From the March 2009 issue of Car and Driver.
Proposition: No vehicle offers a broader range of capabilities than a full-size pickup truck with four doors. Seating for five. Covered cargo space for stuff you want to keep locked up and dry. Open cargo space for really big stuff and stuff you don’t want inside there with you, to wit: dead deer, live badgers, bags of organic fertilizer. Big load capacity. Big towing capability.
Unless you want to shell out the substantial premium you’d pay for a hybrid, which might get you a few extra mpg, that’s the price of big-truck capabilities. Fuel and air equal power. Big loads require big power.
Some members of Congress seem to believe they can legislate big mpg gains in big pickups without serious performance penalties. But like the California Air Resources Board and its attempt to mandate zero-emissions vehicles, they’re out of touch with technical realities.
In any case, reductions in fuel consumption occur automatically, as a function of price. When gasoline prices hovered around $4 per gallon, pickup inventories reached overflow levels on dealer lots around the country, a glut exacerbated by the implosion of the United States housing market and subsequent general economic malaise. There’s a direct correlation between the health of the housing industry and pickup sales, a correlation that Ford’s economic tea-leaf readers see as dismal for at least the next two years. Others see this forecast as optimistic.
Meanwhile, domestic truckmakers have been tiptoeing along the edge of a financial abyss, and corporate execs are muttering the Twenty-third Psalm. The shadows are deep, the valley is more like a chasm, and at this writing, the only ray of light is gasoline prices that have dropped precipitously from their summer highs to well below $2 per gallon.
Actually, there are some other bright spots in the gloom. These are provided by the trucks themselves, which are stronger, tougher, and more refined. In particular, we’re talking about pickups with good ol’ Yankee names: Chevrolet Silverado, Dodge Ram, and Ford F-150, the subjects of this comparison test.
Some of you may protest that this is no longer an all-American show—that the big-pickup game includes a couple of teams from Japan. Before you grab your BlackBerry to thumb us an indignant “whasamatta with you?,” let’s review our selection procedure. The champ from the most recent comparo is seeded in automatically. Beyond that, we include new or significantly updated entries that have come along since.
The last showdown, “Pay Dirt,” appeared in our April 2007 issue. The then-new Silverado emerged as the winner, trailed by the Nissan Titan, the Toyota Tundra, the Ram, and the F-150. Since then, the Ram and the F-150 have had major redesigns, while the Tundra and the Titan stand pat for 2009.
To escape the onset of wintry weather—not to mention the gloom that hovers around Detroit these days—we sought a warmer clime for our test. And what better destination for truckin’ than Texas? According to a statistical snapshot by the Vehicle Titles and Registration section of the Texas Department of Transportation, on October 13, 2008, there were 5,540,227 pickups registered in Texas, almost 27 percent of vehicle registrations statewide.
We collected our trucks—all of them fancy (and pricey) editions—in Dallas and headed for the central Texas Hill Country west of Austin, setting up headquarters in Fredericksburg (population: 10,432), an attractive town founded by German immigrants in the mid-1800s. In addition to friendly eateries and an unhurried pace, it has the attraction of being close to Luckenbach (permanent population: 1), glorified in a song by the late Waylon Jennings and home to frequent country-music festivals.
While in the Luckenbach neighborhood, we visited the ranch of Mary Beth Richardson, who keeps a trio of Texas longhorns in her front yard. Thanks to Richardson’s bribes (feed), the longhorns cooperated and refrained from puncturing either trucks or test crew. Photo ops wrapped, we saddled up to see which truck would be tops.
Third Place: Chevrolet Silverado
The traits that helped propel the Silverado to the head of the pack last time around—solid structure, brisk acceleration, smooth on-road ride quality—haven’t diminished with age. The GMT900 chassis, with its hydroformed frame rails, is still a solid foundation, giving the Chevy an edge in pavement handling. One member of our test crew went so far as to call it “tossable,” which is a stretch, but the Silverado did smoke its opponents in the lane-change exercise, in part because the stability-control systems in the Ram and
F-150 can’t be turned off and in part because the Chevy weighed 300 pounds less than the next-heaviest Ram.
HIGHS: Solid structure, quick on its feet, precise steering, smooth pavement ride, highest mpg.
LOWS: Noisiest within, smallest rear cabin, so-so interior materials, minimal stowage inside.
Light is not a word that comes to mind in connection with a 5540-pound vehicle, but it was a tangible distinction in favor of the Chevy and gave it the second-quickest 0-to-60 time—7.6 seconds—even though this Silverado was equipped with a 5.3-liter V-8 with cylinder deactivation (315 horsepower, 338 pound-feet of torque). In 2007, Chevy showed up with a 367-hp, 6.0-liter V-8 (375 pound-feet). Going with the lesser 5.3 cost a couple of 10ths in the sprints. But the Chevy had the highest towing capacity of the group (9500 pounds) and the best observed fuel economy, at 18 mpg.
