For over 24 years we've put the latest 4x4 pickups available in our head-to-head battle that is Pickup Truck of the Year. To participate in the late-model truck showdown, the pickup has to be all-new or significantly revised from the previous model year (new cup holders don't count), have a two-speed transfer case, a production run of at least 1,500 vehicles available in the U.S., and be on sale by January 15, 2013. For this year's Pickup Truck of the Year (PTOTY) we had a head-to-head battle between two formidable contenders—the Ram 1500 Crew Cab Outdoorsman and the Toyota Tacoma TRD T|X Baja Access Cab. While Ford and GM had eligible trucks, the two manufacturers declined to participate in this year's competition.
PTOTY isn't a tow-off or an off-road drag race, but rather a weeklong on- and off-road adventure that places the pickups in a variety of scenarios. From tricky rock sections to curvy canyon roads, to win PTOTY the truck truly has to be jack-of-all trades. We began this year's competition by crawling under the rigs and gathering the trucks RTI (ramp travel index) scores at Off Road Evolution in Fullerton, California. Off Road Evolution's 30-degree RTI ramp made for a great measuring stick to see which of the pickups could flex and tuck the best. It also provided a window into what potential low hanging pieces may get bashed or beaten off-road.
Once we had taken a good look underneath, we drove the pickups to the old El Toro Marine Base in Orange County, California. The abandoned air field is home to the History channels' Top Gear television show and made for a safe and controlled environment for us to perform braking and acceleration tests. Those performance numbers reflect what the manufacturers estimated horsepower numbers really mean and what affect the modern technology has on the trucks.
After we left the tarmac, we set off on our 1,000-mile weeklong journey. Using the rugged desert terrain and mountains of Southern California we peeled away from the highway and into rocky, loose, sandy, and very hilly situations. It's not uncommon for one truck to perform extremely well in one arena of wheeling, but fall short in another. For our test we took each truck over the same lines and trail conditions, so there are no excuses and comparisons are as accurate as they come.
Getting to and from all of our different Southern California testing destinations was a feat in itself. Our wheeling destinations often pitch us through twisty canyon roads and long stretches of desert highway. Here wind noise, exhaust drone, ride quality, and interior comfort all become absorbed into the testers logbook.
2nd Place Toyota Tacoma TRD T|X Baja
For those of you keeping track, technically the Toyota Tacoma TRD T|X Baja Series truck was eligible for last year's PTOTY test, but Toyota was unable to get us a tester in time. This gave the company the ability to slide into this year's competition. The Tacoma TRD (Toyota Racing Development) T|X (Toyota Xtreme) Baja Series is billed as a desert-ready truck that gives you all of the standard features of the Tacoma TRD, with more suspension travel and off-road prowess. As is the theme with many of the modern off-road packages these days, the Tacoma has some real function to go with its form. The TRD T|X Baja is fitted with a selectable rear locker, a torquey V-6, and specially-valved front and rear Bilstein shocks which net the truck 9.25 inches of front and 10 inches of rear suspension travel.
Couple this travel with a set of 265/70/R16 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KOs on stylish 16-inch aluminum wheels, and it starts to paint the picture of truck that has much more to it than an over-top sticker package. Our Access Cab tester was what's considered a pre-production test vehicle. This meant some of the small details were in the final stages, but the vehicle was otherwise how you will get it off of the dealer lot.
The 16-year-old kid in all of us was pretty excited over the appearance and stance of the Tacoma. The tire and wheel package is spot-on, the stance is aggressive, and the dimensions seemed just right. The sticker package was a hot topic, with most of the judges not digging the size, look, and placement. Fortunately, it's just a sticker, which makes it easy to remove for those so inclined.
The front of the Tacoma may be getting a little long in the tooth, but we're still excited that it offers a fair amount of clearance. Two front tow points, along with a rear receiver gave the truck recovery options and the ability to tow 6,500 pounds. The bed of the truck was very fitting in both size and attachment points, but some of the judges felt the bed liner might not handle long term abuse like hauling heavy axles and parts. The bed organizer and tie-down points makes it very usable. Overall, Toyota hit it out of the park visually.
Toyota has been known for its dependability and well-engineered pickup platforms for decades. And while the powertrain engineers seem to be doing a great job, the interior designers seem to be falling a little behind. When you step into the Tacoma it looks and feels a bit dated. It's almost so dated and simple that it makes you feel nostalgic about older trucks and you sort of like it. We're all for classic and Spartan styling, but when it's fitted with a modern price tag, it needs to be done well.
