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Battle of the Super Trucks

Posted in Features on January 9, 2017
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There has never been a better time in history to be in the market for a new truck. Ford, Ram, and Toyota all make models targeted at the off-road market, folks like you and us. How the automakers go about building the mousetrap varies though, as we found when we recently had the opportunity to flog the new Ford Raptor, Ram Power Wagon, and Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro against each other in a heads-up shootout. Each had their strengths, but also quirks that kept them from being perfect in our opinion.

The Ford Raptor works great in the sand dunes—once you figure out how to turn off all of the stability and yaw control so that it does not pull power when you’re trying to pitch the truck in the sand. We found that the 10-speed auto transmission shifted on its own even when set in manual mode, but that triggering the magnesium paddle shifters on the steering column did result in rapid, sure gear changes.

The Raptor really has no competition when it comes to a desert-ready truck, but Ford still upped the game for 2017. That means more horsepower, larger shocks, increased wheel travel, more transmission gears, and a stiffer frame than the outgoing Raptor. This truck has the performance of a heavily modified truck without the usual compromises regarding fit and finish, reliability, and road manners. While we expected the Raptor to perform well at speed, we were surprised by how well this truck worked for low-speed trail wheeling.

The biggest complaint from our staffers was the uninspiring exhaust note from the 3.5L high-output EcoBoost engine. Also, some felt that the twin-turbo engine was a little lazy with regards to throttle response. The dizzying array of terrain modes and stability control options was overwhelming at times, and we never did feel like we found the right combination to get the most out of the Raptor in the dunes. If you owned this truck you could likely dial it in with some gameresque combination of pushing buttons and secret passwords, but we did not find this to be as intuitive as it is on the other trucks.

The Power Wagon seems to be a well-kept secret. We are surprised we do not see more of these trucks put to backcountry use. The features on the Power Wagon include everything we typically add to our own projects, like solid axles with locking differentials and low gears, skidplates, and a front winch. There are also features straight from the factory that are not available from the aftermarket, such as the disconnecting front sway bar, which make the Power Wagon incredibly capable while providing OE fit and finish.

While the 6.4L Hemi makes over 400 hp, it only feels adequate in the 7,000-pound truck. All of that weight is evident on the trail too, where the tanklike Power Wagon sometimes struggled in places that the lighter Tacoma tiptoed through without issue. This truck benefits from plenty of aftermarket support though. It is basically like a big Wrangler Rubicon. If we had a Power Wagon we would add a set of rock sliders, throw on some 35-inch-tall tires, get an auxiliary fuel tank, and then hit the trails with no worries.

The Tacoma TRD Pro is full of buttons and gadgets like Multi Terrain Select and Hill Descent Control. These features are a bit of a black box, but as you would expect from a Toyota, they work well.

The Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro is not a direct competitor with the Ford Raptor, but it does use the same philosophy of adding bigger-diameter shocks and more wheel travel for increased off-road performance. While way down on power compared to the Raptor and Power Wagon, the Tacoma is noticeably lighter and nimbler in every situation from urban parking to dune bashing. It is also the least expensive truck of the three and got the best mileage, as you would expect from a midsized truck.

Our complaints about the Tacoma TRD Pro are the same as for other Tacomas, which mainly focus around the dated interior and uncomfortable seats. The shifting of the six-speed automatic is better than other Tacomas we have tested, but the jury is still out on the 3.5L V-6 engine and its lack of torque. The TRD Pro commands nearly $9,000 more than the TRD Off-Road package. For that difference we would be tempted to add aftermarket shocks and better tires than the P-metric Goodyears that come on the TRD Pro.

The one thing all of these trucks have in common is that they are far more capable than a standard base model, but you don’t even have to get your hands dirty before you wheel them. Plus, the entire package can be financed and the whole truck is covered under warranty. We are eager to get our hands on a Chevy Colorado ZR2 to see how it stacks up against the current crop of supertrucks. Will it be the magic bullet free from compromise? We can’t wait to find out. It is a good time to be a truck guy with good credit or a chunk of change in the bank account.