The Chevy’s logbook also contained praise for GM’s new six-speed automatic transmission and column shifter. The center-console shifters in the Dodge and the Ford may look a little more macho, but they take up space that could be devoted to stowage.
Brake feel, on pavement and off, was another strong suit, although this was mitigated by the longest stopping distance in a group of long stoppers: 70 to 0 mph in 202 feet, likely a result of the tire choice. Still, the Chevy’s dynamic report card was generally pretty good. So why the slide from first to third? In a word, details.
The most obvious shortcoming is rear-seat space. You can get three adult males buckled in back there, but it’s much more confining than in the Dodge or the Ford, particularly for the guy in the middle. There’s a shortage of rear cabin stowage, too—no door pockets, no under-floor bins—and the front door pockets were the smallest in this trio, as well as the flimsiest. Not good for guys who like to stash tools in the cab.
We were also underwhelmed with the Chevy’s interior materials. Although the instrument-panel design was clean and uncluttered, there were visible mold lines, and the quality of some of the plastics looked a little cheap for a truck in this price category.
The Chevy’s seats drew the lowest scores for comfort and support, and a venomous rattle manifested itself in the rear of the cabin during our dirt-road driving.
Speaking again of price, you’ll note that the Chevy had the lowest base and as-tested prices in this group, but even so, both were pretty steep, and the leather interior that goes with the LTZ package seems a little out of step for a truck that’s actually going to get its hands dirty on the job. You could get the same capabilities, minus 4WD, for much less—$32,600 for an LT model with cloth seats, a trailering package, and the 5.3-liter V-8; $34,480 for the 6.0-liter V-8 and max towing package.
You’d go home with a truck that would serve you well. But there are a couple of others here that might serve even better.
THE VERDICT: Still exceptionally sturdy and still sweet to drive but upstaged by the newer rivals.
2009 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LTZ 4×4 Crew Cab
315-hp V-8, 6-speed automatic, 5540 lb
Base/as-tested price: $41,530/$44,365
Payload: 1460 lb
Towing, max, as-tested: 10,400/9500 lb
Ground clearance: 9.0
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.6 sec
1/4 mile: 16.0 @ 89 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 202 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.72 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 18 mpg
Second Place: Ford F-150
The 2009 F-150 doesn’t look markedly different from the 2008 model. If you’re not looking at it front-on, it doesn’t look different at all. Do not be deceived. There’s some serious structure beneath the new body. The F-150’s full-length fully boxed frame rails are bridge-girder stout, and the body and box-support crossmembers are welded in place.
HIGHS: Parlor-size rear cabin, flat rear floor, heroic load and tow ratings, quiet operation.
LOWS: Power not up to capability ratings, overzealous stability control, squishy brake pedal.
Ford’s basic goal in the F-150 makeover was increased capabilities—bigger payloads and more towing capacity. Make that biggest payloads and most towing capacity among half-ton pickups. The F-150’s 3030-pound max payload is tops in this class, and the same goes for max towing: a resounding 11,300 pounds. That’s a lot of turnips, dude. However, the ratings for our crew-cab F-150 with a 3.31:1 axle ratio (1320 pounds of payload and 8200 pounds towing) drop it to second behind the Chevy.
Like its opponents, our F-150 test truck was far from basic. You could get these same capabilities in a rear-drive cloth-upholstered F-150 SuperCrew XLT for $34,855. This one, with the King Ranch package, carried a base price of $42,960 and an as-tested price of $46,065. The King Ranch interior, highlighted by beautifully stitched saddle-tan leather seats, is absolutely gorgeous and drew top grades for comfort, but it’s not the sort of interior an owner would likely subject to the abuse that goes with ranching or construction work.
Similarly, that short cargo bed—at 67 inches, the shortest in a short trio—doesn’t lend itself to the four-by-eight-foot building material standard. Your sheets of drywall will sit between the wheel wells, but even with the tailgate down, you’ll have a bit of overhang.
We weren’t hauling drywall down there in Texas, of course. And in any case, the Ford’s interior was pure pleasure to occupy. Space behind the front seats was best in our test, ditto door-pocket storage, and the F-150 design team created a flat rear floor, albeit at the expense of under-floor stowage.
Opinions varied regarding the Ford’s dirt-road dynamics, but all crew members found it to be a smooth operator on pavement, with the best steering feel, as well as quiet operation, recording the lowest sound-level numbers at idle and freeway cruising speeds.
Based on the foregoing, the new F-150 might look like best in class. But this omits one critical factor from the equation: power. Ford has improved output of its 5.4-liter, 24-valve V-8—310 horsepower versus 300—and a slick new six-speed automatic replaces the previous four-speed, adding more zip: 7.9 seconds to 60 mph versus 8.8 last time around. This becomes more impressive when we consider increased curb weight (at 5880 pounds, the test’s heaviest) and the tallest rear-end ratio.