A set of Baja-inspired racing seats would go a long way into getting this truck up to date and carrying the off-road theme inside of the truck. Storage was pretty good for such a small pickup and the ability to fold the rear seats out of the way makes the access portion of the Access Cab very usable. Overall comfort and quality was a little less that we would have liked to have seen for a 2013 model truck. Surprisingly, it's not out of the question that you could take four adults in the truck, though you'll likely grow tired of the rear passengers breathing heavily onto the back of your neck.
The Tacoma gives you the sense that you are driving a well-tuned modified 4x4 on the street. Power and acceleration is excellent, as the V-6 engine produces solid low-end torque and rowing through the six-speed manual transmission made cruising the canyons and countryside more enjoyable. The truck never feels too big, so navigating the city is very stress free. While the Tacoma stopped just fine, judges did notice that the brake pedal felt firm and required more effort to engage than expected.
One element that bugged some judges, but didn't bother others was the TRD Performance exhaust. It is the type of exhaust that is just loud enough to get on your nerves if you notice it, but not annoying enough where your neighbors will think that you are part of some import street racing gang. It's always a challenge to get a good rumble out of a V-6 and Toyota did a decent job of matching the sound and performance.
There was also a bit of cabin noise in the form of squeaks, A/C fan flutters, and rattles. The sounds were intermittent, but annoying on rough roads. Overall, for a truck that is meant to blaze quickly down desert trails, it handles surprisingly sporty on the road. We hate when "trendy" magazines like to compare the handling of a truck to a sports car, so we'll just say that it feels stable enough on twisting roads that you could probably drive it faster than you should.
With Baja plastered onto the side of the bed, the off-road performance expectations (especially at speed) were high for the Tacoma. The truck was built to go fast, and the faster you go over desert roads, the more it rewards you. The slower you go however, the harsher the suspension felt. To get the most out of the pickup you sometimes had to white knuckle it through the large whoop sections. Fast is fun, but it can be very dangerous.
The underbelly clearance was great for most of the Southern California trails we encountered, and we rarely scraped or banged the underpinnings. Although a lower crawl ratio would have helped in the rockcrawling and hillclimb sections. The Tacoma's size and visibility continued to make it an easy wheeler. Fitted with a selectable rear locker, we found that traction wasn't a huge concern and the A-Trac front differential assistance proved effective the majority of the time.
The Bilstein shocks are designed to give the Baja version of the Tacoma not only more travel, but more controlled wheeltravel. This travel helped to keep the truck planted in most twisty and speed-derived scenarios. We did manage to bottom out the suspension a few times at speed and feel a touch more valving to firm up the overall suspension wouldn't be a bad thing. The interior noises were extremely obnoxious off-road. The faster you went, the more the inside sounded as though it was shaking loose around you.
The two biggest performance complaints was the very invasive traction control system and slow to actuate four-wheel drive engagement. If you want to let loose with the Tacoma in the sand or hold it sideways over the dirt, 4-Lo was the only way to defeat the electronic nannies and let you have fun. You could trick it into letting you have a good time in 2WD, but you won't be able to lock up the rear axle, and once you got too loose it would shut you down. For most of our testing 4-Hi wasn't the place to be. We don't like comparing this truck to the Ford Raptor, because the two are worlds different, but if it had the same electronic nanny delete feature that the Raptor does, it would be an absolute animal off-road. For a truck with such extreme looks and off-road attributes we just expected more.
One thing we all agreed on was that the Tacoma would be an absolute dream ride for those in their younger years. It looks cool, it's fun to drive, and it's capable enough to where you don't have to spend a ton (or any) money to make it a formidable wheeling machine. Sure, the interior is a bit dated, but it's completely livable, and almost welcomed in today's overly complex digital displays. It feels like a mini-truck, acts like a mini-truck, and is fun to drive both on- and off-road. Spend a little time muffling the interior creaks and you'll find yourself with a truck fun to pilot around town, on the highway, and in the dirt on the weekend.
