With millions of possible configurations, full-size pickup trucks are the toughest vehicles to shop for. So we spent more than 100 hours researching over 100 configurations of trucks, consulting with the best outside experts, and driving every full-size pickup ourselves—many more than once, towing trailers, and going off-road—to reach our conclusion: The 2016 Ram 1500 Big Horn Crew Cab 4WD Hemi (when lightly optioned for about $47,000)1 is the best full-size pickup for most people who want a truck for personal use. All pickups today are very good at being “trucks,” but the Ram 1500, configured the way we have it, best balances its truck duties with being a vehicle you can drive comfortably and safely every day. The Ram offers a stout V8 engine, the smoothest ride, and the best handling, and it’s one of the few trucks to come with an “on-demand” four-wheel-drive (4WD) system that automatically switches between two- and four-wheel drive as needed. It also offers the easiest-to-use information and entertainment system you can get in any vehicle. Lastly, configured the way we like it, the Ram is competitively priced to similarly-equipped competitors.
The Wirecutter is experimenting with car recommendations, using research from the best sources and veteran car testers who aren’t satisfied with the status quo in automotive journalism. Let us know what you think of our work so far and sign up to be notified when we publish a new guide.
Full-size pickups like the Ram 1500 are the most popular kind of vehicle on sale in the US. That’s because they offer the most variety and versatility of any type of vehicle you can buy, making them most capable to handle any “what if” situation that can arise. However, they’re also big, heavy, fuel-inefficient, and expensive, especially when you’re not using them for what they were designed to do. Whether or not you really need (or just want) one really depends on your towing and hauling needs in particular: What do you need to tow or haul that can only fit in a truck’s bed, how much do those things weigh, and how often do you need that capability? If that’s more than a car, minivan, or crossover SUV can handle, you need a full-size pickup truck.
Here’s the good news: There are only six full-size, half-ton pickup trucks to choose from, and they’re all quite good. In particular, the four options from American-branded truck makers—our top pick, the Ram 1500, along with the Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado, and GMC Sierra—are extremely capable, well-rounded trucks. As we learned, picking the best one of them isn’t a slam dunk (because they’re all great). Rather, we chose by which is slightly better for the way we think most people will use it. The Toyota is also good and less expensive; Nissan’s Titan XD is in a slightly different class, and the regular Titan is too new for us to tell more about it.
Giving the Ram its toughest competition was the Ford F-150 XLT SuperCrew 4WD (also about $46,000).2 Its 2.7-liter turbocharged V6 offers the best EPA fuel economy ratings in this group and lively performance that diminishes little at higher altitudes. The F-150 has a very solid, quiet, and roomy cab. It wasn’t our top pick, though, because its real-world fuel economy doesn’t match its lofty ratings, and that modern aluminum body can cost more money and time to repair than a steel one. Plus, it comes with an awkward shifter and a less comfortable and stable ride when unloaded.
Those who need to haul or tow more weight than the Ram can handle may prefer the around-$47,0003 Chevrolet Silverado LT Crew Cab 4WD, for it has the best payload capacity for hauling and excellent towing capacity thanks to its powerful and refined 5.3-liter V8 engine. It’s also got an on-demand 4WD system like the Ram, sports a fresh front end, is relatively easy to get into and out of its cab and bed, and has good steering feel and the lowest roofline of this group in case you frequent parking garages. Chevy also offers a no-charge 3.42:1 axle ratio that raises its standard towing capacity by 3,000 pounds. However, the Silverado’s lethargic transmission, slightly awkward ergonomics, heavy feel, and higher price kept it from being our top pick.
If big-ticket luxury features, very good reliability, and strong performance are important, consider a Toyota Tundra Limited CrewMax 4WD. About $46,0004 gets you a strong 5.7-liter V8, nearly five tons of towing capacity, unmatched reliability, the smartest rear window in the industry, plus lots of luxury items like leather upholstery, a moonroof, and an amped-up audio system the others don’t have at this price. However, the Tundra is an old truck, which means it’s thirstier, louder, and less sophisticated, and it rides exactly like you expect an empty truck to: stiff and bouncy. For $4,0005 less, the SR5 version has the same abilities without all the luxurious amenities.
Despite there being millions of configurations to sift through, the group of full-size pickup trucks you have to choose from is actually quite small. There are just six: the Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-150, GMC Sierra (a corporate twin of the Silverado), 2015 Nissan Titan and 2016 Titan XD, Ram 1500, and Toyota Tundra. Just click on the name of the one you’re interested in; we have something to say about them all.
I’ve been driving pickups and breaking parts (and replacing or repairing said parts) for 40 years, documenting it for almost 30. I’ve gotten stuck in at least five states, towed in many more, developed loaded testing at truck magazines, introduced lighting evaluations a decade before Consumer Reports saw the light, and quit counting at a million miles driven last century. I’ve been published or appeared in more than 35 outlets; was the long-time editor-at-large at Truck Trend; served as technical editor at Four Wheeler, Trailer Life, and MotorHome magazines; and was an off-highway driving instructor.
Disclaimer: I do own a pickup, but it’s in a heavier weight class than these half-tons and 24 years old. Lastly, I hold no positions with any pickup manufacturers.
I also interviewed a few other truck experts for this guide, including Mike Magda, a founding editor of Truck Trend and Hot Truck as well as a contributor to many other outlets, and Mark Williams, the current editor of PickupTrucks.com. I also spoke with Allyson Harwood, Features Editor at Kelley Blue Book, who has many years of experience in truck magazines, and Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at Edmunds.com.
Full-size pickup trucks (including half-ton, three-quarter-ton, and one-ton models) offer the most variety and versatility of any vehicle type, but they’re generally big, heavy, fuel-inefficient, and expensive, especially if you’re not exploiting their abilities. One of the few kinds of vehicles that can haul and tow serious weight, they also offer true four-wheel drive as an option. And pickup trucks are the mechanical embodiment of machismo, with each one, particularly those from American brands, having its own fan club of loyal owners. For this guide, we focused only on half-ton models, which are the most popular.
Pickups are among the most flexible vehicles you can buy. The four-door crew-cab versions we considered are able to transport up to six people thanks to the persistent availability of their front bench seats. Their open beds can also carry big and bulky cargo that won’t fit in an SUV or most vans, and they can tow much heavier trailers than other passenger vehicles. Lastly, they offer the very broadest selection of configurations and features to fulfill any specific purpose or particular taste. That makes them ideal for do-it-yourselfers, outdoor recreationists, and weekend warriors.
How much choice is there when buying one of these full-size pickup trucks? Most pickups offer three cab sizes. A regular-cab version has two doors and no rear seat. Extended cabs have standard front doors, smaller rear doors, and a moderate rear seat; they’re typically named differently by brand with terms such as SuperCab, double cab, quad cab, or king cab. Crew cab versions have four full-size doors and rear seat room that’s on par or greater than in the front. You can also usually choose from three bed lengths—short (65 to 68 inches), standard (75 to 79 inches), and long (96 to 98 inches)–three engines, two- or four-wheel drive, and five to 10 trim levels. Their permutations are almost limitless, but if you think finding something to your liking will be easy, think again: There are plenty of restrictions in terms of which configuration offers what features.
Those new to pickups will find a few things immediately apparent after driving a full-size, four-door crew cab like the ones we considered for this guide. They are big: more than six-and-a-half feet wide (not counting their mirrors, side steps, or door handles), over six feet tall, and more than 19 feet long. They don’t fit in some drive-thrus, parking garages, or narrow alleyways. Most require the equivalent of four interstate lanes to make a U-turn. And when parking, you may not be able to tell where their bodywork corners are, particularly if you’re shorter than average. As today’s pickups can be fairly high off the ground, manufacturers have also had to offer available side steps, which we recommend, to improve access, and bed heights can be 2.5 to three feet off the ground, which can be a nuisance when loading heavy items.