Nevertheless, the Ford was the slowest in almost every acceleration category, which calls into question those big work ratings. Having towed a 7000-pound load behind this new truck, we were impressed with its trailering stability but can only wonder how deliberate towing would be with 11,300 pounds hitched up.
There are other demerits. At 47 feet, the Ford’s turning circle is just behind the Chevy’s in terms of parking-lot unhandiness. Brake-pedal feel is mushy, and the stability system is overassertive. But power is the key limiting factor. The 5.4 is Ford’s top light-duty truck engine—one of two F-150 V-8s (no V-6 until the EcoBoost comes along next year). In this application, it’s rated for 14 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway—we averaged just over 15. Not too impressive in a test that involved a lot of highway driving.
THE VERDICT: A railroad trestle on wheels that’s about 50 horsepower short of outstanding.
2009 Ford F-150 King Ranch 4×4 Supercrew
310-hp V-8, 6-speed automatic, 5880 lb
Base/as-tested price: $42,960/$46,065
Payload: 1320 lb
Towing, max, as-tested: 11,200/8200 lb
Ground clearance: 10.0
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.9 sec
1/4 mile: 16.2 @ 87 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 196 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.73 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 15 mpg
First Place: Dodge Ram 1500
Dodge added “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” swagger to its Ram act in 1994 and has been amplifying it ever since, including the Ram’s makeover for 2009. Research tells product planners that pickup buyers like chrome surfaces on the fronts of their trucks. If that’s true, the latest Ram is likely to seduce potential customers at first sight. There’s enough bright stuff—chrome-plated plastic—on the front of this bad boy to make it visible on Google Earth. This affinity for pickup brightwork is a little mystifying in the Lone Star state, as just about every other truck we encountered had a massive deer bumper covering its grille—apparently Texas deer are particularly suicidal—although, to be fair, some of those bumpers were chromed.
HIGHS: Hemi V-8 muscle and hustle, uptown ride quality, RamBox bed-rail storage, roomy interior.
LOWS: Diminished work ethic, Hemi muscle begets Hemi thirst for fuel, anesthetized steering.
Perhaps this sounds a little caustic? It’s not. We gave the Ram top styling marks. There was some concern about how the two-tone paint job would be perceived in Texas—perhaps a little fancy for cowboy country—but we liked it, and the forward-canted grille is a welcome change from decades of bows whose designs seem to have been inspired by Great Lakes iron-ore freighters.
There are other design touches that scored big. Although it was upstaged by Ford’s King Ranch treatment, the Ram’s leather-lined Laramie interior is almost as handsome and almost as roomy, rivaling the F-150 in terms of dashboard design, general comfort, and fancy stitchery. The double-decked glove box is the only useful glove box in the group, almost every small storage nook in the cab has a rubber liner to damp out rattles, the dashboard sports a 115-volt outlet, and though the rear cabin still has a driveline tunnel down the middle, it also has a pair of fairly deep under-floor storage wells and two storage bins under the seat.
As in the Ford, one of the Ram’s under-seat bins was preempted by a big amplifier. And like all three trucks, this one could be acquired for much less money without diluting its basic strengths—$33,890 for the basic rear-drive SLT version, $37,285 for the four-wheel-drive Sport model. That’s a long way from the $48,965 as-tested total for our gussied-up 4WD Laramie test truck.
Back to design. A big plus was out back, where Dodge has created covered storage—the Ram Boxes—in the cargo-bed side rails. They measure 57 inches long by 10 inches wide, with a lot of space under each cover. And there’s still enough width between the rails for your four-by-eight sheet of whatever.
The other big deal here lies beneath the cargo bed. Although the Ram retains a traditional live axle, it has forsaken traditional leaf springs for a coil-spring setup. This has produced two effects: one positive, the other not. Positive: Ride quality is distinctly superior to the Ram’s rivals, particularly in the dirt. Negative: The coil-spring rear suspension limits towing capacity to 8700 pounds max. Which do you think our scoring prioritized, comfort or towing? Right, comfort.
Though the Dodge was only 40 pounds lighter than the F-150, it was quicker than either of its rivals, as you’d expect with a 390-hp Hemi under the hood and a 3.55:1 rear end. The downside of this, of course, was the worst fuel economy, 14 mpg. Even so, the thrust of that engine and the sounds that go with it are hard to resist. Add that to a solid platform and innovative design, and you have a winner. Our Pat Bedard went so far as to call it a “breakthrough truck.” He didn’t get much argument.
THE VERDICT: Dodge changes the state of the art—and the rules—in the full-size-pickup game.
2009 Dodge Ram 1500 Laramie 4×4 Crew Cab
390-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 5840 lb
Base/as-tested price: $44,935/$46,065
Payload: 960 lb
Towing, max, as-tested: 8450/6100 lb
Ground clearance: 9.0
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.4 sec
1/4 mile: 15.7 @ 91 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 190 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.73 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
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