What's hot: Desert-tuned suspension, torquey engine, rear locker, six-speed manual, awesome styling, fun to drive
What's not: Outdated interior, noisy cabin, invasive electronics, graphic package, poor four-wheel drive engagement
Our take: One awesome taco with plenty of fixin's
"Fun to drive, but noisy"
"Great looking exterior, but needs an interior update"
"Excellent power and gear selection"
Winner Ram 1500 Outdoorsman Crew Cab 4x4
For 2013 the Ram 1500 is virtually all-new from the ground up. This includes a lighter and stronger frame, body panels, and a host of technology upgrades. For our test we took the reins of the Outdoorsman 4x4 Crew Cab. The Outdoorsman edition is designed to accommodate fisherman, hunters, and general outdoor hobby enthusiasts. Some of the highlights of the Outdoorsman package include a limited-slip differential, Hemi V-8, class IV hitch, and beefy all-terrain tires.
For 2013 our test Ram was also fitted with some class-exclusive features. A part of that exclusivity is the multilink rear suspension, which when fitted with the optional and new Active-Level 4-Corner air suspension as our tester was, equates to a truck with automatic load-leveling capabilities. This feature is a major plus for those constantly hauling trailers and toting heavy loads.
Another area that Ram is bidding for exclusivity in is mpg. To achieve the fuel economy goals, Ram has removed power-robbing components such as the power steering pump and replaced it with an all-electric power steering system. Another fuel saving feature Ram has worked in with models equipped with the optional air suspension, is an aero mode that causes the truck to lower its stance at highways speeds. These are just two of the many cues built into to the '13 model year to claim the best mpg numbers in its class.
When we first set eyes on the Ram 1500 Outdoorsman a few of us thought there was a mix-up. With its heavily blacked-out styling and minimal badges, we thought we had received some sort of NASCAR Truck edition. It didn't help that when the air suspension is in entry/exit mode it makes the truck appear that much lower. For a truck with Outdoorsman in the title, we half expected a deer head silhouette or some sort of Mossy Oak trim.
The more we studied the truck though, the more we began to appreciate the understated, but very clever attributes of it. Where the Tacoma Baja screams "hey, look at me", the Ram subtly states, "get out of my way, I have work to do." Beefy all-terrain tires and a simple click of the truck into Off-Road mode provides the truck with a stance better fitted with its name. While the approach angle isn't terrible, a removable lower bumper face would do wonders for keeping things out of harm's way off-road.
With our test truck fitted with the optional cargo management system known as RamBox it became the go-to truck for putting away items that we didn't want to place inside of the pickup (i.e., tools, tow straps, recovery gear). We especially liked that you could lock and unlock the RamBoxes wirelessly via the same key fob that engages the door locks. Overall, the Ram still has a very brand specific look and style that we like, and front and rear tow points to get us out when we get into trouble.
Inside the Ram the new for '13 cloth seats provided great support and had plenty of adjustment to accommodate a variety of drivers. And seating in the rear was adequate for a grown man. If there was one area that was a little overwhelming, it's the new dash. Even after spending a 1,000 miles behind the wheel, we were still finding new read outs and features on the vehicle information center.
What makes the razzle-dazzle of the dash stand out even more was the extremely odd and clumsy radio fitted with the truck. The optional in-dash navigation unit would have been great, but our as-equipped truck radio was fitted with knobs that looked better suited for a Fisher-Price toy than a modern-day pickup. Fortunately, the Ram has enough interior storage compartments that you could hide the hideous radio easily in one of the many easily accessible compartments. Inside the cab is extremely well insulated and everything about the truck feels solid and securely fastened-something easy to appreciate after exiting the Tacoma.
The excitement of a rumbling V-8 under the hood of a 1/2-ton is apart of what gives this genre of truck its appeal The Ram's 5.7L is a strong engine, but after a week of testing, , some of the judges felt as thought it lacked lo-end grunt. When you wanted power, it was there, but you had to seriously engage the pedal to get things moving. And while the six-speed auto shifts fine, we would have liked to have tested the new optional eight-speed transmission.
The ride of the truck was very smooth for a 1/2-ton, partly thanks to its air ride and multilink rear suspension. The electronic steering feels strong and on-point, but the turning radius was wider than expected. This equated to an already large truck feeling that much bigger when navigation the city. Although the visibility is great, this Ram is better left to roam the open highway.
From a brand that brought us such off-road sensations like the Power Wagon; we had high hopes for what the Outdoorsman would bring to the table. Sure, we go off-road appointments, but admittedly we were hoping for more. What we found over the course of our test though, was while we wanted more, we didn't really need more.
