Despite the popularity of utility and truck-based vehicles in Australia, we've historically missed out on the heavy hitters in the pick-up truck range that buyers in the US can access so easily. There have been exceptions, with the most recent being the Ford F-250 offered by the blue oval brand a decade ago.
That model was a high-priced, old-tech, poorly specified stripper that was built down to a price in Brazil. Think plastic floor mats, cheap velour trim and zero inclusions. Even priced up near $90,000 for a dual-cab, it still sold like hotcakes… Where low volume importers have brought vehicles in to convert over the past decade or so, they have usually been prohibitively expensive.
Thanks to Gympie-based Performax International, the days of Australians missing out on Ford’s finest - and largest - utility vehicles in any significant number are over. The F-250 we’ve tested here at launch still won’t be cheap, (the range starts at $105,000), but it’s significantly more affordable than its ever been.
Somewhat ironically, I’ve spent the past week-and-a-half behind the wheel of a Ford Ranger XLT as part of our upcoming towing comparison test. Despite the ‘too much is never enough’ mantra most motoring enthusiasts live by, I have to admit that at no point did I ponder the Ranger’s engine not delivering enough power and torque. While negotiating city streets, it never occurred to me that the Ranger wasn’t quite big enough, either.
But if the current crop of dual-cabs available aren’t quite big enough, there's the Ford F-250 Lariat: a realistic option for buyers needing extra space or serious towing ability.
All F-250 models sold by Performax will be dual-cab, style-side models, but it plans to add variations to the range starting with the extra-cab, which offers less back seat space but a longer tray. It’s fair to assume that the extra-cab in base XL guise will be the new price leader when it launches.
The F-250 dual-cab range kicks off with the basic XL ($105,000), steps up to XLT ($115,000), then Lariat ($127,000), King Ranch ($134,000) and Platinum ($134,000) models. On test in Queensland we sampled three different Lariat models, including a Performax development and engineering mule.
With just over 5000 kilometres on the clock of the vehicle that was used to experiment with the various technicalities of the RHD conversion, the build quality, factory feel and high level of fit and finish throughout the interior impressed. The dash, which is an intensely complicated component when you see one torn down, is beautifully executed in RHD form.
A brief "no holds barred" visit to the Performax International production line was similarly intriguing. The hands-on nature of the Performax technicians as they go about converting vehicles they’ve already engineered - including the F-250 and some Toyota Tundras - was enlightening, while some staff were also working on future conversions, including a brand spanking new Corvette being studied.
There’s an incredible amount of work that goes into a modern RHD conversion. For example, the entire wiring loom behind the dash needs to be flipped over. The air-conditioning system is tested for flow before disassembly and when reinstalled, the system must at least match the factory standard, if not better it. The panel mounted on the door where the window controls are needs to be remanufactured on both sides, and the amount of trickery that goes into designing the plastic dashboard components is mind-boggling. Order an F-250 from Performax and the company is more than happy to show you exactly what goes into a conversion.
Having sampled high end pick-up trucks from the big three US makers over the last five years or so - as well as Nissan and Toyota - there’s a lot to like about each different model. But the F-Series Ford really is the spiritual leader of the segment, so it’s exciting to sample the very best of the current range on local roads.
The first thing you notice from behind the wheel is the premium feel to the cabin. The Lariat is a significant step beyond the best interior you’d find in a Ranger, which feels decidedly more workmanlike than the F-250.
There’s plush leather trim, heated and cooled front seats, and the fit and finish throughout the smaller detail items like the dash and door trims are excellent.
“We measure all the factory gaps and tolerances in the interiors before we touch them," Performax general manager Glen Soper tells me during our drive loop. “When we rebuild the interiors, our gaps and tolerances have to match the factory specs as a minimum. Most of the time, they are better.”
The cabin is enormous. There’s a huge central console bin that looks big enough to store a carpenter’s tool box, and there are soft plastic surfaces on high-impact areas like the centre console lid. The seats are electrically adjustable, and combined with the tilt and reach adjustable steering wheel, both tall and small drivers will be able to get comfortable.
