by Byron Hurd. Photos: Byron Hurd with supplemental content from Ford Motor Company.

A cloud, often more physical than metaphorical, seems to hang over S:S:L’s east coast office. Whenever we get a purpose-built machine, the weather turns ugly. Late last fall, we got a spankin’ new 370Z from Nissan and permission to track it, only to wake up to snow the next day. This summer, we had a 2011 Mustang GT Convertible and plans to attend a movie at one of the few remaining drive-in theaters in the Mid-Atlantic area. What better way to do it, right? Naturally, that weekend brought record heat and wicked thunderstorms.

So when we scheduled our camping and horseback riding weekend with the F350, we had every eventuality covered. We had alternate arrangements if we ended up getting swamped out of the campsite. We even lined up dry shelter for the horses in case we really got slammed. Preparation was the name of the game. Getting the right horse trailer for us is very important, luckily you can apply for a loan to get the right trailer for you.

But Mother Nature managed to sneak one in the back door.

Back at the end of September, the east coast was battered by a particularly brutal late summer storm. Parts of the Mid-Atlantic received upwards of 7″ of rain in 36 hours. It was nasty with a capital “ass,” and at some point during the inundation, one of the horses slipped and cut her shin clear to the bone. Prognosis: Full recovery with no rehab. Downtime: 3-6 weeks. Countdown to trip: 20 days.

Author’s reaction: “Figures.”

We managed to can the trip plans before we would lose our deposits, but that still left us with a purpose-built tow/haul vehicle and nothing to do with it. I called my friend & fellow camper, Jim, the day we got the truck and I suggested an alternative: We could go play in the sand.

There are few public beaches in the D.C. area where 4x4s are permitted, and most of them are State or National Parks. Parks mean permits and fees–not logistically viable or financial sound when it comes to a press vehicle. Why the stubborn adherence to beach wheeling? The short answer: It’s safe. Our F350 loaner was a very pretty truck, and I wanted to return it that way. It was also a very wide truck. Sand washes off, but trees and boulders can leave a mark.

The next closest viable alternative wasn’t particularly cheap or convenient, but it had the benefit of being somewhat exotic and out-of-the-way while still being reasonable for a day trip. Oh, and beach access is free.

Destination: Corolla, North Carolina.

When the truck was handed off, the F350’s handy cluster-mounted multifunction display had been left in fuel economy mode. Since it was last reset, it had recorded an overall average of 17.2 MPG. Not a bad number, but not terribly informative either. As we set off southward, I reset the trip computer and settled in.

It’ll take you about 4.5 hours to get from Annapolis, MD to NC Highway 12 on the barrier island. We took the most direct route (Rt. 50 -> I-495 -> I-95 -> I-64 -> VA/NC168), foregoing the more laid-back and scenic drive down the Delmarva Peninsula for the sake of expediency. If you hook a left onto NC12 North and ride it out to the bitter end, you’ll eventually weave through some short pines and arrive at a cattle guard and some signage indicating that you’ve reached the end of civilization. Here be dragons. Or maybe a few wild horses and some biting flies.

From here, there is no marked highway. The sand itself carries all motorized traffic destined for the beach communities that lie northward. There are still speed limits and rules dictating right-of-way and the negotiation of parked vehicles, but common sense and courtesy are really all you need. And as it turns out, there’s an abundance of courtesy from the locals and lingering out-of-state owners in late October. It probably helped that the only plate on the truck was in the rear, preventing oncoming traffic from identifying us as tourists until after they’d already smiled and waved.

The worst part of the beach is the soft, dry sand located at the road transition. Chances are, if you can clear the first 50 feet without issues, you’re home free. The F350 dives in with all the grace of a maimed ox, but plows undeterred through the deeply-rutted mounds and lurches onto the packed, wet sand closer to the surf line. It may not be a delicate off-roader, but sometimes a machete gets the job done just as well as a scalpel.

