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2006 Pickup Truck Of The Year

Posted in Project Vehicles on January 1, 2006 Comment (0)
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Photographers: The Four Wheeler Staff

As the dog days of summer give way to the colorful hues of fall each year, you can put money on the fact that your Four Wheeler magazine staff is hard at work putting the newest pickup trucks through their paces in order to find the best new or redesigned truck on the market. As usual, this year's competition racked up highway miles, ran the obligatory tests at the dragstrip, and dirtied up the trucks over our top-secret Four Wheeler test loop. In addition to the usual battery of tests, this year's examination brought our caravan from the bustling cityscape of our Los Angeles office, through the high desert town of Victorville, up Highway 395 in central California for a brief stop at the authentic soda fountain in the historic mining town of Randsburg, and on to our Eastern Sierra base camp of Bishop, California, and its adjoining terrain.

For the 2006 model year, we invited a representative model of each vehicle line that met our eligibility criteria of being on sale by January 15, 2006, having a production run of at least 500 units, and having significant revisions (including, but not limited to, an all-new design, new powertrain, suspension, or 4WD system). Meeting the requirements were the revised Dodge Ram, and the new-for-Isuzu and -Mitsubishi i-350 and Raider. Lincoln declined our invitation to test the Mark LT, explaining that it wasn't necessarily targeted at the Four Wheeler audience. Hey Lincoln, we like luxury, too! With keys to the participants in hand, we immediately got to work scoring each vehicle on the key attributes of trailability, objective data, on-road dynamics, interior, and exterior. As always, we requested that all of our competitors were delivered to us equipped with the most aggressive tires offered, as well as an all-important traction-aiding device.

Squint long enough and you still might be hard pressed to see all of the changes that lie underneath the skin of the 2006 Dodge Ram 1500. While most testers agreed the freshening of the exterior was the best execution yet of the new Dodge look, the real news was in the hydroformed frame and coilover spring front suspension. Dodge sent us a Ram 1500 Quad Cab with the 5.7L Hemi V-8 and five-speed 545RFE automatic transmission combination complete with the new 1/2-ton TRX4 off-pavement package, which you can think of as a "Power Wagon Light." Included in this option box is a limited-slip, 3.92 gears, monotube shocks, an exclusive wheel and tire package, and skidplates, although we found it curious that one of the most vulnerable parts of the underbelly-the plastic gas tank-was left unprotected. Our tester came equipped with an electronic part-time NV243 transfer case, with a driver-selectable knob that features a Neutral setting.

If you noticed that the Isuzu i-350 has more than a passing resemblance to the familiar Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon twins, you would be correct, as the i-350 is a mechanically identical sibling to those two. But don't think of it as just a rebadged Bow Tie, because Isuzu did the majority of development work on the vehicle, and it actually came to market first overseas as the Isuzu D-max, with a selection of Isuzu engines. In the U.S., the D-max name is changed to i-350, and Vortec provides the motivation with its 3.5L DOHC I-5. Optioned as close as possible to its GM siblings, the i-350 costs less and has a better warranty, something that makes the nearly identical truck more appealing to discerning buyers not concerned with whose name is on the grille. Despite being touted as off-pavement-worthy, the aluminum front diff housing and transfer case were curiously left without skidplate protection, even though the subframe and crossmember design make mounting this vital armor an assignment that the newest intern in the chassis department could have handled. The electronic Isuzu-sourced transfer case is operated via pushbuttons, and does include a Neutral setting.

For those of you that fondly remember the Mitsubishi Mighty Max, you'll applaud Mitsu's reemergence in the truck market with the 2006 Raider DuroCross. Mechanically identical to the Dodge Dakota, the Raider offers love-it-or-hate-it Mitsu-family styling that is not only adventurous and daring, but manages to share only the roof panel and glass with the Dakota. The bold interior also differs from the Dakota, where the black-on-black color scheme, accented with some bright work, give it a sportier and decidedly less pedestrian feel than the Dakota. Functionally, the DuroCross option adds BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires, skidplates, a limited-slip, upgraded shocks, and fender flares. An optional 500-watt Alpine sound system rocks anyone within earshot, although its subwoofer takes up a lot of otherwise useful space in the back. When it comes to underbody protection, the Raider has its game on, as it leaves nothing to chance, which is good because it also happens to be the lowest in the group. The electronic part-time NVG233HD transfer case is typical Dodge truck fare, with a driver-selectable knob and a Neutral setting.

