What's more American than good ol' fashion competition? Win, lose, or draw -- often the outcome is of secondary importance. The real story is the competition itself -- competition for the sake of competition, if you will. And when we speak of vehicular competition, there's nothing more intense than the rivalry between Dodge, Ford, and Chevrolet. Of course, we're talking trucks, not the entire product line of the Big Three -- can you imagine the owners of a Neon, a Focus, and a Cavalier debating the merits of each car? A conversation like that would last, oh, about two minutes. On the other hand, the battle rages over 1/2-ton 4x4 supremacy -- as it has for 50-odd years -- and there's no sign of a clear winner.
That three American trucks would engage in an ongoing slugfest continues to be outstanding news for off-road enthusiasts. Trust us, Dodge, Ford, and Chevrolet maintain full-time, highly secretive war rooms teaming with intelligence developed specifically for a single goal: to build a better truck than the competition. What else but hard-core competition could explain Ford's use of an overhead-cam (OHC) V-8 in a F-150? OHC and 4x4 trucks didn't sound right back in 1997 when the Triton cammer V-8 was introduced. Nowadays, we've come to expect a smooth-revving, powerful, and sophisticated OHC F-150 engine, and nothing less will do.
Then there's the General. Not only did Chevy develop an all-new small-block for the Silverado based on the Corvette engine, the Bow Tie crew also applied 'Vette technology to the new Silverado frame using a high-tech hydro-forming manufacturing process that produces framerails that are high in torsional strength yet lightweight.
And what about Dodge? Considered by some enthusiasts to be a step behind GM and Ford in matters of engineering, styling, durability, and performance, the new Ram blows the previous generation Ram trucks away and levels the playing field with Ford and GM. That merger with Mercedes-Benz seems to be paying dividends, because the new Ram's styling, performance, fit and finish, and advanced chassis are certainly as good and possibly better than anything built in Dearborn or Detroit.
When we initially contemplated the idea of an American 4x4 truck shootout, we knew it would be a close contest, but we had no idea just how tight the 1/2-ton competition would be. To make this comparison unique, we've saved full-blown road tests for another time, instead turning our focus to the technical merits, styling, and performance potential of the '03 models of the Dodge Ram, the Ford F-150, and the Chevrolet Silverado.
The best way to get familiar with these 4x4s is to look at their overall dimensions and basic equipment. Not surprisingly, we find that while some of the three trucks' dimensions are similar, there are major differences in the details. Keep in mind the listed weight for each truck is with a base engine and equipment, all listings are for 1/2-ton shortbed models, and the wheels and tires listed are the largest options.
It's much too early to tell which truck will ultimately prevail, but it's very interesting to compare the specs. The Ram's 20-inch wheels and tires are a controversial option; we'll have to see if they can prove their worth off-road. Also, Dodge has seen fit to equip the new Ram with rear-wheel-only ABS, while GM and Ford went with four-wheel ABS. Maybe the Ram's accurate rack-and-pinion steering system makes up for the lack of four-wheel ABS and the interesting wheel and tire sizing -- or maybe not. The wheelbase of the standard cab, shortbed trucks are nearly identical; even the Quad Cab, the Extended Cab, and the SuperCab/SuperCrew are within a couple of inches in wheelbase. The Dodge certainly isn't a flyweight; it outweighs the SuperCrew (hardly a lightweight itself) by more than 200 pounds. The big Ram is also a couple of inches taller at the roofline than the Silverado or the F-150s.
Who Has the power?
Power and torque are crucial to off-road enthusiasts. Whether a truck is used for daily driving or trail duty -- or both -- it helps to have gobs of bottom-end torque. If it were our money, we'd always go for the most powerful V-8 engine available when buying a 4x4. However, financial considerations may require the selection of a fullsize 4x4 with a smaller displacement V-8 or even a V-6. That's not the end of the world; as you'll see, the smaller Vs from GM and Ford are capable performers, especially on the trail when the T-case is locked in Low gear and the wonders of torque multiplication are realized.
We guess it's not all that strange there's not a V-6 application for a Dodge fullsize 4x4 truck; Mopar's 3.7L sixer seems better suited to Dodge's lighter 2WD haulers. The battle between the OHV Ford and GM V-6s is oh-so-close in regard to power and torque that it's your call. The V-8s are another story.