It’s early evening and the tide is as low as I’ve ever seen it. Wishing to avoid salt water, I keep a healthy gap between the passenger side of the truck and the surf line as we make our way up the silicon highway. There are peaks and valleys in the sand at somewhat regular intervals, some forming wicked ruts that upset the F350’s suspension if tackled straight-on at speed. A little weaving to hit them at shallower angles keeps the front end from venturing close to the bump stops, but only the gentlest of impacts goes unnoticed by the rear axle. With no load on the bed to keep the rear suspension in check, the truck bucks and tosses with every dip.

When traffic disperses a bit, I decide to play around with the truck’s shift-on-the-fly four wheel drive system. A simple knob on the dash allows you to select from 2-High, 4-High and 4-Low, with an additional push-pull toggle for the optional electronic locking rear differential. Two wheel drive is useless here for anything but the wet, well-packed sand along the water, but it does have its moments. With the stability control off, the truck responds to lift/mash-throttle and light steering input with calm, predictable fishtailing. With this much weight in front of me and more wheelbase than I know what to do with, I could this all day, but Jim is starting to look a bit green.

Curiosity getting the better of me, I leave the truck in 2-High and ease up toward the dunes to try out the soft stuff. Predictably, the heavy front end digs in immediately, snuffing out any momentum. I quickly turn the knob back to 4-High before I bog down completely, and with a gentle touch on the throttle and a few encouraging words, the truck steams back up to speed. With the tires aired down and some ballast added to the bed, I have no doubt the F350 could make do with only one powered axle. But this is just a day trip, and I don’t want to be that tourist who gets his pretty truck mired in Carolina quicksand.

We arrive at a quiet, open section just as the sun is getting low enough to shoot photographs that come out well even on cheap equipment. We pop our camp chairs and a couple of local libations we picked up at Outer Banks Brewing Station before we made our way up the island. It’s cool, but not quite chilly even as the sun starts to sink behind the dunes. I get as many pictures as I can, do a couple faux-nuts just to satisfy my inner hoon, and we relax a bit as the sun gives the ocean that near-sunset mirror finish. We may not have the girls or the horses, but the weekend isn’t a complete waste.

With daylight gone and the temperature dropping, we pack back up and make our way southward to solid ground. The tide has come in a bit, but there’s still plenty of room and even less traffic. In the open sections, I push the truck a little harder than I did on the way up, doing my best Dakar impression over some of the hard-packed jumps below the high-tide mark. It’s too dark to tell if Jim’s turning green again, but he’s dead silent, with one hand holding the top of the dash and the other clutching the help-me-up handle on the passenger side A-pillar. I’m trying not to laugh openly. “Just don’t roll it,” he grunts.

We hit up the Brewing Station again for dinner before getting back on the road, and the long drive home gives me plenty of time to reflect on the truck. It’s a great, but imperfect cruiser. It drives heavy because it is, and the over-boosted wheel demands shuffle-steering or hand-over-hand even in the simplest of maneuvers, but it tightens up well at speed. And speaking of speed, the 6.7L Power Stroke turbo diesel V8 pulls like a freight train all the way to the end of the 100 MPH speedometer. 400hp and 800lb-ft (up from 390hp and 735lb-ft previously) are commanding figures even in a truck this big, and highway passing is absolutely effortless. Need to scoot around a 10-deep line of dawdlers going uphill? No. Problem. And if you’re a 2010 owner and you feel like you’ve missed out on 10 horsepower and 65lb-ft of torque, fear not. Rumor has it they’re just a reflash away at your local dealership. Give ’em a call.

Ford’s 6-Speed “TorqShift” transmission feels a little industrial in cold temperatures, but quickly warms up and delivers smooth shifts and pleasant cruising. Tow/Haul mode is just a button press away, and selecting manual mode on the column-mounted shifter allows you to time your gear changes with a small +/- toggle lever on the stalk. It will only shift up or down on its own in manual mode if you’re bogging or riding it close to red line. While this means the truck technically doesn’t pass the Lord Byron “Will it bounce off the limiter?” test, it’s entirely forgivable considering the application.