On hillclimbs the long wheelbase truck was sure-footed and stable. And while it felt like a bit of a land-yacht at times over the tight and rocky trails, it had the ground clearance to keep us from tumbling rocks under the chassis. Yes, we will always want from and rear lockers, but the limited-slip was very effective in the Ram platform. And since the multilink rear allows the solid-axle to flex more easily off-road, we rarely lifted a tire.
As is the case with most modern trucks, the electronic nannies were plenty invasive- especially when blasting through the sand or hanging it out in the desert. Speaking of the desert, this is one spot that proved to be too much for the trucks air suspension. It often felt too soft and some judges even experienced a suspension overheating warning light. Ultimately, the truck performed well in our entire off-road test. it wasn't perfect, but it always got the job done with little fuss.
The new Ram line is all about working smarting, not harder. And the Ram 1500 Outdoorsman Crew Cab 4x4 we tested was a shining example of this from top to bottom. Time will tell if living with the modern technology will be pricey (out of warranty) experience, but for now, it all works and performs in a seamless harmony. The Ram consistently did everything we asked and was always ready for more. At the core, the Ram is more workhouse, than a subtle sheep. Again, and again the Ram surprised and impressed us, which is why it went onto receive our coveted award for Pickup Truck of the Year. Look for more PTOTY champs as we'll add quarterly reviews of the 2013 winner over the course of the year.
What's hot: Fuel-saving technology, great storage, limited-slip differential, complex, but wel working suspension, all-terrain tires
What's not: Electronic invasions, cosmetically challenged radio, Outdoor namesake, without a lot of outdoor flare
Our take: A modern Ram for a modern world.
"Where are the special features?"
"Smooth ride and great power when you need it."
"More utilitarian than off-road toy."
"Solid truck, inside and out."
How We Score 'Em
The scoring parameters for Pickup Truck of the Year is based off of a 100-percent scale and divided into five categories. As you would expect, Trail Performance absorbs the largest chunk at 30 percent. Next on the list is Empirical (price, payload, mpg, ground clearance, etc.), which takes a 25 percent share. Since we know that the pavement is where a large majority will spend their time, the On Pavement portion grabs 20 percent. The Interior section sees 15 percent, and the final 10 percent goes to judging the sometimes very subjective exterior.
John Cappa, Editor
I really enjoyed the sporty feel, nimble handling, and high-speed off-road capability of the Toyota Tacoma Baja, but at the end of the day I need a work truck more than I need a toy. The Ram 1500 fills those needs much better with more cargo area and towing capacity. Plus, the Ram interior is a nicer place to call home for those long, cross-country drives.
Ken Brubaker, Senior Editor
I thought the Tacoma was a blast. Its smaller overall size helped to make it nimble and fun on the trail. The beauty is that it also has decent cargo and towing capacities so it can still be used as a real truck. From a styling perspective, I think Toyota hit a homerun due to the lack of nose-down rake, eye-catching graphics, and cool wheels.
Ali Mansour, Technical Editor
The Tacoma had my attention from the second it rolled up. Minus the graphics on the side, the exterior of the truck simply looks great. If the Tacoma only carried that same wow factor to the inside, it would be my number one pick. I still believe the Tacoma's a solid truck, but the Ram simply offered more in the way of comfort, power, and function. Sure, the Tacoma was more fun and nimble off-road, but the Ram felt sure-footed just about everywhere it was. The Ram's air suspension is one gimmick that I am not a huge fan of, but I could see it being especially useful for towing and eking out those precious fuel economy numbers. The 16-year-old me still wants the Tacoma, but the grown-up me say's take the Ram home.
Jason Gonderman, Web Editor
Both of the trucks on this year's test were excellent vehicles, but if I had to choose one of them to put in my driveway it would have to be the Ram 1500. The Tacoma Baja is a blast in desert washes, but for my needs the payload, towing capacity, seating, and overall versatility of the Ram make it the truck that I would choose.
Steve VonSeggern, Publisher
I can appreciate the effort that Toyota and Bilstein went to in order to create this niche version of the Tacoma, and I think they did an admirable job. But the development of half-ton pickups has gone so far as to eclipse the performance, economy, and livability of its smaller cousins. The Taco is lots of fun, but is getting very long in the tooth. It feels exactly like it is, which is a very old truck by today's standards. By contrast, the Ram feels fresh, new, high tech, super high quality, and tightly screwed together. For that reason I'd happily drive the Ram home.
