INTERNATIONAL TRUCK STOP - Ford takes it to the Max!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The new Ford F-Max long haul truck is so good that it’s just been crowned International Truck of the Year 2018. Will Shiers explains why.

Photo: Don’t let the looks fool you, the F-Max is very much its own truck.

“Volvo and Scania have had an illegitimate lovechild”, “It looks like my garden shed”, and “Is that really the best they can come up with?” were typical reactions to the first photos of the new Ford F-Max on my Twitter and Instagram feeds. But then that doesn’t really surprise me, as everyone on social media is a truck design guru. Take any of these keyboard warriors to the Turkish capital, Istanbul, and put them in front of Ford Otosan’s design team, and I suspect they’d have very different opinions about the truck’s appearance.
Personally, I rather like the look of the new International Truck of the Year (IToY); after all, looking like a Volvo or a Scania is no bad thing. It certainly works for Volvo and Scania. No, for me the only real disappointment is the name. Like some other IToY jury members I’d been trying to persuade the senior management at Ford to resurrect the Transcontinental name.

But instead, Ford decided to name it after the legendary F Series pickup truck range, combined with the car division’s preference for putting the word Max after every letter in their vocabulary. Oh well, it’s certainly better than Big Boy, which was the codename used internally for the past few years. I once made myself unpopular with Ford Trucks’ senior management team after describing its Cargo (see sidebar) as having a face that only a mother could love! Personally, I think it’s a perfectly fair assessment of its ungainly appearance. But the F-Max is different. The F-Max looks like a proper European truck.

The all-new steel cab, which has high levels of crash protection thanks to integral 360-degree reinforced hoops in the A- and B-pillar locations, is initially only available as a 2500mm-wide high-roof sleeper. But Ford says a 2300mm-wide version will follow, along with lower roof heights and day cab variants. All will have the current flat floor. It’s a well known fact that the only thing Ford made with the Transcontinental was the profit – everything else was bought in. Well, it’s a very different story with the F-Max. In addition to designing and building the cab from scratch, the engine is all Ford’s doing too.

The truck is powered by a new Euro 6 step D compliant 373kW (500hp) version of the Cargo’s Ecotorq 12.7-litre, 6-cylinder engine, which generates 2500Nm (1850lb/ft) of torque from 1000rpm to 1500rpm. While 500 horses are going to be welcomed by Turkey’s long haul drivers, those based in some of the other 41 countries Ford plans to export the F-Max to may not be quite so enthusiastic. But Ford reckons the Ecotorq has more to give, so watch this space. One of the few bought-in components is a 12-speed ZF TraXon transmission, as favoured by MAN and DAF. It is of course a fantastic gearbox, with lightning-quick changes, but Ford reckons there’s better to come. A senior technician tells me it will be replacing TraXon with its own superior two-pedal transmission within a year. The rear axle, with its range of ratios, is Ford’s own too.

Photos: The dash is clean, clear, and easy. Storage is ample with plenty of overhead up front and neat aircraft-style lockers aft. An easy truck to spend a week away in, as long as you’re careful not to arse-up on the slippery floor.

Inside story
You climb four well-spaced steps to get into the F-Max cab, and what greets you is a thoroughly modern and respectable interior. OK, it’s not as stylish as the new Mercedes-Benz Actros, but it certainly stands up to much of the competition. Moving around the cab is easy enough, thanks to the uncluttered flat floor. That said, the pre-production example I experienced had an incredibly slippery floor, and I did well not to end up on my backside. The driver’s seat is locally made, and of a high specification. It’s heated, and has four separate lumbar and bolster adjustments, and integral seatbelts too.

The wrap-around dashboard is pleasant enough, and with its pastel blue needles, is unmistakably Ford. But, contrary to popular opinion on social media, it isn’t “taken straight out of a Transit”. Between the two main dials is an 8” colour display, which is configurable, and gives the driver plenty of information on the truck’s current status. There is also a neat 7.2” touchscreen located in the centre of the dashboard, home of the Ford Sync infotainment system. It includes Apple and Android connectivity, truck specific navigation, mobile phone, and a variety of apps. Ford has made decent use of the cab’s space, providing more than enough storage for a week away. The lockers above the windscreen are great, but what I really like are the aircraft-style drop-down bins at the rear. There are a couple of handy A4-sized drawers low down in the dashboard, and some rubber trays.