Some good things come with being big, though. I’m more than six feet tall and can wear a Stetson in the front or rear seat of a full-size pickup truck, as well as bring three like-sized friends along without them complaining (about room at least). A truck’s height also offers a far-reaching view out, often over hedges or crop fields that line the highway. And your Great Dane can stand on the back seat with its nose outside, while the inevitable slobber collects in the easy-to-hose-out bed.
You’ll also make plenty of new friends because people will soon be aware you own a pickup and think of you—or more accurately, it—whenever they buy a major appliance, want to move furniture or car parts, buy trees or bulk fertilizer at the nursery, or want to tow their trailer.
Since the ability to do significant work requires a solid structure, pickups are made heavy with larger, stronger components than vehicles that only carry and/or tow a fraction of their own weight. That means things like a truck’s brakes, tires, and shock absorbers may cost more to service or require more frequent service.
Weight also affects how vehicles drive, so pickups do not stop or change direction as easily as cars. They can be, and often are, quick because of their surfeit of power, at least when not towing or hauling something heavy. But accelerating a heavy mass requires fuel, as does moving a big, blunt shape with numerous protrusions through the air at speed. Whether or not you’re using the best ability of your truck, you’ll be paying for at least part of it all of the time.
If you don’t need the open-bed cargo capacity of a pickup truck or ever tow more than, say, a small, 4,000-pound trailer, there are far more sensible vehicle choices. Mark Williams, editor of PickupTrucks.com, and Mike Magda both suggest that a pickup truck purchase involves future planning. Magda told us that at the time of purchase, many “buy the tow package and are impressed with the tow ratings because they ’hope’ someday to get a boat or travel trailer, and if you don’t have towing needs, the best reason for getting the tow package is resale value because the next buyer is either going to need it or ‘hope’ to get a boat or travel trailer.” Williams concurs, observing towing capacity is “not always the best top priority. Many are interested in pickups because of what a pickup COULD do in case a situation came up.”
That same sentiment applies to the go-anywhere aspect of a truck with true 4WD. The all-wheel-drive systems used in cars and crossover SUVs are mainly designed to provide extra traction on slippery roads by sending engine power to the front or rear wheels (and sometimes side to side), as needed. By contrast, a typical 4WD system in a truck provides additional capability. It makes all four wheels spin at the same speed (except for those with an ‘on-demand’ 4WD system, like our top pick) and provides a gear reduction to multiply the engine’s power about 2.6 times while slowing down the truck’s pace to more of a crawl. This is helpful when creeping through difficult off-road terrain, for clambering up and over things like steep hills or big boulders, and when powering through loose surfaces like sand or mud. Finally, these trucks have rear axles made of iron and steel, which are quite a bit more heavy and damage-resistant than the aluminum and stamped steel parts beneath cars and crossovers.
Every full-size pickup can also tow at least 4,000 pounds, but see our section on towing to calculate what a truck will really tow, not what the brochure or advertisement says it will. Magda suggests there’s a minimum “20-percent fudge factor, [in that you should get] a tow rating at least that much higher than the intended load.”
These trucks are rated to tow anywhere from 7,500 (F-150) to 9,800 (Tundra SR5) pounds as we configured them, provided you follow the requirements laid out in their owner’s manuals. The Ram, Ford, Chevy, and GMC trucks can tow a few thousand pounds more than that with some extra options ordered, while the Toyota Tundra maxes out in that range. The Nissan Titan will likely be competitive with the Tundra, while the diesel-powered Titan XD’s “class-plus” status gives it tow ratings on a par with those of the strongest half-ton pickups. To put those pounds in perspective, a 26-foot pleasure boat that weighs 5,000 pounds empty means you’ll be towing closer to 7,500 to 8,000 pounds when you add the weight of its trailer and the 75 gallons of gasoline it may carry. A 28-foot Airstream trailer is said to weigh about 6,600 pounds empty, but that’s before you add 60 pounds of propane fuel, 375 pounds of water, 175 pounds in added equipment, and the 1,000 pounds of fishing tackle, food, beverages, linens, and electronics you may bring. In either case, don’t forget to subtract the 800-pound tongue weight of the trailer from the truck’s payload rating. (We’ll teach you some guidelines for calculating a trailer’s tongue weight in our section about towing.)
The payload capacity of these full-size pickup trucks, or how much weight they can carry onboard, varies from fewer than 1,000 pounds to more than 3,000. In most cases that includes passengers, any cargo in the bed and cab, and a trailer’s tongue weight—basically any weight put on or in the truck, not just what’s placed in the bed. You might load a family of four, firewood, and a couple of five-gallon water jugs and be overweight before any trailer is attached. Alternately, you might load two cubic yards of sand and still have room for some plants. We configured trucks that can carry a payload of roughly 1,500 to 1,800 pounds, which could equal a svelte cowgirl and 1,400 pounds of hay or a quartet of 200-pounders and the tongue weight of a 7,000-pound trailer.
Every full-size truck will also carry a four-foot wide sheet of material flat on its bed floor between the rear wheel wells. Even short 5.5-foot beds like on the trucks we looked at can carry four-by-eight sheets, though they’ll protrude beyond the tailgate and may require a red flag be attached when on the road to alert other drivers.
These full-size pickup trucks are as rugged and handsome as a Hollywood western star and can make you feel like one behind the wheel. In terms of looks, they’re slab-sided and as aerodynamic as a house, with oversized design touches that make them look like small semi tractors. It seems every year one of their designs is tweaked to look more macho than the next, leading to some comically large grilles, badges, and fenders that make them appear as if they’re smothering their tiny wheels.
Loyalty runs deep with truck buyers, some having stuck with a particular brand of truck (or dealership) through generations of a family. Once they’re hooked on a brand, a loyal truck buyer wouldn’t switch for anything, even if his/her truck isn’t the best one; there’s always hope that one day it will be again (kind of like sports teams).
In addition to full-size half-ton pickups, we also looked at midsize and “heavy-duty” (those with 250/350/450 or 2500/3500 badges) trucks. Midsize trucks cost less and can be sufficient for lighter-duty demands, but their cabs are notably narrower and less suited for three-across seating, their towing capacity doesn’t match that of full-size trucks, and they don’t offer tow mirrors to see behind an eight-foot-plus-wide trailer. Heavy-duty pickups offer the same (or larger) cabs than the half-tons in this guide and they’re built heavier to tow and carry much greater loads. As a result, they cost more, use more gasoline, aren’t as maneuverable, and don’t ride as well when empty. These full-size half-ton pickups represent the sweet spot in between capability and livability.
Advertisements for pickup trucks are littered with numbers for maximum tow ratings and maximum payload capacities, which are inevitably linked to an asterisk or some fine print. The only asterisk to look for has a reference to SAE J2807, an industry standard developed so all tow ratings could be compared apples-to-apples. Toyota was the first to use it, and most truck manufacturers have adopted it (except Nissan). You can’t compare a current J2807 rating to an older tow rating that’s not quoted to that standard.
The asterisk or fine print may also mention that a truck has to be “properly equipped” to manage its maximum ratings or might specify that only a very particular model can do it. You should also know that maximum tow and payload ratings don’t often come in the same truck; the version that can tow the most usually isn’t also the one with the highest payload rating. Plus, the maximum payload ratings are usually calculated with no additional options beyond the mechanical components required; add the weight of any options and a few personal items and the actual payload capacity of these trucks is less than the numbers you see in advertisements.
As an extreme example, a 2015 Ram Rebel with its heavier air suspension and larger wheels and tires (plus some package and standalone options like a Luxury Group, larger fuel tank, and RamBox) weighs 5,900 pounds when full of fuel, which yields only a 900-pound payload. That’s a big drop from the “base” Crew Cab 4WD V8 model with a payload of 1,530 pounds, and a good illustration of why we kept options to a minimum. Though that example is more severe than most, don’t be surprised if your truck’s actual weight yields a payload capacity 100 to 200 pounds lower than the brochure estimates.