While keeping in mind that these power figures were supplied by the manufacturers, the nod in small V-8 horsepower goes to the Silverado, but Dodge is the torque leader, with 299 lb-ft at a low 3,200 rpm. The larger V-8s are also competitive; again, the high-winding (5,200 rpm) 5.3L small-block Chevy shows much horsepower, but Ford's 5.4L OHC V-8 out-grunts Dodge's 5.9L cammer engine by 15 lb-ft of torque.
Ford's powerful and smooth-running Triton V-8 dispels the myth that overhead-cam engines don't torque, because the Blue Oval V chugs out 350 lb-ft at a truck-like 2,500 rpm.
Suspension and chassis:
A Strong Foundation
Although these trucks are rated at a 1/2-ton of capacity, their frames and suspension systems are actually overbuilt. Ford's F-150 frame is a traditional ladder-type design with a fully boxed front section, six crossmembers, and a yield strength of 50,000 psi. GM's truck frame is also ladder-style with six crossmembers, but its manufacture is unique. The front framerails are formed into complex box sections by pressurized water routed inside the frame tubes, after which the front, middle, and rear segments are welded together to form a rigid but lightweight chassis. Dodge is at the forefront of the hydro-forming trend, having taken the General's lead and really run with it by using hydro-forming to shape the entire side framerails of the new Ram, with the attendant lightweight and torsional stiffness thoroughly evident.
As for suspension, the three trucks are similar in concept and execution, using upper and lower unequal length control arms, torsion springs, gas-charged dampers, and antisway bars in front with a traditional solid axle suspended by longitudinal leaf springs and damped by gas shocks at the rear.
Although many enthusiasts bemoan the demise of the solid front axle, Ford and GM have proven that the IFS system is a viable alternative. Sure, an IFS isn't nearly as durable or as easy-to-modify as a solid axle, but IFS is here to stay. Now Dodge has canned its straight front axle and joined FoMoCo and the General in the use of IFS. The jury's still out on IFS versus solid axle; Ford and GM systems are reliable when used in a conservative manner, but we'll wait and see with the new Dodge IFS.
Drive-By-Wire or Shift for Yourself When you get to the point on your trail ride where your 4x4's T-case is finally engaged, it's good to know that Low-range provides plenty of power multiplication and true four-wheel-drive capacity. Really, there are only slight differences between the Low-range gearsets of the Ram, the F-150, and the Silverado T-cases, and it's not truly enough to make one T-case a clear-cut winner. However, the manner by which 4WD is engaged may be of major importance to you, depending on your feelings toward electronically controlled T-cases.
If you're into F-Series 4x4s, you can have it your way: Electronic or manual-shifted transfer cases are available. The Ram is also available with either an electronic shift-on-the-fly 'case or a traditional shift-by-stick transfer case; it's your choice. The General's 4x4s can be equipped with either Insta-Trac or Autotrac systems. Insta-Trac is the more traditional system, since it operates in 2WD mode until switched to 4-Hi (at any speed) by a dash-mounted switch or 4-Lo after bringing the Silverado to a stop. Autotrac operates in 2WD mode until its electronic controls sense rear-wheel slip,then the front axles are automatically engaged. When traction returns, the front axles are automatically disconnected. 4-Lo is engaged full time with the flick of a switch.
Transfer case/Low gear ratio Two-speed, part-time, manual or electric shift, shift-on-the-fly/2.72:1 Low gear
Transfer case/Low gear ratio Two-speed, part-time, manual or electric shift, shift-on-the-fly/2.64:1 Low gearChevy Silverado
Transfer case/Low gear ratio Two-speed, part-time, electric shift, shift-on-the-fly/2.72:1 Low gear
This one's another tough call. Purists may gravitate to Dodge's or Ford's available manual shift T-case, but if you're in the market for a new Chevy 4x4, electronic control is the only way to go -- literally. In this case (case -- get it?), you'll take what the factory gives you, unless you decide to desert the General and join ranks with the Dodge gang or the Blue Oval boys.
Pull: Towing Capacities
Half-tons aren't truly known for their towing prowess, but tow they will, as owners with stuff to transport press these light-duty 4x4s into service. The following numbers should tell the tale of 1/2-ton towing; keep in mind that upgraded engines and lower-ratio (higher numerically) differential gearsets will noticeably alter any truck's rated towing capacity.