Having spent some time driving the current Ford Cargo 1848T, which is definitely on the budget end of the spectrum, I must say that I’m really impressed with the overall fit and finish of the F-Max’s interior. That said, this early preproduction model did have a few untidy gaps, which I’m promised won’t exist in the real world.

On the road
I’m a little disappointed that Ford has chosen not to fit an electronic handbrake, which are all the rage these days, choosing instead to “listen to the local drivers”, who prefer a manual one. That said, an electronic version will be available next year. So, having disengaged the handbrake, and selected D from the simple gear controls on a right-hand stalk, away you go.
The first thing you notice is the long-travel accelerator pedal, which is supposed to enhance driver control. In terms of safety, there are more three-letter acronyms than you can shake a kebab skewer at, including ACC (adaptive cruise control) and PCC (predictive cruise control). Both are controlled from the steering wheel, so you don’t have to take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road to engage and operate them. The steering is firmer than in some rivals, but that’s no bad thing. It doesn’t have any of the vagueness I’ve previously experienced in the Cargo, and dare I say it feels rather sporty? I think the F-Max has got brakes, but I couldn’t swear by it, because I certainly didn’t use them. That’s how good the optional Intarder is. It has five positions of operation and a maximum combined retardation of 1000kW. Playing with an Intarder is always a huge novelty for me, as so few UK trucks are specified with anything other than an engine brake.

It is difficult to fault either the truck’s ride or handling, and it certainly coped with the worst of Turkey’s roads with a great deal of poise. I was impressed with the minimal cab roll too, a consequence of the most widely spaced cab mounts in the sector. Ford reckons it’s got class-leading torsional rigidity, and I’m certainly not going to disagree.
I’ve long since been a fan of the Ecotorq engine, and this 500hp version is great. The F-Max romped up the hills around Istanbul at 40 tonnes GVW, leaving the drivers of locally built Mercedes-Benz Axors rather red-faced. As for those poor sods piloting the ubiquitous BMC ‘Tonka trucks’, which crawl up most hills at little more than walking pace, they see nothing but taillights.
Ford has taken the current down-speeding fashion to heart, pulling down to just below 800rpm in 12th gear, not far above the tick-over speed of 550rpm. I can’t vouch for Ford’s claims of class-leading fuel economy, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true.

Ford sees itself as a true rival to the seven sisters [DAF, IVECO, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Scania and Volvo]. In fact, it has set its sights on 41 of the markets where they compete, including most of Eastern and Central Europe. And that’s not all. By 2020 it has ambitious plans to expand into Western Europe too. But, unfortunately there’s no timetable for engineering a right-hand-drive version, which is a shame, because I reckon they might just sell well here in Blighty. In fact, if I were Ford, when the time comes I think I’d be knocking on the doors of the UK’s Iveco dealers and asking if they’d like to take on the franchise. British truck buyers still associate the two marques [Iveco purchased Ford off Europe’s truck-making division in 1986]. And with the Stralis currently having a miserly 1% market share here, the dealers could definitely do with some heavy trucks to sell. But for the time being the only ones I’m likely to see at home will be foreignregistered. And I’m afraid you Kiwis will be waiting even longer, if not indefinitely.

Photo: Other than name it’s not a direct descendant of the English-built Cargo of the 80s and 90s. Beauty’s a personal thing.

Ford Cargo

I think it’s fair to say that the Ford Cargo 1848T hit every branch on the way down after falling out of the ugly tree. But on the positive side, I guess it is at least distinctive, and in this day and age that’s not a bad thing. The truck, which up until the arrival of the F-Max was Ford’s long-distance offering, remains in production, but will now be aimed squarely at regional distribution. Contrary to popular opinion, the only thing this truck shares with the English-built Cargo of the 1980s and 1990s is its name. The cab is entirely new.

Ford Otosan
The F-Max is built by Ford Otosan, a publicly traded company, where Ford Motor Company and Koc Holding have equal shares. Established in 1959, today the company employs more than 11,000 people, and in 2017 built 440,000 commercial vehicles (including Ford’s van range) and 75,000 engines.

Photo: The new BMC Tugra. A Gillette Fusion razor blade or Venetian blinds on wheels. You decide.

BMC Tugra
Ford wasn’t the only domestic truck maker to launch a new vehicle at September’s IAA CV Show in Hannover, Germany. The BMC Tugra [which means a personal sign of the sultan in the Ottoman Empire], which features a Cummins/ZF/Meritor driveline, certainly attracted some attention at its launch. Am I the only one who thinks it looks remarkably like a Gillette Fusion razor blade?