Specifications As Tested
||Ram 1500 Outdoorsman Crew Cab 4x4
||Toyota Tacoma TRD T|X Baja Access Cab
|Price as tested
|Options as tested
||Customer Preferred Package 25T ($2,195), Comfort group ($395), Premium Cloth 40/20/40 bench ($250) 5.7L V-8 Hemi MDS VVT engine ($850), Power Heated T-Tow Mirrors w/ Puddle & Signal Lamps ($100), Active-Level 4-Corner Air Suspension System ($1,595), ParkSense Rear Park Assist System ($250), ParkView Rear Back-Up Camera ($200), RamBox Cargo Management System ($1,295), Trailer Brake Control ($230), Spray-in Bedliner ($475), Destination charge ($995)
||TRD Off-Road Package ($3,570), Baja Series Package ($4,365), Destination charge ($810)
||Pushrod-operated overhead valves, 16-valve, V-8, variable valve timing, hydraulic lifters with roller followers
||DOHC 24-valve VVT-I V-6
|Bore x stroke (in)
||3.92 x 3.58
||3.70 x 3.74
|Compression ratio (:1)
||Naturally aspirated/sequential, multi-port, electronic
|Mfg.'s power rating @ rpm (hp)
||395 @ 5,600
||236 @ 5,200
|Mfg.'s torque rating @ rpm (lb-ft)
||407 @ 3,950
||266 @ 4,000
|Mfg.'s suggested fuel type
||Mid-grade unleaded suggested, regular unleaded accepted
||65RFE 6-spd automatic
||RA60F 6-spd automatic
||1st: 3.00, 2nd: 1.67, 3rd: 1.50, 4th: 1.00, 5th: 0.75, 6th: 0.67, Reverse: 3.00
||1st: 4.17, 2nd: 2.19, 3rd: 1.49, 4th: 1.19, 5th: 1.00, 6th: 0.85, Reverse: 3.61
|Axle ratio (:1)
||BW 44-45 part-time, 2-spd, electric-shift
||VF2BM electric-shift, part-time, 2-spd
|Low-range ratio (:1)
|Crawl ratio (:1)
||Fully-boxed with eight crossmembers
||Steel cab, double-wall steel pickup box
||A-arms, air-springs, stabilizer bar/IFS ZF 8.5-inch
||Coil-spring double wishbone and stabilizer bar w/60mm Bilstein shocks/8-inch IFS differential
||Five-link with track bar, air-springs, and stabilizer bar/solid axle 9.3-inch with limited-slip
||Leaf spring with staggered outboard-mounted 50mm Bilstein reservoir shocks/8.25-inch solid axle with factory TRD E-locker
||13.2 x 1.1-inch vented discs, two-piston pin-slider calipers
||12.56-inch vented discs
||13.8 x 0.87-inch disc, single-piston pin-slider calipers
||10-inch leading-trailing drums
||17 x 7 painted cast aluminum
||16 x 7 cast aluminum
||265/70R17 Goodyear Wrangler SilentArmor Pro Grade
||265/70R16 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO
|Overall length (in)
|Overall width (in)
||74.9 (entry/exit mode), 77.0 (normal), 77.9 (Off-Road 1), 79.0 (Off-Road 2)
|Track f/r (in)
|Minimum ground clearance (in)
|Turning diameter, curb-to-curb (ft)
|Approach/departure angles (deg)
||15.2 (entry/exit), 19.7 (normal), 21.8 (Off-Road 1), 22.9 (Off-Road 2)/ 18.7 (entry/exit), 20.6 (normal), 21.4 (Off-Road 1), 22.9 (Off-Road 2)
|Breakover angle (deg)
||12.7 (entry/exit), 15.9 (normal), 17.6 (Off-Road 1), 19.2 (Off-Road 2)
|Maximum towing capacity (lb)
|Fuel capacity (gal)
|0-60 mph (sec)
|Quarter-mile (sec @ mph)
||17.0 @ 79.4
||16.4 @ 83.8
|Braking 60-0 mph (ft)
|Ramp Travel Index (30-deg, points)
||194 (Off-Road 2)