Before the trucks have a chance to get dirty (or damaged), we get right to business out at the L.A. County Raceway dragstrip in Palmdale, California, where we collect our empirical data such as 0-60 mph and quarter-mile acceleration and 60-0 mph braking. We also gather other important numbers, such as ground clearance, departure and approach angles, and Ramp Travel, which all translates in to 25 percent of the score. Meanwhile, our resident camera handler, Senior Editor Ken Brubaker, got down to business capturing detail shots of the pickups.

Not unexpectedly, the 345hp Dodge won top acceleration honors at the track with a 0-60 best of 9.73 seconds and a quarter-mile run of 17.38 at 82.1 mph, trouncing the Mitsu and Isuzu, which were busy fighting it out for themselves with 0-60 runs of 11.13 for the 230hp Raider and 11.42 seconds for the 220hp i-350. By the quarter-mile, the 800-pound weight advantage of the 3,802-pound I-5-powered i-350 began to show as it nipped the quarter-mile times of the approximately 4,600-pound V-8-powered Raider with a run of 18.35 at 78.3 mph, versus 18.36 at 77.04. The middleweight Raider outbraked the competition with a 60-0 distance of 147 feet-surprising, considering it wore the most aggressive tires in the test.

Since the majority of the time spent in any new vehicle is on-road, we logged over 5,000 collective miles on highways and roadways, evaluating which vehicles are the most road-friendly; criteria such as ride quality, passing power, and passenger comfort are taken into consideration and account for 20 percent of the total score.

On the road, the Dodge impressed with its smooth ride and nimble handling for such a big vehicle. The Hemi passing power never let us down, though the 2006 model with Multi-displacement System (MDS), while rated at the same 345 hp and torque as our 2005 Power Wagon, felt a little sluggish when compared to our 2005 PTOTY-winning Dodge Power Wagon. We think this can most likely be attributed to the 3.92 gears of the TRX4 package, compared to the 4.56s in the Power Wagon, and a green, low-mileage engine in our tester.

We also questioned the Dodge's dashboard redesign, which doesn't necessarily look better than the outgoing model and provides little benefit beyond fitting a less-intuitive, full-screened, map-based GPS system in place of the old data-driven system. In fact, several testers disliked the hard dash materials and felt the dash design looked less integrated into the door panels than in previous designs, especially since the panel gaps appeared wider. However, all is not lost on the updated interior, which offers near luxury-car levels of solitude and redesigned seats, which are much less fatiguing over a long drive, with good visibility in all directions. Steering feel is generally good, although we noted that it felt a little quick off-center. Logbook praise was also aimed at the big simple knobs of the climate control system, and especially the A/C system, which blew cold immediately, no matter the outside temperature.

Jumping from the big Ram to the compact i-350, we immediately noticed a slow, heavy steering feel, and a powerband that left something to be desired, especially when attempting to pass on two-lane stretches of highway to keep up with the other vehicles in the group. The ride was smooth and quiet, if unexceptional, but the silence was consistently interrupted by interior squeaks and rattles (and the audible complaints of overheated editors who felt that the A/C didn't blow cold enough) that repeated to us how the i-350 falls short of the competition. The driving position was good, with good sightlines to the front and sides. Fortunately, the i-350 doesn't go fast enough to attract the attention of Officer Frank, because the giant pillowy rear-seat headrests block a good portion of the rear window. The thin door panels and seating position of the Isuzu reminded us of older generations of the Isuzu Rodeo. On the pavement, the i-350, with its overworked five-cylinder, unsupportive seats, and down-market interior materials, felt the most industrial and trucklike of the group.

The real surprise out on the highway was the Mitsubishi Raider, which we felt offered the best overall size and interior comfort for long trips. The perfectly weighted steering and excellent ride quality, coupled with the best seats in the test and a carlike driving position, made the Raider a staff favorite out on the road. With a deafening Alpine sound system and Sirius satellite radio, you'll have to stop for gas and a bladder break before the entertainment runs out. We also appreciated the see-through rear headrests, but felt they could have been designed to match the interior better, rather than looking like something from a 1980s-era Volvo parts bin.

