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Off-Road Notes

Posted in Features on September 15, 2006 Comment (0)
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Like you, we here at OFF-ROAD are always in search of the perfect truck. While the manufacturers have made that search easier in the 21st century, there are still difficult choices to make.

First of all, does the perfect truck even exist? Can we go down to a dealer, plunk our hard-earned cash on the table, and drive a truck away with a smile on our face knowing it's the perfect one? In one word: no. It doesn't matter whether brand loyalty raises its ugly, biased head or whether we're objective about our search - no manufacturer builds the perfect truck.

Of course, "perfect" means different things to different people, depending on their vehicle's intended use. I have a friend with a ranch who thinks the trucks we build in this magazine are useless. He wants a narrow-tired tow monster to pull his horse trailers and other ranch-related stuff. While we may feature a ranch truck in the near future, those are admittedly not what we usually aim for when building a project. Here, Kevin and Jordan like speed and, while I like speed too, I also want to be able to hit a trail and go exploring once in a while. For me, the perfect truck would be able to move fast over dirt roads and then be able to travel slow technical trails with ease.

So, what truck to get? In the mini-truck segment, there are only two left: the Ranger and its cousin, the Mazda B-series. All the other mini-trucks have grown to midsize status. This isn't saying the midsize segment is bad; it's just that there were reasons for mini-trucks when they were introduced, and those reasons are even more important today than they were back when - easy maneuverability, better fuel economy, and a lower entry cost are just a few that make the mini-truck, now just the Ford Ranger and Mazda B-Series, attractive.

The midsize segment is populated with pretty nice trucks, although I personally can't get used to their styling. The Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier are fabulous trucks, although the Tacoma seems to be exhibiting some rearend ring-gear reliability problems. The GM midsize trucks, as usual, win in the powertrain department. I really don't like the Dodge Dakota's styling. If you like the way these trucks look, great! I don't.

Now, which fullsize to buy? Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, GMC, Nissan, and Toyota all offer fullsize trucks that are very good, but each has a negative side too. In the 1/2-ton segment, the GM offerings feature good, maybe the best, powertrains. GM's 5.3-liter Generation III V8s produce lots of power and return good fuel economy too. Now, GM even offers an aluminum 5.3 with more horsepower in its 1/2-ton trucks. The 6.0-liter V8's fuel economy isn't as good as the 5.3, but the horsepower and torque it produces make it worth the price if you need towing power. The Hydra-Matic automatic transmissions are the best you can get, in my opinion. The front torsion bars are replaced in '07 with coilovers, so that problem is taken care of.

Toyota's Tundra is getting a redesign for '07 with a more powerful V8 and many other upgrades. For now, it's a respectable offering that gets overshadowed by Nissan's Titan and Ford's F-150. The Nissan Titan has a wonderful V8, a fully boxed frame that's as strong as Ford's F-150, but has a smallish rearend that might not hold up to hard use if towing, for example.

Ford's F-150 has a super-strong boxed frame, a 9.75-inch rearend that's the largest in any 1/2-ton pickup and, in my opinion, great styling. Its 5.4 V8 feels anemic though, even though the numbers say otherwise. Our F-150 project turned out so nicely that I might be a bit biased here.

Dodge just changed its torsion bar independent front end to coilovers like Ford and now, GM. Dodge is a player in the 1/2-ton market with its great styling and good performance. The frame isn't boxed, and the Hemi V8 gets pretty poor fuel economy, so the Dodge isn't perfect either. Also, the 1/2-ton Dodge is priced too high to compete with GM and Ford.

In the heavy-duty 3/4- to 1-ton segment, we have Chevy, Dodge, Ford, and GMC. GM's big-block 8.1 V8 gets awful fuel economy, but, once again, the 6.0 is really a great all-around powerplant. The Duramax diesel got an infusion of horsepower and torque this year at the expense of its class-leading fuel efficiency. The frames on these trucks, like all the others in this segment, could be stronger.

Ford's Super Duty gets a new diesel for '07, and we'll have to see how that works. As I'm writing this, I don't know whether or not the V10 gasser will continue, but if it isn't offered in '07, it would be a shame. That engine turns in respectable horsepower and torque numbers while also affording pretty good fuel economy. I like the Ford's straight-axle frontend and suspension. Its turning radius leaves a lot to be desired though, and, as already mentioned, frame strength needs to be upped.

Dodge's heavy-duty trucks feature the Cummins diesel, a great mill that also gets changed in '07, so we don't know how it will work. The only gas offering worth considering is the Hemi V8, which has good horsepower numbers, but peak torque is reached at higher rpm and it gets so-so fuel economy. The Dodge's straight-axle, four-link frontend is the best of the lot and lets the big Dodge turn much tighter than any other HD truck. Dodge also offers the Power Wagon, with front and rear locking diffs, 4.56 gears, 33-inch tires, and a big winch from the factory! This may be the truck to choose, even though it's only available with a Hemi and not the Cummins.

So, which truck is the best? I certainly can't decide. All of these trucks are good vehicles that I'd be happy with. Most of the shortcomings mentioned here aren't very significant and don't detract much from each truck, as their positive qualities outweigh any negative ones. So, the perfect truck isn't here, but all the OEMs are getting close.

This is a great time to be a truck buyer.

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