Here’s another example of how the max towing and payload numbers you see advertised are misleading. Most of these max ratings apply to regular cab (two-door), long-bed models, except for the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. But regular cabs account for only five percent of pickup truck sales, and fewer yet are spartan and have the required options to pull or haul the max numbers you see in commercials.
With so many choices, the Ford F-150 offers the widest range of hauling and towing capability, with payload ratings that range from 1,580 to 3,300 pounds and towing that goes from 5,100 to 12,200 pounds. If you average the rated payload at 2,440 pounds, 49 of the F-150’s 72 configurations carry less, while only 23 carry more. As we configured them, our trucks can carry anywhere from 50 percent (Ford) to 85 percent (2015 Titan) of their maximum advertised payload rating; for towing, the range was 62 percent (Ford) to 98 percent (2015 Titan). So just remember that those big numbers you see on TV are almost entirely irrelevant to the truck you’re actually going to buy.
There are ways to figure out what amount of weight your particular pickup can haul or tow safely. For your truck’s true payload capacity, you first need to weigh it with a full tank of fuel. This can be done for less than $20 at larger truck stops, moving and storage companies, and self-storage firms; just search for “truck scales” or “public scales” on Google. Then, subtract that number from the “GVWR” (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating), which is shown on a weight sticker on the door jamb or in the glovebox. What’s left over is how much weight you can add to the truck in the form of people, gear, cargo, and a trailer’s tongue weight (about 10-15 percent of the trailer weight—the trailer manufacturer will have a best-case number you should consider a minimum) and hitch hardware.
To figure out your truck’s true maximum towing number, again weigh it with a full tank of fuel and then get your truck’s “GCWR” (Gross Combined Weight Rating) from the dealer. Combine the weight of the truck, its occupants, and cargo (including the trailer tongue weight and hitch hardware) and then subtract that amount from the GCWR. That number, or the maximum tow rating from the manufacturer, whichever is lower, is the heaviest trailer your truck can tow. You should also check your manufacturer’s towing guide for any restrictions on the frontal area of a trailer; towing capacity often drops for extra large trailers that create too much wind resistance.
Here’s an example based on a 2016 Ram configured like ours (all values in pounds) with 200 pounds in cargo, a trailer weighing 8,010 pounds and a 200-pound driver.
As shown, with some cargo and no occupants besides the 200-pound driver, this rig is over its limit; The truck (6,100 with driver) and trailer (8,010) added together is 14,110 pounds, which is 310 pounds more than its GCWR. And with its payload consumed by 800 pounds in trailer tongue weight (10 percent of the trailer’s weight), 200 by cargo, and 200 by the driver, there is nothing left for friends or dogs.
We’re basing our inclusion of 4WD primarily on the fact that most people want it just in case they ever need it and it also increases a truck’s resale value. But choosing between two-wheel drive, which drives the rear wheels only, and four-wheel drive can be difficult. Arguments can be made for either choice; an honest assessment of your needs will bring the best results.
Mark Williams of PickupTrucks.com always suggests 4WD as an “extension of that ‘just in case’ philosophy” that guides many people to pickup trucks in the first place. It’s an inexpensive option, but foreshadowing even a single occasion where you need it and don’t have it could very well be all the convincing you need. For instance, get yourself stuck some distance from a paved road and the towing service bill could easily pay a big part of the 4WD option. If you tend to drive a lot in snowy or icy conditions, 4WD can help prevent you from getting stuck. We’re also assuming that, as a recreationist pickup truck buyer who might get stuck (literally) at a job site during the week, you’re more inclined to need 4WD than the mall-terrain vehicle at your outlet-store parking lot. We also agree with Mike Magda, who says, “If buyers expect to encounter sand, rugged trails, and slippery boat ramps, then 4WD should be strongly considered.”
Keep in mind, though, that 4WD helps only when you’re driving straight ahead, in reverse, or turning from a stop). It doesn’t help you brake in a shorter distance or give you more control when cornering, so you still need to be careful in slippery conditions. Your best aids for those situations are an antilock braking system and electronic stability control, which are standard on all new vehicles.
There’s also the potential value argument at resale. Our research indicates four-wheel drive pickups maintain a higher percentage of their purchase price than do two-wheel drive pickups, suggesting the smarter play is buying a 4WD and selling it if you never use it, rather than finding you need 4WD and taking the hit selling a 2WD.
Since 4WD adds weight and more moving parts, EPA ratings say 2WD trucks get slightly better fuel economy. When adding 4WD to our selection, the combined mpg numbers for the Ram and Tundra don’t change but the highway mpg drops by one. With the Silverado and Sierra, both the combined and highway mpg drops by one, but the city rating remains the same. We saw the biggest difference with the F-150, where mpg drops by one in city driving, three on the highway, and two in combined driving. Note that larger, more aggressive tires cost fuel, which is one big reason we stuck with the smallest wheels available. And remember that a truck’s EPA ratings don’t change if you get a different axle ratio or cab size, yet both have an effect on fuel economy (a crew cab adds as much weight as 4WD) and that you and your driving style will have a far greater effect on fuel economy.
If none of those things are on your radar and your towing will be limited to well-kept campgrounds, a truck with 2WD could be a fine choice as it will cost less to buy, operate, and maintain than a 4WD truck. Two-wheel-drive trucks also often handle and stop better, even in the snow, because that’s more a function of weight and having the right tire; 2WD trucks weigh less. A 2WD pickup on proper winter tires will be much safer in winter than a 4WD on its all-terrain or all-season tires, because while 4WD might accelerate better, the lighter 2WD will stop and often change direction better. And it stands to reason that a truck that takes longer to reach speed in the snow (or sand or mud) but stops much quicker is safer than the opposite.
Four-wheel drive also doesn’t change the size of the “contact patch” where a tire meets the ground; it merely allows you to go further into the mud or a snowbank before you get stuck. As Mike Magda notes, “When consumers understand that 4WD doesn’t glue the truck to the road, more intelligent decisions will be made. Thousands of owners in snowy climates manage productive lives with 2WD trucks.”
All six full-size pickup trucks that we looked at do come standard with 2WD which costs about $3,000 to $3,500 less than configurations with 4WD. Their 4WD systems come with at least two settings: 4WD high, which drives all four wheels equally on slippery or loose surfaces, and 4WD low, which adds another gear reduction for steeper roads, larger obstacles, or maximum power multiplication for heavy mud or sand. Some trucks have a third 4WD setting for “on-demand” or “automatic” use. In this position, the rear wheels are driven normally and front drive is applied and released automatically when needed without the driver taking any action. You can leave these trucks in “on-demand” or “auto” mode all of the time unless you need to select 4WD low for the low-gear reduction, or 2WD for, say, a smog test. One final 4WD advantage is that most of them offer a “neutral” setting that lets you safely tow your truck behind a larger motorhome—you know, just in case you win the lottery and the trailer you were considering turns into a motorcoach and your pickup truck becomes the dinghy behind it.
If such a thing even exists. Both Japanese-branded pickup trucks in this guide are assembled in the US, while some of the “American” ones are partly put together elsewhere. Identities aside, the Japanese trucks from Toyota and Nissan are often seen as inferior to their American counterparts. In some respects they are, as in how they offer fewer configurations. But in other respects like reliability and affordability, they excel.
Of all six brands of full-size half-ton pickups, only three are assembled solely in the US and they’re probably not the ones you’d guess: the Ford F-150 is built in multiple plants located in Michigan and Missouri, the Toyota Tundra’s plant is in Texas, and the Nissan Titan’s is in Tennessee. The Ram, Silverado, and Sierra are built in production plants in the US and Mexico, and in the recent past some “domestic” pickups have been assembled in Canada. Most of the gasoline engines are built in the US, while Ford builds some in Canada and Ram’s diesel comes from Italy. Their transmissions are US-sourced, except for some Ram units from Germany and some Titan units from Japan. So if what makes a truck American is where its parts come from and where it’s assembled, the most red, white, and blue of them all is the Toyota Tundra.