Ford is making history again, this time as the first manufacturer to offer a 3-inch-diameter, nine-position internal bypass shock from the factory. The suspension provides 13 inches of travel in the front, 13.9 in the rear. The previous generation of Raptor used 2 1/2-inch shocks and offered 11.2 inches of travel in front, 12.1 in the rear.
While designed for the desert, the Raptor suspension offers ample articulation for slow-speed trail work. The width of the truck offers excellent stability, but visibility and simply fitting it on tight trails can be challenging.
The Raptor’s twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 dominated at the dragstrip with its 450 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque. Thanks to the aluminum body, the new Raptor weighs 500 pounds less than the previous model despite substantial frame and shock mount reinforcements and a full undercarriage skidplate array.
The undercarriage of the Raptor is well protected from the front to the lower A-arms with a host of aluminum skidplating that’s ribbed for extra strength and rigidity and bolstered by steel reinforcements where required. Not only does the skidplating protect the undercarriage, but the flat shape helps undercarriage aerodynamics and improves mileage. Also note the closed tow loops that are easy to access at the front of the skidplate. Two more real loops are at the rear.
The rear selectable locking differential and front Torsen limited-slip differential provide the Raptor with excellent traction on the trail. There is even a series of cameras that can display views on the touchscreen in the dash at slow trail speeds, but we found them to be no substitute for a good spotter.
The Raptor comes shod with 35-inch-tall BFGoodrich AT KO2 tires. These are the newest generation of the tire previously used on the Raptor, and in the same size. They are mounted on forged aluminum wheels that can be converted to true beadlocks using rings available through Ford.
High-speed driving is not the strongest suit of the heavy Power Wagon, but with specially tuned coils front and rear and well-valved Bilsteins at all four corners, it did much better than you’d expect a 3/4-ton pickup to manage. And with 410 hp on tap and lockers from and rear, it never got stuck. In fact, this was the truck of choice to extract other vehicles when they were mired.
The Power Wagon is the only one of the three that offers a solid front axle and a recirculating-ball steering box instead of a rack-and-pinion. The AAM 9 1/4 front is a beefy unit filled with 4.10 gears and an electronic selectable locker. We could do without the CAFE–inspired axle disconnect, though.
The Power Wagon shares the radius arm front suspension design with the rest of the 2500 line, but with a few tweaks. The Bilstein shocks and coil spring rates are Power Wagon–specific. The passenger-side radius arm on the Power Wagon has an extra bushing that reduces binding when the suspension articulates. There is also an electronically disconnecting front sway bar, just like the Wrangler Rubicon.
Placing a legit shift lever on the floor of the Power Wagon not only ensures that your transfer case engages without relying on wiring and solenoids, but it also frees up space on the dash for the front and rear selectable lockers and electronic disconnecting sway bar controls.
The Power Wagon is the only truck that comes from the factory with a winch. And not just any winch; it has a 12,000-pound Warn. Our only complaint is that it has steel cable, and we would prefer synthetic cable for safety and to reduce weight on the nose of the truck.
Yes, it is a Power Wagon, we know. One of our only complaints with this truck is the “Look at me!” graphics on the bed and the tailgate. The bed graphics are somewhat forgivable since they emulate graphics of the 1970s Dodge pickups, but the tailgate lettering is a bit overwhelming. We understand Ram’s interest in setting this truck apart from the regular 2500, but we prefer sleepers.
Like the TRD Off-Road model, the TRD Pro offers Crawl Control, which is essentially cruise control for low-speed trail duty. Some feel that it lessens the driving experience, but it is incredibly effective. Just push the Crawl Control button and dial the switch to select speeds from 1 to 5 mph and the truck does the rest whether climbing or descending. We don’t care for the off-road controls on the overhead console next to the sunroof button, however. Even after a week in the vehicle we still found ourselves searching for the buttons on the dash or next to the shifter where they should be.
The independent front suspension and rear leaf-spring suspension on the Tacoma worked incredibly well in every environment we encountered, from the ramp to the pavement to the trail. As you would expect, most of the articulation came from the rear of the truck with its long, supple leaf springs.
The TRD Pro Tacoma is set apart from the TRD Off-Road model by the addition of 2 1/2-inch-diameter Fox internal bypass shocks. Compared with the standard Tacoma, the front coilovers provide one inch of additional wheel travel, and the rears are remote-reservoir models that provide 2 1/2 inches of additional travel.
Despite our best efforts we were never able to bottom out the suspension of the Tacoma in the sand. This truck was a blast in the dunes with the traction control off and the transmission in manual mode to keep the rpm above 3,500 where the engine makes its power. The lighter weight compared to the other trucks was most noticeable in this environment.
The TRD Pro Tacoma rearend uses an 8 3/4-inch ring gear with an electronic locker. Unlike past models, the solenoid is within the third member, where it is better protected from the elements. This is the same rearend Toyota uses on the Hilux models sold around the world.

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