All of that highway driving eventually took us to the real point of this test: The dirt, where 30 percent of our total points are weighted to off-pavement performance. We found as many varying terrains as possible from Johnson Valley to the Olancha Dunes, and the ancient Bristlecone pine forests of the White Mountains to Cerro Gordo, another historic excursion, just east of Owens Dry Lake. Cerro Gordo is a fun and mildly challenging trail, offering 10,000-foot vistas stretching from the Sierras to the west, to Saline and Death Valleys in the East. A mid-trail attraction is the well-preserved remnants of an old salt tramway that stretches to Owens Dry Lake, a sight that is definitely worth four or five hours of your time and 30 miles of careful driving. Along our journey we were able to evaluate the trucks' capability in gravel, sand, dirt, rocks, and water.

Our first opportunity to see these trucks in action was at the Olancha Dunes OHV area, where the high-horsepower Dodge proved to be the most fun to bully through the sands. Although the Ram couldn't hide its mass on undulating two-tracks, the tuning of the monotube shocks was spot-on, and the compliant new front suspension design never bottomed out hard. In some spots, the Dodge was a bit wide for the trail, but fortunately, the high adjustability of the driver seat allowed us to hang out the window for better views, and a tight limited-slip proved itself on the rocks by keeping the relatively low-geared Dodge on the intended line. Beefy tow hooks and Goodyear Wrangler tires never left us worried-in fact, the Ram played tow truck a few times during the test.

Some of the most fun trail testing came at the steering wheel of the i-350, as long as altitude wasn't involved. Climbing steep two-tracks leading to above 10,000 feet, the i-350's 3.5L five-cylinder struggled in the thin air, but on the downslopes of the same trail, the compact chassis of the Isuzu easily made it the most enjoyable to drive down the trail fast, confidently rotating the tail out and bringing it back; it was the most at home barreling down a dusty ridge. Contrary to past experience, the factory-supplied Eaton G80 automatic locker engaged smoothly and provided confident feel over the rocks. We were sure the street-oriented General tires would meet their match on the rocky slopes of the Cerro Gordo trail. However, none of our vehicles suffered any rubber failures. The i-350's tires also offered the best flotation of the group, somewhat making up for its lack of horsepower on the dunes. Most testers agreed that the Isuzu held its own on the trail, and would be worth considering.

In the Mitsu, the seating position that felt so good on the highway turned on the Raider when out on the trail, causing our testers to feel like they were driving something more akin to a bathtub, and not offering very good sightlines over the magically disappearing hood. In the sand, the Raider was the least fun to drive, thanks to its lack of horsepower, major axle hop, and a low-hanging underbelly, which flattened the naturally rolling dunes like a road grader, leaving smooth skidplate marks in its wake. Another problem with the Mitsu interior is the placement of the transfer-case shift knob, which is partially hidden by the dash and is low and away from the driver, obscuring the selections. Fortunately, the excellent BFG All-Terrain tires are part of the DuroCross option package, and gripped and clawed at the terrain, redeeming some of the other Raider shortcomings, such as great front tow hooks that are rendered useless, unless you don't mind cutting away at the fascia of your new truck. In the end, the Raider was let down by its low ground clearance and low-hanging running boards.

At the end of a busy week on the road and away from our families, we collected the logbooks, added up the points, and picked a winner which we feel best represents the needs of the readership of Four Wheeler magazine. Turn the page to see our winner, and get those letters coming!

What's Hot: Tossable, fun handling on the trail, locking rear differential, lots of truck in a compact package.

What's Not: Underpowered engine, lack of skidplating, interior quality lags behind competition. Did we mention underpowered engine?

Our Take: The Isuzu is the most trucklike truck in the group and was great on the trail. We wonder if we'd like it more if it had the overseas-only Isuzu diesel in it.

From the Logbook:* "Good tire flotation in the sand is hampered by the lack of horsepower."* "Good sightlines on the trail, a blast to drive in the dirt."* "Lack of skidplates renders everything vulnerable."* "Steering is awfully heavy."* "The rear seat can't be folded flat because the headrests aren't removable."

View Slideshow

What's Hot: Adventurous design, better interior than Dakota, awesome stereo.

What's Not: Adventurous design, low underbelly, lack of power, low seating position.