However, what makes any vehicle American is more than just those two things. It also includes factors such as where it was developed, where the profits it makes go, and where its manufacturer is headquartered. The American University School of Business’s Kogod Auto Index considers 13 parameters from headquarters location to components to profit margin and capital, and the Ford F-150’s index of 82.5 tops the list for full-size pickup trucks, with the Toyota Tundra—sharing the same 70 percent of U.S. parts content—second at 76. Next is the Ram 1500 (61 percent, 74.5 index), Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra (45 percent, 72.5 index), and 2015 Nissan Titan (50 percent, 59 index).
There are only two generalizations that can be said with confidence regarding “Japanese” pickups, the Tundra and Titan. One, the companies make fewer of them and there are fewer versions to choose from. Their lower number of sales, due in part because there are far fewer permutations and a la carte choices, means they are redesigned much less frequently so they feel less refined, perhaps even dated, compared to the domestic trucks. They also don’t offer the special “Max” versions that claim bragging rights for towing, payload capacity, or power. That said, they also cost thousands of dollars less because of it.
Note that this does not apply to the 2016 Nissan Titan XD, which occupies a niche between half-ton pickups (like the ones in this guide) and bigger, stronger three-quarter-ton pickups.
The second generalization is that, if you accept Consumer Reports’ reliability data as accurate, which we do, it’s clear that pickup trucks from Japan have superior reliability. The Tundra is rated well above average for reliability by Consumer Reports, with the F-150 above average, the Ram 1500 average, and the Silverado and Sierra far below average. CR didn’t have enough data to rate the Titan.
As we configured them, the Japanese-branded trucks also cost significantly less. In our research, the Tundra and the outgoing 2015 Titan cost about $4,000 to $4,500 less than the American-brand trucks when similarly equipped the way we have them configured. So if cost is high on your priority list and you can live with their lower fuel economy and less refinement, do consider the Nissan and Toyota because they are both very capable pickup trucks. Just know going in that you’re paying less not because these trucks come from a different country, but rather because you’ve got a narrower spectrum of available models and options to choose from, less contemporary designs and electronics, and subpar refinement.
We pored over thousands of data tables so you don’t have to, debated amongst ourselves, gathered outside counsel from other experts, and drove virtually every pickup with more than two doors—some more than once and many back-to-back—to determine which is the best full-size pickup for personal use.
While there are a plethora of available configurations among full-size, half-ton pickups, there are only six actual models from which to choose: the Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-150, GMC Sierra (a corporate twin of the Silverado), 2015 Nissan Titan, Ram 1500, and Toyota Tundra. We didn’t consider midsize pickups like the Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon, and Toyota Tacoma because they’re shy on cabin room and towing capacity, although they continue to grow in popularity, and we’ll devote a full guide to them in the future. We also didn’t include the heavier-duty three-quarter- and one-ton versions of these models, which are primarily intended for commercial use and heavy towing. They often have the same cab as these half-tons, but they are pricier and even thirstier with fuel; have a stiffer, less comfortable ride; and are physically larger in most measures. Again, we plan to have a full guide devoted to them in the future.
Since pickup trucks are built to haul and tow, we started with this data, and there’s a lot of it (for example, the F-150’s payload chart alone lists more than 70 configurations). We checked Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy estimates against real-world use on fuelly.com and the EPA’s data, and we looked at longterm tests from enthusiast magazines like AutoWeek and non-enthusiast sources like Consumer Reports. Safety data was gathered from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, while Kelley Blue Book supplied projected ownership costs across five years.
Using manufacturer website “build and price” tools, we then configured the trucks as closely as possible; the same central US zip code was used for all pricing and cost-to-own data and every truck was built with a plain white exterior and black or dark grey interior. We based our trim and equipment decisions on what a pickup legitimately needs rather than loading them with the luxury features we all wish we could afford. And they also had to be capable of pulling a 5,000-to-6,000-pound trailer, like a 21-foot wakeboarding boat (without ballast) or a lightweight, 22-foot, single-slide travel trailer.
I also reviewed tests and notes on all of the current-generation pickups I’ve driven in the last few years. Since you might not agree with our opinions, I backed them up scouring general-interest and enthusiast automotive websites and magazines, including but not limited to Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, Motor Trend, Car and Driver, and Consumer Reports.
Then we drove them—all of them. Most were loaned to us by their manufacturers for a week, sometimes longer, and in many instances our top contenders were driven back-to-back on the same roads and conditions. We towed the same ugly dump trailer with the different trucks, clambered around and underneath each, and we washed and vacuumed them, because you can learn quite a bit from those activities—especially if you’re inclined to lose things inside.
Only then were we prepared to name the 2016 Ram 1500 Big Horn our top pick.
There are nearly 40 trim levels among these six full-size pickups, not including subsets. We asked a pair of Detroit-based manufacturers how many permutations of their full-size pickup truck is possible and one replied simply, “Millions,” while the other said, “Dude. I’ll ask. It will be crazy.” The base model trims are only suitable for fleet buyers and customizers looking for absolute basics like air conditioning and an AM/FM radio, and many don’t offer features we consider necessary. At the other extreme, the top trims often come with larger engines you don’t need, enough leather and wood to make a Lexus jealous, every modern convenience you could ever want, and a price tag in the $60,000 to $70,000 range. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle at about $40,000 to $50,000, which is where we spent dozens of hours researching to find the best choice. Without opening the value-versus-worth can of worms, we find that middle trims give you the best truck for the buck.
In these trims you’ll get cloth seats, carpet on the floor, air conditioning, an average audio system, and power windows, door locks, and mirrors. A “value” or “convenience” option package often adds a power driver’s seat or telescoping steering column (they all have tilt). And since trucks keep getting taller, we configured them all with side steps and a backup camera. We did the same for a spray-in bedliner, which provides corrosion prevention, a quieter load ride, and more grip (because wet, painted surfaces are rather slippery). We specified Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, believing if you must answer the phone, hands-free is safer, and a larger touchscreen for easier use by driver and passenger that’s usually accompanied by more inputs (USB, SD card, etc.). We also looked for alloy wheels in the smallest diameter available (no rust, less weight) and a split-bench front seat that permits six-passenger seating.
Curiously, only half the trucks came with a receiver hitch, and only the Tundra comes standard with a towing package. Often a truck will offer more than one towing package, from basic to maximum, and the maximum trailer weight typically goes up with the price and level of the tow package. There is no standard on what’s included on a tow pack and what is not; they should include things like greater cooling capacity, a larger battery and/or alternator, dedicated wiring, trailer-plugs, a hitch, larger mirrors with a separate wide-angle element that slides out to “see” past an 8.5-foot wide trailer, and different mechanical components like axles and springs. On trucks that offered two or more trailering packages, we chose moderately, believing that 10,000-to-12,000-pound trailers are better pulled behind larger, stronger three-quarter ton pickups.
Some towing packages include an integrated trailer-brake controller (ITBC), while others offer it as a standalone option. An integrated brake controller delivers electrical current to activate the electric brakes (and most electric-over-hydraulic brakes) on the trailer itself. Since an ITBC is part of the truck and has all of the truck’s braking system input available to it, the braking action of truck and trailer together is smoother, more precise, and better than most aftermarket trailer brake controllers. And an ITBC is covered under your truck’s warranty. Although you may not need an ITBC for a trailer with surge brakes, which apply hydraulic brake pressure to a trailer’s brakes as the weight of the trailer pushes against the tow ball, we recommend always ordering your truck with this technology. We configured all of the trucks in this guide with one to increase their resale value, if nothing else.
Most full-size pickup trucks offer a choice of six- or eight-cylinder engines, and one, the Ram 1500, a diesel, as well. Any of these engines can get the job done, though normally aspirated V6 engines make a lot of noise when towing near their maximum limit and generally have to work a lot harder. Mike Magda, founding editor of Truck Trend and Hot Truck, would “Never consider a base [V6] engine for a crew [four-door] cab that would serve as a family or personal pickup, regardless of the fuel economy.” We agree, and chose V8 or V8-equivalent engines for every truck we considered.
