The sticker on the driver’s door claimed “Drives Like a Van, Hauls Like a Truck.” I chuckled to myself as I tossed my overnight bag across the vinyl bench seat, grabbed the handle bolted to the side of the cab, and climbed up two steps into the driver’s seat of the largest U-Haul in the company’s fleet.
Roughly two years ago, my parents decided their time in Northern Virginia was coming to a close. They traveled up and down the East Coast in search of a new neighborhood, and found the perfect fit in Bethany Beach, Delaware – about three hours from their home of 19 years. Although they used a moving company for furniture, they wanted to rent a truck to haul most of their belongings. Given my experience with trucks and towing, I volunteered to be their driver.
Ford wanted me to drive this F-650 so badly that they sold it to U-Haul, who graciously let me take it for two days and 160ish miles with nothing more than a valid drivers’ license and about $600 of charges to my credit card.
U-Haul has had a… let’s say “spotty” reputation in the past. Old equipment, rented to customers out of random businesses and gas stations, with a history of breakdowns and other problems. In recent years, however, they’ve been working to clean up their image, and it shows. The smaller “in town” rentals I’ve used for apartment moves have been nice enough trucks, based on the Chevrolet Express or Ford E-350 van chassis. Those drive like big vans.
The largest U-Haul rental, which we ordered for Mom and Dad’s move, sits on the medium-duty Ford F-650 chassis. It has a 26′ box bolted behind the single-row cab, with a small “attic” overhang, and is powered by Ford’s 6.8-liter V10 gas engine, sending power to the dual rear wheels through Ford’s heavy-duty six-speed automatic.
Our truck was fairly new – this body style was released for the 2016 model year – and had 53,000 miles on the odometer when I picked it up. For the sake of this review, I’m calling it a 2018, as it’s fundamentally the same truck and frankly, I was too busy carrying boxes to figure out which model year our truck was.
“Holy shit.” I thought, as I took in my surroundings, preparing to leave Falls Church for my parents’ old house. The F-650 cab mimics that of the smaller F-250 and F-350 SuperDuty cabs, but you are distinctly aware that the truck itself is far bigger. The steering wheel, in particular, is larger in diameter compared to the SuperDuty siblings. After attempting to adjust the side mirrors (spoiler: they don’t really move) and choosing a radio station on the two-speaker AM/FM corporate Ford head unit, I put the truck in Drive and set off down the road.
My 30-minute drive between Falls Church and Ashburn was enough to realize that U-Haul’s claims of “drives like a van” were nothing more than marketing collateral. Granted, I was behind the wheel of the same chassis that underpins dump trucks and other heavy haulers, so this wasn’t really a surprise. The 26′ U-Haul had an absolutely punishing ride at 65 mph while unloaded. Again – not surprising. The truck had a sticker claiming a 22,000 pound GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating), meaning it could weigh up to 22,000 lbs when fully loaded. This means the suspension must be stiff enough to handle that much of a potential load – which means unloaded, it is an incredibly harsh ride. Small expansion joints would have the rear end of the truck doing the jitterbug.
To U-Haul’s credit, the pull-out ramp and low floor height made loading the gigantic box truck fairly easy. The wooden slats running down the box sides provided easy points for my ratchet straps, ensuring our cargo wouldn’t move around. And once we filled the truck, I had some hope that it would ride better with more weight over those stiff rear springs.
Friday morning, we set off for Delaware.
My hope of a better ride was met, for the most part. While we had a lot of cargo by volume, a good portion of it wasn’t super heavy and the truck was not loaded anywhere near its maximum capacity, weight-wise. Still, the ride smoothed out enough, although a few particularly rough bumps lead to coffee jumping out of my Starbucks cup’s lid.
As I spent more time in the F-650, I got more comfortable behind the wheel. Lane changes were easy (provided the mildly-oblivious DC Beltway drivers would let me in) as the large mirrors provided a great view down both sides of the long box. The seat was comfortable and the cab was a fairly pleasant place to be. That doesn’t discount the fact that the F-650 fills whatever lane it’s in – which made crossing the Bay Bridge an activity that required my full attention.
U-Haul used to spec their largest trucks with diesel engines and manual transmissions. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, their requirements shifted, and now 26′ U-Haul trucks are all powered by gasoline engines and automatics. Obviously, the automatic transmission makes for an easier drive, available to more of the population, but why the switch from diesel to gasoline?
My biggest suspicion is that it’s just easier for customers to put regular, 87 octane gasoline in the truck, like they’re used to doing with their passenger cars. Filling a diesel tank with gasoline can be an expensive mistake, that U-Haul undoubtedly doesn’t want to risk. Additionally, the rest of the U-Haul fleet is all gas-powered, so having the 26′ trucks use the same fuel eliminates some maintenance complexity. And modern diesels are complex and costly to run, given tighter emissions standards.
Ford’s 6.8 liter V10 is entirely adequate for U-Haul’s application. It’ll get about 8 miles per gallon if it’s loaded, unloaded, towing, not towing, running, turned off, and so on. It makes smooth torque across the power band and pairs well to the six-speed transmission. It also sounds like an old 7.3 liter PowerStroke diesel munching on a bag of rocks. Ford will be replacing this V10 with a new, 7.3 liter gasoline V8 in the coming months.
After burning through about half of the 60-gallon gas tank’s capacity to get to Delaware, I turned the truck in to a powersports equipment store that smelled like stale cigarettes, and was glad to slip behind the wheel of my mom’s 2011 Subaru Outback, which felt like an absolute racecar after driving the F-650.
U-Haul’s 26′ truck was exactly what we needed for the task at hand. I felt comfortable driving it given my experience otherwise. What I’m floored by is the fact that Janice from accounting, who thinks her Honda Pilot is a big car, can go rent this same truck with a trailer hooked up to tow her Pilot, and receive no guidance as to piloting such a rig.
I have driven vans. Windstars, Caravans, Siennas, Odysseys, Expresses, E-Series, Transits, you name it. The biggest U-Haul does not drive like a van, at all. It drives like a truck, and you rent it to do truck stuff. It’s very good at doing that sort of truck stuff. And the next time you see one on the highway, signal on, trying to merge, slow down a hair and let them in. Janice from accounting (or Jake from IT) will thank you.