Visibility from the driver’s pew is, as you’d expect, commanding, and regardless of the seating position up front, three adults will fit comfortably across the back row with leg room to spare. The rear seat squab folds hard up against the backrest, creating a huge storage area across the floor behind the front seats. This neat design feature means you can store a whole heap of gear in the back seat area without tossing items onto the leather seats. The rear window has an electrically-opening centre section, too.
All major controls are easily accessible despite the conversion from LHD to RHD. The 4WD controls are the furthest away - they can’t be moved from the left hand side of the centre console, but are still within the reach of the driver. Lariat models come equipped with satellite navigation that is displayed via the clear, 8.0-inch centre screen, and the information screen between the instrument gauges can be configured to suit the driver via the steering wheel mounted controls. The Bluetooth system works well too, connecting quickly.
A heavy-duty towing pack and electric brake package come as standard with every F-250. The integrated electric brake controller in the centre console is a pleasing change from the ugly afterthought items we usually get in Australia.
Crank the 6.7-litre Powerstroke turbo diesel into life and there’s less clatter and fuss than you might expect. From inside the cabin, the idle is quiet. There’s no puff of black smoke either - the F-250 meets strict Euro 5 emissions regulations and runs AdBlu like most modern Euro diesels.
Around town, the F-250 is a pleasure once you get used to how long the body is. The turning circle is tighter than I expected, and it’s way more agile than you might think. Given the power and torque on offer, there’s never a sense of urgency from under the bonnet even when you call on the F-250 to accelerate rapidly. Its enormous torque output of 1162Nm is more than you’d ever need. And while 328kW doesn’t sound like a lot in comparison to the whopping torque figure, it’s the F-250's low-down grunt that’s the key to its usability, and the Ford engine has that in abundance.
On the open road at up to 110km/h on a flat stretch of highway, the big diesel ticks over at 1600-1700rpm. To say the engine is barely working is an understatement - that’s just a tick above idle. Fuel use around town was shown to be 13.5L/100km, a number that drops into the 12s on the freeway. Given the engine is barely run in with only 5000km under it’s belt, that efficiency could get better.
The F-250 also cruises along the highway in effortless comfort. All Performax-converted models get an uprated factory suspension option as standard, which irons out a lot of the smaller ruts and bumps and makes for a more comfortable ride. The development mule didn’t have the system, the other two test vehicles did, and the difference between the two was noticeable.
A short punt along the beach and on dirt through the forest illustrates the effortless nature of the big V8, the seamless shifts of the six-speed auto and the real world 4WD ability on offer. The F-250 is capable of ploughing through heavy, dry sand in RWD only, with 4WD not required such is the low down torque of the engine. The engine never needs to work hard either, where other, smaller engines would be working much higher up in the rev range to maintain the same speed. Shifting into 4WD on the fly adds an even greater sense of reassurance especially on scrabbly dirt roads where the grip is impressive and confidence-inspiring.
With up to 5.0 tonnes of towing capacity, lugging loads is the F-250’s forte, and the reason many people buy this size of pick-up. A fifth-wheel setup installed on our test Lariat illustrated exactly why that is.
Backing the rig up to connect the 2800 kilogram fifth wheel caravan was simple: the connection between truck and trailer is more like a semi-trailer than a conventional tow ball, and the system locks in easily. On the road, up to 100km/h, you’d be hard pressed to know there’s any weight behind the F-250 at all. The combination of mountainous torque, its long wheelbase and a down weight directly over the rear axle line makes for the easiest and most stable of towing experiences. Getting up to speed from standstill is a cinch and the fifth wheel set up makes for easy manoeuvrability too.
The Performax International F-250 is a real-deal RHD conversion that buyers won’t have any trepidation buying. It feels like a factory-built brand new car, and that's testament to the quality of the engineering and the work that has gone into each conversion.
We still don’t get to access this end of the pick-up market as cheaply as the Yanks do, that’s for sure. However, after seeing the sheer amount of work that goes into a conversion, the pricing structure makes a whole lot more sense. If you need a proper work truck or you need to tow a heavy trailer regularly, there’s no better way to do it.