Every full-size pickup truck comes with an automatic transmission, though you might have a choice of six or eight gears. And each comes standard with rear-wheel drive and the option of adding 4WD, typically at the expense of $3,000 and a five to 10 percent increase in fuel consumption. Some 4WD pickups, like our top pick Ram 1500, offer an “auto” or “on-demand” setting that automatically switches between two- and four-wheel drive as needed, much like the AWD systems used in cars and crossovers; otherwise, you have to manually turn 4WD on and off yourself in most pickup trucks. See “You probably want 4WD” above for more info.
Modern safety systems are rare at these trim levels—only the Tundra Limited and F-150 offer blind-spot and rear cross-path warning systems. Upper trim levels of the F-150, Silverado, and Sierra, however, do offer forward-collision and lane-departure warning, and the F-150 King Ranch is the only pickup truck that offers such advanced systems as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and active park assist. Unfortunately, the minimum cost for that configuration is about $61,000.6
A few features are unique to certain brands. For instance, the Toyota Tundra has standard front knee airbags. The Ford F-150 has MyKey, which lets you set limits on things like vehicle speed and audio volume if you give the truck to your kid or coworker to drive, and it has optional inflatable rear seatbelts that we skipped because they can be difficult for a child to use or to secure a child seat with. The Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra come with General Motors’ well-established OnStar driver assistance/telematics system, which offers a suite of emergency, security, navigation, and remote diagnostic services, as well as a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. The Nissan Titan offers a lockable bed storage for things like snow chains, a tow ball, or straps. Lastly, our top pick Ram 1500 offers exclusive options like a RamBox bed with lockable bins in the bed sides, its aforementioned fuel-efficient diesel engine, and the group’s only available air suspension.
The 2016 Ram 1500 Big Horn Crew Cab 4WD Hemi truck is the best full-size pickup for personal use. That’s because, of all the trucks we looked at, the Ram does the best job of balancing work-truck capabilities with a comfortable, livable experience that’s well appreciated when used every day. The Ram tows and hauls as well as any pickup, yet its unique suspension gives it the smoothest ride of the group. Plus its automatic, on-demand 4WD system combines the all-wheel-drive convenience of a crossover with the true 4WD capability of a big SUV. The Ram also comes with a strong V8 engine for towing. Then there’s Uconnect, the Ram’s information and entertainment system— arguably the easiest to use in the industry. Lastly, the version we picked is competitively priced at right under $46,0007 with a few options.
Though all pickups have presence, the Ram’s imposing grille and contours garner attention: I frequent an office complex and occasionally see a stunning gal who never commented on any car I was driving, whether it was a Bentley luxury sedan, exotic sports car, or numerous more mundane offerings, until I drove up in a Ram. She immediately walked over with a hearty “nice truck” and wanted a closer look. Anecdotal though it might be, our experience suggests more people respond positively to the Ram’s bold looks than any other truck.
The thing about these five full-size pickup trucks is that all of them are very good trucks. Most of the time, a pickup’s “truckness” is measured by how much it can tow behind it and haul in its bed and cab. The Ram holds its own in this area, but that’s not where it excels. The Ram 1500 we configured, a Big Horn model with a crew cab (four full doors) and 4WD, can tow 8,010 pounds, which is average in this group; the maximum tow ratings for the others we compared range from 7,500 for the Ford F-150 XLT SuperCrew Short Bed to 9,800 for the Toyota Tundra SR5 CrewMax. (Of course, disregarding any budget constraints, the Ford, Chevy, and GMC pickups could all be equipped to tow 11,800 pounds.)
Despite that middling rating, the Ram can tow. Changing the Ram’s axle ratio from a 3.21:1 to 3.92:1—a mere $50 factory option—bumps its tow rating to more than 10,000 pounds. A significant increase like that on the other trucks will cost anywhere from $750 to more than $3,000 extra. You could choose that $50 axle ratio option simply for faster acceleration, but with generous power from the V8 engine and eight speeds in the transmission, grunt is not an issue. Do note that if most of your driving is level highway cruising, the 3.92:1 axle ratio will have a small fuel economy penalty, but we’ve also seen instances where overall there’s a negligible change.
As equipped, our Ram’s rated payload capacity—how much weight it can carry including people and their gear, what’s in the bed, and the tongue weight of a trailer—is 1,520 pounds. That’s the lowest in this group, ranging anywhere from 10 pounds fewer than the Toyota Limited to about 300 pounds fewer than the Chevy and GMC trucks. For those planning on routinely carrying heavier loads or towing a larger trailer, those few hundred pounds could be significant, but for most people who don’t use the maximum capacity of their truck everyday, the Ram will easily get the job done. For instance, it can still safely carry a family of four while hauling a 7,000-pound boat or trailer. If you do haul loads every day that come close to the maximum capacity of these half-ton pickups, you should probably consider a bigger and more robust three-quarter-ton, heavy-duty pickup anyway.
Of all the tests and literature we reviewed, the vast majority rated the Ram 1500’s ride as the best in this group of pickup trucks. Some go so far as to say it rides like a car, but it’s more accurate to say it rides like a five-year-old car where other trucks ride like 15-year-old cars…or like, well, trucks. Ram’s unique, rear coil-sprung suspension is similar to that used in luxury SUVs like the GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade. All the other pickups in this group use more basic leaf-spring suspensions, which are fine for work duties but deliver a stiffer ride and less stable handling. Whether the Ram rides on its standard coil springs or optional air springs (a $1,700 option that only the Ram offers but wasn’t on our configuration), this ride is as cushy as it gets for a full-size pickup truck.
Some people think a truck needs to ride rough to maintain its “truck-ness” and macho persona, but a gentler ride will pay off in less driver and passenger fatigue, fewer squeaks and rattles over time, and less noise. We went one better in configuring our Ram with smaller 17-inch wheels instead of the standard 20-inch ones you see in our pictures. These help the ride because they weigh less, shrug off potholes and trail obstacles better, cost less to replace, and, in most applications, better match the full-size spare.
Further aiding this better-than-average ride, the Ram 1500, Chevy Silverado, and GMC Sierra are the only pickups at this price with a four-wheel-drive system that includes an “auto” or on-highway setting. Like most all-wheel-drive cars, crossovers, and SUVs, this auto setting means the vehicle finds the best traction automatically, without the driver having to manually change a setting. Remember, however, that it helps only when accelerating—steering and braking rely on the tires, and 4WD pickup trucks don’t do either of those things any better than 2WD ones. The Tundra does not offer an “auto” 4WD setting, and the F-150 requires purchase of a more expensive trim to get it.
The Ram 1500’s base engine is a 305-horsepower 3.6-liter V6. Since the transmission’s eight speeds can do more with that power than the six-speed transmissions in the other trucks, this combination can do more than you think. Were we rarely towing or doing so only with a low weight on level ground, we’d strongly consider it. However, since many other kinds of vehicles these days—crossovers, minivans, even some robust cars—can tow small trailers, we chose the Ram’s optional 5.7-liter “Hemi” V8 for about $1,600 more; the engine itself is about two-thirds of that cost while a stronger eight-speed transmission commands the other third. With the V8, the Ram’s payload drops by 120 pounds (because the engine and upgraded transmission are heavier) to 1,520, while its towing capacity with the same axle ratio climbs by more than 3,800 pounds to 8,010. And, of course, its fuel economy ratings drop from 19 mpg in combined city/highway driving (16 mpg in the city, 23 on the highway) to 17, 15, and 21 mpg, respectively.
The 5.7-liter V8 makes 395 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque, which is more than sufficient; Ram’s heavier-duty 2500 and 3500 trucks actually make do with less power from the same engine. Relatively speaking, the Ram’s V8 is the most powerful engine in this group. The next most powerful is the upcoming 2016 Titan’s 5.6-liter V8, which generates 390 hp and 401 pound-feet of torque, followed by the Toyota Tundra’s 5.7-liter V8 (381/401), the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra’s 5.3-liter V8 (355/383), and the Ford F-150’s turbocharged 2.7-liter V6 (325/375). However, don’t get lost in the numbers, as the Toyota is often quicker than the Ram, Chevy, and GMC trucks.
