I was recently surprised to find that this regular cab vs stretch cab issue is now largely moot. As of the time of writing this, you apparently cannot get a regular cab pickup in anything less than a full-size truck any more. Before too long, I suspect that you won’t be able to buy a standard cab in a full-size half-ton pickup, either. Why? In response to a 2010 Presidential Memorandum, the EPA has dictated increasingly tight fuel mileage standards for pickups, and the standards for trucks with smaller wheelbases and tread widths are tighter out of all proportion to their inherent mileage advantage. Our government has estimated that the onboard equipment needed to meet future fuel and emissions standards will add $1,800 to each vehicle’s cost, and admits that the technologies needed to attain them do not currently exist, but they have an optimism that technology will increasingly overcome physics. In order to avoid the fines resulting from not hitting their CAFE fleet standards, manufacturers have phased out regular cab versions of compact trucks that had tougher mileage requirements. They now offer only the longer, heavier versions. But wait, you ask, don’t the longer, heavier trucks actually get worse gas mileage? Yes, they do. But the EPA has chosen to skew the standards to give shorter trucks a disproportionately tougher time of it, so manufacturers of the compacts have had to chop those offerings off the order sheet to avoid getting themselves into trouble. New 2017 regs penalizing the short-wheelbase versions of full-size trucks are next. Actually, the manufacturers don’t mind doing that too much, since some 90% of buyers are now using their pickups as open-trunk SUVs, heavily optioned for comfort. The bigger the truck and the more options, the better the profitability. Trimming away what used to be the loss leaders causes little pain. Thus the absence of screaming. Except for fleet sales, the “work truck” purposing that once heavily dominated the market has since evolved into spacious multipurpose pleasure/utility vehicles that brag of their soft “car-like” rides. That’s fine, but I do lament the oncoming days when the only way to get a new, short light-duty pickup for work may be, at best, to have a close relative who is a fleet buyer. I suspect that the EPA’s actual goal is to “encourage” light-duty truck buyers back into better-mileage cars by discouraging the production of trucks that will fit inside a residential garage, and making the penalty for persistence mo’ money. Call it social engineering, as the kindly term. Meanwhile, nearly everyone is already buying trucks that meet the easier EPA regs and increase our dependence on foreign oil by a notch, while the alternatives are methodically being lopped off because their fuel mileage hoop is held higher. My hope is that I’m missing some offsetting fact which lets this all make sense. Did I miss a meeting? Apparently, yes.
The eternal question of “Should I get 4WD?” as I’ve done on my pickup is a worthy question, but my purported answer would balloon this post even further. I’ll handle that issue in a separate, blithering and vague essay. You can compare it to what everyone else advises.