The verdict: What's interesting here is that the Ram's towing capacity remains at 8,400 pounds, even in a standard cab configuration. You have to have the 5.9L V-8 engine and the optional gears, but that's a lot of towing power. Ford's F-150 SuperCab is no slouch when it comes to pulling stuff around, coming within 100 pounds of the Dodge in capacity. Remember that heavy curb weight of the Quad Cab? When you have 8,400 pounds hitched to a truck's tail, that additional weight can really make a difference in overall stability. Fuel mileage will suffer with a full load, but it's better than the tail wagging the dog, if you know what we mean. If you're going for the maximum tow rating, the 5.3L Silverado is the clear winner; a standard cab 4x4 shortbed is rated to pull an amazing 9,300 pounds.
The modern truck cabin: Vroom with a View
Our sources at the Big Three truck makers tell us that sales of two-door standard cab trucks have taken a dive in recent years because of the spaciousness, availability, and popularity of big-cab trucks. In fact, extended-cab 4x4s have become the new standard configuration in truck bodies. Yes, yes, we know that there have long been crew cab trucks, but their overall size and girth made them less than appealing for sporting use.
With the trend toward big-cab, shortbed 4x4s in focus, Ford was able to hit a home run with its SuperCrew, which uses four full-size doors and a bed adequately sized for casual hauling. With its new Ram, Dodge made several noteworthy advances to the four-door truck concept, including the use of rear doors that swing open a full 75 degrees for impressively easy rear seat access. GM's Extended Cab and Ford's SuperCab are kind of the dinosaurs in this group, with their rear-hinged, 3/4-size doors, but both trucks represent the hottest-selling body design in the fullsize truck segment.
The verdict: Another split decision. The Ram's wide-opening rear doors are clearly a better idea, and the Ram hasn't robbed bed length to pay for the Quad Cab's size. On the other hand, the dimensions and styling of Ford's SuperCrew, with its ultra-short bed and rear-biased cab, have made it one of those trucks that, when lifted, is just so darn right that it drives Chevy guys nuts.
Options and upgrades: Make It Better
Factory upgrades and optional equipment are often a mixed blessing. For example, if you want the power window package but not the upgraded stereo, you may be out of luck, since both come as part of an equipment package. However, some factory upgrades are worthwhile, especially if you plan to keep your new truck factory original for any length of time. Ford's 4x4 Off-Road Equipment Group adds a well-matched series of goodies, including P265/70R17 all-terrain tires, 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels, skidplates on the transfer case, the front frame crossmember, and the fuel tanks, heavy-duty shocks, 3.55 cogs in the diffs, and an Off-Road 4x4 decal. General Motors counters with the popular Z71 off-road package for its 4x4 Silverado, which boasts 46mm monotube gas-pressurized dampers, special progressive jounce bumpers for the suspension, upgraded stabilizer bars, a high-capacity air cleaner, and skidplates for the fuel tank, transfer case, and front frame crossmember. Dodge is left out on this one; at press time, there is no special off-road package available for the Ram.
As we said, if you're going to drive your truck in stock form for any length of time, either the Ford or GM Off-Road equipment may prove worthwhile. Special equipment like the Z71 goodies may also slightly boost a truck's resale value, as long as everything's intact when you sell. Ultimately, it all boils down to cost: If the Ford or GM off-road accessories are reasonably priced, they're likely worth considering; if you can purchase similar upgraded accessories from the aftermarket for a lower price, you may be better off going down that route.
We're truck guys -- We Like 'em All This comparison hasn't settled the question of who builds America's Best 4x4, because choosing one ultimate, beyond-any-doubt, undisputed king of the fullsize trucks involves so many variables and personal opinions that it's impossible to make an honest, unbiased decision. For example, what if we found the chassis, build quality, and overall styling of the new Ram highly appealing, but just couldn't live with that trademark Ram snout? What if the Chevy guys on staff insist that the F-150s overall design is dated, thus doesn't deserve the title of America's best? What if GM was criticized for its lack of a truck with four real doors? What if, what if?
Truth be told, Dodge's Ram, Ford's F-150, and the General's Silverado and Sierra are all excellent trucks. If you think not, just set the time machine way back to the early '80s and compare the build quality, performance, and reliability of today's trucks to yesterday's 4x4s. We know; it's not a fair comparison, but it serves to illustrate the huge gains made by Dodge, Ford, and GM in every aspect of truck design and creation. America's Best fullsize 4x4? In our opinion, you can't go wrong with a new Ram, F-150, or Silverado -- and that's the truth.