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story.lead_photo.caption Ford introduces the next level of Built Ford Tough heavy-duty pickup truck capability, power and technology with the new 2020 F-Series Super Duty pickup. (Ford Motor Co./TNS)

The pickup wars are about to get bigger and badder. Ford is unveiling a massive new V-8 engine and what the automaker says are the most powerful versions ever of its F-series Super Duty medium-duty pickups to face challengers from Chevrolet, GMC and Ram.

Medium-duty pickups can tow and haul more than light-duty pickups like the F-150. They're mainstays of construction, agriculture and utilities, but many are also loaded with luxurious interiors and advanced driver assistance features for personal use. They can cost more than $100,000.

Automakers don't report medium-duty sales separately from light-duty pickups like the F-150, Ram 1500 and Silverado 1500, but they are believed to account for around 30 percent of total full-size pickup sales, and a disproportionate share of profits at Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler.

"The next chapter of truck wars unfolds this year. It will be ferocious," Autotrader executive analyst Michelle Krebs said. "These vehicles make up the bulk of vehicle makers' profits in a year in which overall vehicle sales are expected to slip."

The Chicago auto show will be ground zero when it opens to the public Saturday. Buyers will be able to compare the 2020 Ram 2500 and 3500 HD pickups that debuted at the recent Detroit auto show with the Silverado and Sierra HDs and F-series Super Duties, all of which bow at the Chicago show.

"The Super Duty is a big part of the reason the F-series has been America's No. 1 vehicle for 37 years," Ford group truck marketing manager Todd Eckert said. "That's why we're taking it to the next level."

That means a new 7.3-liter gasoline-powered V-8, an upgraded 6.7L diesel, 10-speed automatic transmission and more towing and payload capacity than ever before.

Ford won't reveal exact numbers for the 7.3L gasoline and new diesel V-8 but the existing 6.2L V-8 gasoline engine that powers what's now the "base" Super Duty produces 385 horsepower, while the 2019 diesel produces 450 hp and 935 pound-feet of torque.

Easier towing

The Super Duty's new top towing capacity will be more than a 2019 F-450 diesel pickup's 34,000 pounds, the ability to tow 33-foot-long trailers up mountain highways, multihorse trailers and luxury RVs.

The 7.3L gasoline V-8 is for owners who tow a lot, but not quite enough to need the diesel, Eckert said. "The new engines will deliver outstanding performance at all speeds."

Automakers aren't required to publish fuel economy figures for medium-duty pickups because the government considers them commercial vehicles like ambulances and delivery vans. Despite that, fuel efficiency is a selling point for the vehicles, which run all day in business use, and tow boats and other luxury goods long distances in recreational service.

Ford is aggressively promoting driver assistance features, particularly those that make towing big trailers easier.

A knob on the center console that's linked to backup cameras makes reversing with a big trailer feel more natural than using the steering wheel, and guidance lines offer steering suggestions.

Automatic braking to avoid front collisions and pedestrians are also available. Exterior changes include new grilles, headlights, bumpers and tailgate.

Ford will offer six trim levels of Super Duty from basic work trucks to personal luxury.

The competition for medium-duty pickup bragging rights promises to simmer through much of this year.

The formerly sleepy midsize pickup segment is also heating up.

"The midsize Ford Ranger is off to a fast start, with loads of orders in hand and overtime scheduled," Krebs said.

Look for that battle to intensify when the aggressively styled Jeep Gladiator joins the fray in the spring.

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