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Diesel Pickup Torque Race Heats Up Again

Who Will Be First to 1,000 lb./ft?

Diesel Pickup Torque Race Heats Up Again
Posted February 14 2011 05:22 PM by Edward A. Sanchez 
Filed under: Opinions, Trend Observations

Diesel Power Cover Concept

The image above is a cover mock-up created in advance of the launch of Truckin's sister publication Diesel Power. At the time the magazine launched, 700 lb./ft. from the factory seemed like a unfathomable number. Certainly not unheard-of with a few electronic and bolt-on performance upgrades, but not something you'd expect to see straight out of the showroom.

Few trends in recent memory have developed so quickly and strongly as the diesel truck performance market. Sure, guys had been hot-rodding Cummins to one extent or another since the mid-90s and earlier, but the market was essentially a one-man band, as the diesel offerings at the time from GM and Ford did not lend themselves easily to hot-rodding. The debut of the Power Stroke diesel in the late 90s from Ford added another contender to the diesel performance scene, but it wasn't until the revolutionary Duramax V8 from GM hit the scene that the diesel performance market really took off in any substantive way.  

Now, for you Chevy and GMC haters, I'm not claiming the Duramax "created" the diesel performance market, but rather, that it was a significant catalyst in accelerating and broadening the market to the point where it is today. The troika of powerhouses out there today has spawned dozens of aftermarket performance companies specializing in diesel performance, and drawn traditional performance companies into the diesel scene.

On top of that, it has spurred competition and innovation among the OEMs. When the original 12-valve Cummins hit the scene in the late 80s, people were astonished by its 400 lb./ft. of torque. Those kind of numbers weren't seen since the heyday of the big-block musclecar era from decades past, and certainly not in the fullsize pickup market. The Ford Power Stroke swaggered onto the stage with 420 lb./ft., which Dodge wasted no time in matching and one-upping. Then came 460, 500 lb./ft.

Then the Duramax landed with an until-then unheard-of 300 horsepower and 520 lb./ft. of torque. It also redefined the benchmark for diesel refinement and smoothness. Sure, its co-development with Isuzu and its aluminum heads aroused suspicion among diesel traditionalists, and the early LB7s had some fuel system issues, but subsequent generations have proven to be powerful and generally reliable.

It didn't take long to get to the 600 lb./ft. mark. Then 650. Then 700s seem to be largely leap-frogged straight for the almighty 800 lb./ft. benchmark. Sure, the first Scorpion Power Strokes were rated at 735 lb./ft., but an ECU re-flash promptly put them up to 800, and the LML Duramax is a sneeze away from 800 at 765 lb./ft. Just last week, Dodge, seemingly the red-headed stepchild in the diesel torque race, announced the 2012 Ram HD would produce 800 lb./ft. with the automatic transmission. Any one of the engines, the Duramax, Power Stroke, or Cummins can easily breach the 1,000 lb./ft. mark with a few basic modifications.

But the bigger question becomes, when will the OEs reach this level? Just five years ago, the thought that we'd be seeing 800 lb./ft. right off the factory floor would seem like a far-fetched gearhead fantasy. I think the question now is legitimately not a matter of "if" but a matter of "when."

Are the OEs starting to hit that elastic wall of the point of diminishing returns? Will the combined pressures of increasingly strict emissions regulations, fuel economy standards, and frankly, the transmissions' ability to handle such massive amounts of torque effectively cap the factory torque output we will see?

Or will we see the whole issue of traditional driveline limitations circumvented by an entirely new type of hybrid drivetrain (see my blog post from several years ago on Diesel Power) which would facilitate to-the-wheels torque output well into the four-figures?

We want to hear your take. Are we witnessing the zenith of diesel performance before the inevitable long decline, or is this just the beginning of a whole new era of diesel performance centered around technological and engineering breakthroughs?


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