The Ram 1500’s engine is V8-smooth, although the 5.3-liter V8 that General Motors uses in the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra is a bit more refined and makes some classic V8 sounds to match those pickups’ macho images. The Ram 5.7 engine, like the GM 5.3, can switch off half its cylinders under light load conditions to save some fuel when a lot of power isn’t needed, typically noticed only by those with a glass ass. There is no action required of the driver, and these systems do not operate at idle or very low engine speeds because they would feel too rough. The Ram’s engine/transmission marriage is as good as any of its competitors, and the two extra gears in its transmission make acceleration from a stop feel effortless.
On the downside, the Ram 1500’s 5.7-liter V8, even with eight gears to work with, is still thirsty, and Ram recommends mid-grade unleaded gasoline. In terms of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, the Ram 1500 beats the Tundra and 2015 Titan handily, but it’s slightly lower than the others as we’ve configured them. On paper, the Ram gets a combined 17 miles per gallon, 15 in the city, and 21 on the highway, estimated by the EPA. That’s about one to two mpg behind the Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado, and GMC Sierra, and two to three more than the Toyota Tundra, which makes it about as average as you can get. The Ford F-150, with its lighter aluminum body and turbocharged V6 engine, leads the pack with a 20-mpg combined rating, three more than the Ram. But frankly, owners and experts have been having a hard time reaching that number in the real world, especially when asking the F-150 to do real work. After all, the biggest factor in fuel economy, of course, is you and how you drive. All the engines are good, and we’re happy to pay the Ram’s minor fuel-cost penalty to get the most powerful engine here and its matching eight-speed automatic.
Ram also offers a 1500 EcoDiesel model that’s unique in this group of trucks, and its engine makes it the clear leader in full-size fuel economy. It’s rated at 22 mpg combined, 19 in the city, and 27 on the highway (in our 4WD configuration) and owners are reporting even better numbers in real-world applications. We didn’t choose it for our configuration because of its higher price, which is $3,120 more than the V8 we chose. Also, since the cost of diesel varies widely state to state, it’s not possible to say with certainty that you’ll spend less on fuel with this engine, even with its big bump in fuel economy.
Our Big Horn Ram 1500 came with the automaker’s much-loved Uconnect 8.4A system, which includes an 8.4-inch touchscreen display for operating the stereo and climate control system, syncs with your smartphone or music device, and lets you set myriad truck functions and personalize how you prefer things. The “A” stands for Access, which lets your smartphone do the work through the data plan you already have, and it can turn the truck into a 3G hotspot the same way.
Uconnect is considerably more user-friendly than other, similar information and entertainment systems. It’s best known for having the simplest, most easy-to-use interface, and it’s lightning quick in executing your commands. The Ram’s 8.4-inch dash screen is the largest you can get in any pickup truck, easily beating the others that range from 7 to 8.1 inches. Its virtual screen controls include large, movable “tiles” that are easy to hit. And it also has redundant, physical controls below the screen so you can do many things without using the screen at all (touching the right place on a screen can be challenging when you’re bounding along a dirt road).
Speaking of which, the Detroit Free Press says “Chrysler’s voice-recognition system for phone, audio and navigation is one of the industry’s best.” Note that says “industry,” not merely among pickup trucks. Edmunds.com’s Brent Romans outlines Five Reasons Why Uconnect Rocks, and they apply whether it has nav or not. Although Ford’s new-for-2016 Blackberry QNX-powered Sync3 has brought it on par with Uconnect, we’ve found no publication naming it superior to the lightly-updated-for-2016 Uconnect.
There’s also an 8.4AN system that adds navigation and costs $500 more, but we skipped it because most smartphones already have navigation and can be updated more frequently and less expensively. And there’s only one potential drawback of Uconnect we found: the image for the rearview camera does not display a centerline to mark where a tow ball will meet a trailer, but we could see the tow ball in the image.
Finally, despite pickups being generally pricy and offered with an overwhelming number of options, the Ram 1500 is a fair value when you choose those options carefully. Car Guru’s Aaron Cole concurs “The Ram 1500 still provides a good value-for-money proposition, if only because a modestly equipped Ram is probably the best pick. There are countless ways to configure a Ram 1500, but regardless of the trim or spec, it can hold up to much newer competition.”
The Big Horn version we chose to consider is one of 12 trim levels and the fifth least expensive of the bunch. The Crew Cab version with 4WD and a short five-foot, seven-inch bed starts at a little over $43,000. That’s about $2,300 more than the SLT trim below it, but it adds useful features like a hitch, the on-demand “auto” 4WD system, a power driver’s seat, 115-volt outlet, 8.4A Uconnect, rear-view camera, 7-inch EVIC configurable dash display, some other small conveniences, and a far larger slate of other available options to pick from. To our Big Horn, we added options like the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 ($1,150) that also required an upgraded eight-speed transmission ($500), the trailer towing mirror and brake control group ($410), running boards ($600), and a spray-in bedliner ($475) for a total price of nearly $47,200. However, we recommend downgrading the standard 20-inch wheels to 17-inch versions to put $500 back in your pocket, which brings the cost to a little over $46,500.8
That makes the Ram 1500, as we configured it, about the same price as a similarly equipped Ford F-150 XLT, which goes for a little under $46,500,9 and a few hundred dollars more than a Toyota Tundra Limited at just over $46,000.10 It’s also about $1,000 less expensive than a similar Silverado and $1,000 less than a Sierra, while the older, less capable, and less sophisticated Titan is $4,000 lower, respectively.
You’d think with literally thousands of permutations that one of these pickups would be perfect, but that’s not what we found. Like the rest, the Ram 1500 isn’t perfect; our gripes include the inexplicable lack of a telescoping steering column, no damped or assisted tailgate option, a smaller middle seat in its rear bench, the fact Ram recommends mid-grade fuel for its engine, and its reliability ratings, which are below the Tundra, Titan, and most cars.
The Ram 1500 does not offer a telescoping steering column, which may limit the ability of shorter or taller-than-average drivers to get comfortable behind the wheel. Or it may require some to sit more upright than they like. Some of the issue could be mitigated with the Ram’s power adjustable pedal option, but it’s not available for our truck—only more expensive trim levels.
The Ram 1500’s tailgate is also not damped or assisted, as are those on the Silverado, Sierra and Tundra. As such, it feels heavier to lift and close than some and will drop with a thud if you just pull the release. The rear seat cushion is also shorter in the middle section and the headrest is smaller than the outboard headrests; it’ll be fine for kids and child seats facing fore or aft, but not so comfortable for adults.
Finally, Ram recommends mid-grade unleaded gasoline that costs a few cents more per gallon than regular. We’ve run them on regular, mid-grade, and premium unleaded but defer to Ram’s recommendation. Most of the engines we considered in the other trucks recommend regular fuel, but the F-150’s turbocharged engine requires even more expensive premium fuel for when it’s towing, and the Silverado/Sierra’s optional 6.2-liter V8 requires premium all the time.
This generation of the Ram pickup first appeared as a 2009 model. It was refreshed in 2013 and the diesel engine option was added in 2014. With so many derivatives, only a few experts have driven the truck exactly as we configured it, but apart from comments about the diesel engine, the basics apply across the board.
It’s no surprise that many remark positively on the Ram 1500’s balanced nature and superior ride quality. Also, having driven both and talked to others who have, the air suspension option doesn’t have much effect in this regard unless the truck is fully loaded. Said Car & Driver, “In fact, it rides so well that it calls into question why the others are sticking with leaf springs for the relatively light duties that customers encounter.” Kelley Blue Book relates the ride to another vehicle class, noting the Ram’s unique rear suspension “…absorbs rough pavement rather than deflecting it. In other words it rides more like a body-on-frame SUV (e.g. Ford Expedition, Cadillac Escalade, Lexus LX570) than a pickup.”