The rest is 100% modern Ford truck. Inside, you’ll find durable, attractive dash plastics; large, easy-to-use controls; plenty of storage cubbies and accessory ports (including three 12V outlets in the cabin and a built-in, laptop-ready 110V/150W inverter) and the usual array of Sync-related features. The Lariat Ultimate package in our tester included heated/air conditioned seats, touchscreen Navigation (with Sync integration, natch), a power moonroof, back-up camera and the integrated tailgate step (Go ahead and laugh, Howie, but it’s exactly the kind of underrated feature that can sell a truck right out of the showroom. Everybody wanted to see that step). So feature rich are the new Super Duties that, if you forget for a moment that you’re piloting a machine the size of a small space station, you get a genuine sensation of luxury. Just try to avoid any potholes, lest the heavy-duty suspension remind you that the F350 is more NASA than Nassau.

Still, the F350 would have been far more at home with the ladies in the front seat and the loaded horse trailer hitched up in the rear. It’s just that kind of truck. I would probably prefer something a little smaller and simpler (An EcoBoost F150 is a bit more my speed), and for a workout like we gave this truck, well, Ford builds the Raptor for a reason. The Power Stroke sells itself on power and mileage alone, but not everybody needs more than a half-ton for their routine, and the nearly $8,000 price tag on the diesel will buy a heck of a lot of gasoline (even for the thirsty 6.2L V8). But then, if you’re buying a heavy duty truck and you don’t need to tow or haul with it, you’ve sort of missed the point.

Speaking of mileage, I left the trip computer on for the duration of the trip, beach outing included, and there’s little to complain about. 19.7 mpg observed and corroborated by back-of-the-napkin math. Not bad for a many-ton behemoth that can tow a healthy 14,000lbs and haul nearly 4,000.

There’s an inevitable comparison to be made here with the Ram 2500 we drove back in the spring. Truck-for-truck, the Ford brings a lot more to the table, but when you consider ~$15,000 price premium, it absolutely should. Once you account for price and equipment differences, the gap narrows significantly. Take away the F350’s Power Stroke and Lariat Ultimate options and the gap closes to about $3,000, accounted for by the Ford’s one-up in bulk. I suspect that a straight-up comparison between the 2500 and an F250 with equivalent engines would be a tough game to call without a comprehensive barrage of towing and hauling tests. On looks alone, I’d have to pick the Ram, and that’s further compounded by a shameless soft spot for Chrysler’s Hemi/MDS V8s, and there are worse engines to be stuck with than a modern Cummins if diesel power is a must.

It’s clear that Ford has taken their role of 2011 one-upper seriously. Their improvements put them at the front of the heavy duty field yet again, and damned if we can find any unpleasant side effects. If long-haul towing is on your to-do list, I can’t think of a better way to get it done.

Ford provided the F350 for the purpose of this review. Special care was taken to avoid damaging the beach beyond normal wear and tear. Please wheel safely and responsibly. Obey all state laws and posted rules.

Car: 2011 Ford F350 Super Duty 4×4 Crew Cab Lariat (156″ WB/SRW)
Base price: $44,745
Price as tested: $59,850
Major Options: 6.7L Power Stroke V8 Diesel ($7,835), 3.31 Electronic Locking Rear Axle ($390), All-terrain tires ($125), FX4 Package ($295), Upfitter Switches ($125), Heavy Duty Alternator Upgrade ($75), Stowable Bed Extender ($250), Factory Spray-in Bed Liner ($450), Cable Lock ($120), Two-Tone Paint ($470), Lariat Ultimate Package ($3,995), Destination ($975)
Time in fleet: October 20-26, 2010
Miles driven (approx): ~1000


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Byron Hurd

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