The Ram 1500 is US News & World Report’s Best Fullsize Pickup for the Money, based on positive reviews and long-term ownership costs, and the site’s highest-scoring full-size pickup. Edmunds.com concurred, giving the Ram 1500 an A grade and its top rating, as well as performing a longterm test in excess of 40,000 miles. They said, “From its quiet cabin to its class-leading ride quality, this is a truck you can comfortably drive all day.” Said Motor Trend of their diesel Ram in a $53,000-pickup comparison test, “It wasn’t quite as quiet inside as the Chevrolet and it wasn’t as fast as the Ford, but it was the truck we agreed we’d want to drive on a regular basis.”
Consumer Reports evaluated a Ram very similar to ours and the diesel and gasoline versions both landed in the top of their ratings. “This truck may be Ram-tough,” they said, “but it’s the strong, silent type. It’s as tranquil inside as the impressive Chrysler 300.” They further noted, “Reliability of the gasoline-powered Ram has been good, allowing us to recommend it.”
When PickupTrucks.com did their 2013 Light-Duty Challenge, judges said the new Ram Big Horn “…was a strong player winning both the interior and overall value categories, and finishing second in the exterior section behind the stylish GMC. If the Ram 1500 had one obvious weakness, it was in our calculated payload and towing capacity events. In those two categories, the Ram gave up the most points of any other competitor in any event, and with that huge distance to make up, it couldn’t close the gap enough on the Ford no matter how well it performed in the other events. In the end, this truck missed the tape by a nose.” Let us point out, though, that if the Ram had the $50 axle ratio option, it would very probably have won that test on points.
While more awards are offered every year, the Ram has assembled a sizable trophy case so far that includes (but isn’t limited to) the following:
Sporting innovative aluminum bodywork and a new, turbocharged V6 engine, the Ford F-150 XLT SuperCrew 4WD is the lightest truck in our group, has the best fuel economy, offers excellent performance, and is a good value for around $46,00012 the way we have it configured. It also has a quiet, solid, and spacious interior and can handle its pickup truck chores as well as any other. It missed being our top pick, though, because its ride isn’t as comfortable as the Ram’s, auto 4WD is restricted to more expensive trims, the base info and entertainment system is a pain to operate, and reports tell us that this engine’s superior fuel economy is difficult to achieve in the real world. Lastly, all that innovative aluminum is probably going to increase the cost of insurance as well as take longer and cost more to fix than traditional steel.
The F-150’s new turbocharged 2.7-liter V6 “EcoBoost” engine idles smoothly, has good response, and includes auto start/stop technology to switch the engine off at traffic lights when certain parameters are met (battery charge, operating temperature, AC demand, etc.). Despite having two fewer cylinders than the other trucks’ V8 engines, the F-150’s EcoBoost V6 delivers V8-like power of 325 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque, which is about what the Nissan Titan’s twice-as-large V8 makes. Still, the Ford’s turbo V6 is the weakest engine here on paper, and far behind the Ram 1500’s V8 that makes 395 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque, the most power and torque of any engine in this collection. But a turbocharged engine has other advantages; it’s better at maintaining its performance at high altitudes and, since it delivers its max power only when needed, an empty F-150 can deliver good fuel economy. However, if you work it, you could use as much gas as the others; Motor Trend and others have called the engine “Eco-or-Boost” and its fuel economy “elusive.”
The lighter aluminum bodywork contributes to the F-150 being about 500 pounds lighter than the Ram and Silverado/Sierra, 800 less than the Tundra, and 650 less than a similarly configured 2014 F-150. However, remember that these weights are manufacturer-supplied for base-model, no-option trucks; when Car & Driver tested the higher-trim, big-engine models, the F-150 had only an 81-pound advantage on the Silverado. Less truck weight means there’s more weight the engine can tow, so our F-150 hauls a respectable 1,630 pounds and can tow a 7,500-pound trailer, which is 110 pounds more and 500 pounds less than the Ram 1500, respectively. Ford’s new backup trailer assistant handles steering for you while backing a trailer, but don’t hop out to look.
Both can increase their tow ratings with further options, but where Ram only charges an extra $50 to increase its towing to above 10,000 pounds, Ford asks for an extra $1,500. A lighter weight also means less routine wear on things like tires and brakes, which potentially lowers your maintenance costs over time. However, the ability to carry a third of its own weight makes the ride a bit jittery, especially with just one or two people on board.
The F-150’s cab is the roomiest, with the largest rear seat of the bunch and a completely flat rear floor that’s minus the mild driveshaft hump in the others. It’s also so quiet that three publications we found used “tomb” in their description. The controls are logically arranged and well put together, although the degree of hard plastic surfaces typical in this type of vehicle might disappoint buyers forking out $45,000 or more. The standard Sync with MyFordTouch audio/phone/control interface can be optioned up to the new, far superior Sync3; though we can’t say—nor find anyone else who’s said—if it’s better than Ram’s Uconnect until we get more time with both, that upgrade will be the best $450 you spend on an F-150.
For all its good points, the F-150 missed out on being our top pick for a number of reasons, the main one being questions surrounding its new aluminum body. Both Edmunds and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have intentionally damaged a new F-150, and the results indicate the aluminum body requires both more time and more money for repairs relative to its steel-bodied predecessor. Insurance rates didn’t reflect this when our data was gathered, but an F-150 could also potentially cost more to insure. Other negatives: it needs a truck-width more space than a Ram for a U-turn; it doesn’t offer an on-demand/auto 4WD system or any of its available, segment-leading safety equipment on this trim level; and the shifter’s sloppiness frequently annoyed us.
For those hauling or towing more weight, the Chevrolet Silverado LT Crew Cab 4WD for about $47,50013 has the best payload and excellent towing capacity thanks to its powerful and refined 5.3-liter V8. Like the GMC Sierra and Toyota Tundra, it’s also got a damped and easy-to-lift tailgate, as well as good steering feel, the lowest roofline of this group in case you frequent parking garages, and a no-charge 3.42:1 axle ratio that raises its towing capacity 3,000 pounds more than the standard ratio. However, the Silverado’s lethargic transmission, slightly awkward ergonomics, and higher price kept it from being our top pick.
With an as-configured payload of 1,800 pounds and tow rating of 9,200 pounds, the Silverado is well balanced for work. For instance, it could tow its maximum trailer weight and, assuming a 10 percent tongue weight for the trailer, still carry 900 pounds of people and cargo. That’s something only its corporate twin, the GMC Sierra, and the Nissan Titan can do. The Silverado and Sierra also offer their highest towing and payload ratings in their full, four-door cab configurations, which is unusual in full-size pickups.
The Silverado’s 355-horsepower, 5.3-liter V8 engine is smooth and refined. It switches off half its cylinders when not needed for better fuel economy, and unless you have a very sensitive backside or are listening for it, the only way you’ll know when it happens is the small “V4” dash icon that lights up. That helps it achieve a very good fuel economy rating of 22 miles per gallon on the highway, which is second overall and one mpg behind the Ford F-150, with its smaller, turbocharged EcoBoost 2.7-liter V6 engine. In fact, some testers have found it more efficient in the real world than Ford’s high-tech V6.
The Silverado (and GMC Sierra) have the greatest measured front seat head and legroom, and are also good for smaller individuals. A slightly lower roofline makes scraping ice off the windshield easier (and allows access to more parking structures) and its entry height isn’t too much of a climb. Plus, the Silverado comes standard with steps in the rear bumper corners and a grab-pocket on the side of the bed for easier clambering in and out, whether the tailgate is up or down. Lastly, its standard damped-and-assisted tailgate is super easy to open and close; even a kid can do it without help.
As we configured it, the Silverado offers some conveniences many of the other trucks don’t, including dual-zone automatic climate control, an on-demand 4WD system (like the one in our top pick), tow hooks, a limited-slip differential (which comes with the tow pack), 4G wifi-hotspot ability, and OnStar services. The MyLink entertainment/phone system includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration that really is plug-and-play, and if you choose a console model, wireless charging with compatible phones is available.
The Silverado did not make our top pick, though, because its big payload capacity takes a toll on ride quality, generating the typical pickup stiffness unless it’s well loaded. The transmission/engine controls are also programmed for fuel economy, so it gets to its top gear as soon as possible and stays there as long as possible, which makes it feel like you have to bury the gas pedal to get it to downshift; an eight-speed automatic ameliorates some of this but is offered only with the 6.2-liter V8 or 5.3-liter in LTZ and higher trim levels. This truck also feels heavy, though we know some people prefer that. Some testers also don’t like the way its controls are laid out because the steering wheel, gauges, and center console are all shifted slightly to the right. Finally, the Silverado is the second-priciest truck here and doesn’t have the apparent value of some others like our top pick Ram 1500.
The Tundra Limited CrewMax 4WD gives you a strong powertrain, a standard towing package with integrated brake controller, unmatched reliability, a smart rear window, and some premium features for about $46,000,14 which is notably more money than only the 2015 Nissan Titan. If you can do without the big-buck features like leather seats, a sunroof, and navigation, the SR5 CrewMax model delivers the same functional truck for about $4,00015 less. The Tundra wasn’t our choice for top pick, though, because it feels dated, rides firmly (feeling like a truck from 10 years ago), doesn’t offer a front bench seat in this Limited trim, and is fuel thirsty. (It does have the largest fuel tank, though, so cruising range is uncompromised.) It’s louder than most and unsophisticated.
With a 381-horsepower 5.7-liter V8, the Tundra is a strong performer that’s often quicker than the other trucks despite being the heaviest in this group. Its engine/transmission marriage is also a good one whether you’re towing or not, the shifter being a model of simplicity to use (it follows an easy-to-navigate groove in the console and has no buttons to activate things like manual +/- shifting).
The Tundra Limited’s tow rating is 9,200 pounds, but with a payload rating of 1,500-odd-pounds, towing a trailer that big with 10 percent of its weight on the hitch leaves only about 580 pounds for both people and cargo. It’s better to think of the Tundra in terms of towing 7,000- to 8,000-pound trailers. And unlike the “American” brands, the Tundra does not offer an integrated trailer brake controller option.
From all of our research, it appears the Tundra has inherited some of Toyota’s sterling reputation for reliability. It may not be the most reliable pickup truck overall (smaller ones like the Honda Ridgeline and Toyota Tacoma are better), but Consumer Reports rates it highest of this sextet.
Whether in SR5 or Limited trim, the Tundra offers an easy-to-lift-and-lower tailgate, front-knee airbags, and what we consider to be the neatest rear window in the group. The entire glass, not just the center section, powers up and down like an old station wagon, leaving a complete opening for fresh air or access to the back if you have a shell over the bed. And although it’s similarly priced to our other trucks, the Limited brings automatic climate control and heated front seats, leather upholstery, a sunroof, navigation system and an upgraded stereo, all of which are absent on our other picks. Comparing the sheer number of features you get for the price, the Tundra is unmatched.
The Tundra missed being our top pick, though, because it feels old, the ride is stiff, it’s less fuel efficient and louder inside than most others, and it doesn’t offer a split-bench front seat the way we had it configured, which limits the number of people it can carry to five instead of six. The less expensive SR5 trim does come standard with a front bench seat to bring seating up to six, though we recommend getting it with SV Value Truck package that comes with, among many other desirable features, two front seats instead of a bench.
Since they’re both built by General Motors, everything said about the Chevy Silverado can be said of the GMC Sierra SLE Crew Cab 4WD, with a few minor exceptions: At $48,000, it costs about $40016 more because of minor variances regarding its features (a limited-slip differential is standard) and option packaging. However, if you prefer the Sierra’s appearance to the Silverado or have a GMC dealer much closer or that you like better, that could sway your choice between the two.
The Sierra’s 5.3-liter V8, six-speed automatic, on-demand 4WD, and substantial feel are pickup attributes many buyers appreciate. Also, it tows and carries things just as well as the Silverado (both its payload and towing capacity are at or near the top of our group); it gets the same good highway fuel economy, is just as easy to climb in and load, and apart from some badges and red trim highlights (rather than the Silverado’s aqua-blue), its interior does everything the Silverado’s does.
The Sierra didn’t make our top pick, though, because it shares the Silverado’s heavy feel, offset ergonomics, and economy-prioritized transmission, and it’s even more expensive.
The Titan XD is a heftier truck, occupying a niche between the half-ton (150, 1500-series) pickups in this guide and three-quarter-ton (250/2500-series) trucks; it’s closer to the latter in build strength and philosophy, and it falls in the same government classification (greater than 8,500 pounds GVWR) as three-quarter and 1-ton pickups. For that reason alone we have not included it as a direct competitor to the lighter-duty trucks in this guide.
However, if you routinely tow a trailer on the order of 9,000 to 11,000 pounds but don’t need the huge capacity of modern three-quarter and 1-ton trucks, and you want diesel fuel economy, the XD may fit the bill. Equipped similarly to the trucks in this guide but with a longer bed and powered by a 5.0-liter Cummins V8 turbodiesel with 310 hp and 555 pound-feet of torque (the only engine available in early production), a 4WD Crew Cab Titan XD costs about $52,00017 with utility and comfort/convenience packages. It’s big and therefore less maneuverable, but for about $4,000 to $5,500 more than the trucks in this guide, it carries more payload and tows 2,500 pounds more than the top truck here. It also delivers an extra 150 pound-feet of torque, and Motor Trend’s as-tested fuel economy rating of 17.7 mpg for it compares favorably to the fuelly.com averages of this guide’s gasoline pickups.
The regular Titan pickup is due in summer 2016. Sized and classed like the pickups in this guide, the gas-powered Titan Crew Cab has a completely different chassis from the diesel-powered XD and will ride on a wheelbase 1 foot shorter; it will also be at least 14 inches shorter overall. It’ll come in Crew Cab, King Cab (the short four-door version), and a regular cab configuration the original Titan never offered, with three bed lengths to match the other trucks and five trim levels.
Initially, the regular Titan will be offered with a 5.6-liter gas V8 like that in the Infiniti QX80 full-size SUV, with 390 hp and 401 pound-feet of torque, and a seven-speed automatic. At a later date, Nissan will also offer that powertrain in the bigger XD (lowering its price), and the company will make a V6 gasoline engine available for the regular Titan.
We also expect that GM will expand availability of its eight-speed automatic transmission beyond the 6.2- and 5.3-liter-equipped top-trim Silverado and Sierra, improving both their efficiency and their drivability across the rest of the lineups. Ford and GM have both been working on a 10-speed automatic transmission, but its first appearance is likely to be in the 2017 F-150 Raptor specialty truck. Ford may also offer a diesel in the F-150, though we can’t say whether it will be a 3.0-liter V6 shared with Jaguar and Land Rover, a 3.2-liter inline five-cylinder shared with the Transit van, or something else.
America is awash in capable pickup trucks, and with so many choices the onus is on you for finding the right one. We’ve done the heavy lifting, pun intended, but feel free to make adjustments and pick and choose to get exactly what you want regarding features and ability. Keeping in mind that pickups are multipurpose, we’ve built them balanced for function—carrying people and messy things, towing moderate loads, and able to go beyond the beaten path—while remembering most people, most of the time, use pickups like these as second cars. The Ram Big Horn Crew Cab does all the truck work, is nearly as handy as a big crossover in a blizzard, rides and maneuvers most like a car, and doesn’t charge a premium price for it. There are six capable pickup trucks in this guide, but the Ram is the one that will remind you least often you’re in a truck.
(Photos by John Neff.)
Originally published: November 9, 2015