Our Take: If you don't need the capability or the room of a fullsize, don't overlook the Raider. This may be one of the best daily-driver 4x4s on the market.

From the Logbook:* "The Raider's BFGs are the best tires in the test."* "The chrome tailpipe looks good, but is vulnerable to trail damage."* "Front suspension is a bit soft for whoops sections, and the Raider sits too low."* "V-6 power, but V-8 fuel economy. Where is the advantage?"* "Possibly the best highway manners in the test.

View Slideshow

As if getting a low-hanging Raider stuck in the soft sands of Olancha Dunes with the boss in the co-pilot seat wasn't dramatic enough, our man decided that slipping a 5,500-pound Dodge Ram off of a V-notch and into a boulder would really get the boss excited. In order to protect the guilty, we won't tell you that the Dodge earned this beauty mark at the hands of a culprit with "tech editor" in his title.

View Slideshow

Senior Editor Douglas McColloch:
If I towed a lot, the Ram, by a big margin. For an out-of-the-box 'wheeler, the Isuzu. But if I had to own one truck from this field, it would be the Raider. Call me a softy for the ol' Mighty Max, but of the three, the Raider's the most comfortable for long highway flogs, the most maneuverable in traffic, and 'wheelable enough to handle most basic, non-hardcore trail work. I'd order mine with the BFGs and Sirius Alpine, lose the running boards, and enjoy the quiet competence of a versatile street-and-trail rig.

Senior Editor Ken Brubaker:
For me, it is the Isuzu i-350. Nauseating front-end styling notwithstanding, of these three pickups I felt it was the easiest and most fun to cavort with on the trail. In addition, I like its economics-best fuel mileage; best warranty; and it's the least expensive of the three.

Tech Editor Sean Holman:
Even though the i-350 was the most fun on the trail, I have to go with the Ram here because it is the best all-around vehicle. It may be big, but it is powerful, handles much smaller than it is, and 'wheels with the best of the factory pickups.

Feature Editor Robin Stover:
The new 1/2-ton Dodge Ram is armed with assets from the ground up that make it favorable for individuals who need a rough and ready pickup for work or play, yet who require sophisticated in-cab comforts similar to those found in luxury sedans. A revised front suspension setup gives the new Ram better handling both on and off the pavement, while Chrysler's born-again Hemi mill supplies plenty of muscle to leave classmates in the dust.

Art Director Greg Smith:
The Ram is easily my favorite, hands down. I'm the throttle-happy type that doesn't mind paying extra for the necessary horsepower that I crave. Add in the towing benefits, and this is the truck for me.

Final Results

Dodge has done it again. By offering a powerful, nimble, and refined fullsize truck, with a new aftermarket-friendly front suspension, Dodge has set the standard in 4x4 1/2-ton trucks and for all new pickups for the 2006 model year. The mileage-enhancing MDS system makes owning a fullsize truck friendlier than ever, and the changes that make the Ram more refined on the highway make it more comfortable on the trail. Fortunately in this redesign, Dodge didn't forget about the four-wheeling enthusiast community and offers a comprehensive TRX4 off-road package that stands out amongst its peers. For only $900, the TRX4 off-pavement package adds just about everything you need to explore backcountry trails and is a great foundation for a project buildup.

Testers praised the Dodge for its low crawl ratio, which allowed the Dodge to ease over obstacles, and an ABS system that was not intrusive in 4-Lo, proving that Dodge engineers had an eye toward the four-wheeler. Beefy recovery points easily accepted thick tow straps and differential breathers mounted high in the body were just a few little extras that made the Dodge trailworthy right off of the showroom floor.

There were few criticisms of the Dodge, mostly centering around its dashboard and less-intuitive navigation system, neither of which caused the Dodge to be left behind on the trail.

With so many miles of testing, over so many differing terrains, the solid performance of the Dodge Ram made it an easy pick. We can't wait to get some more miles under our belt when our very own long-term tester arrives in early 2006.

What's Hot: Hemi power, refined ride, more supportive seats, trail performance.

What's Not: Plasticky dashboard, not enough bed tie-downs, Germanic nav system.

Our Take: It's a winner!

From the Logbook:* "The new dash with its big gaps is not an improvement."* "The Ram has a good low range, making for controlled hill descents."* "The TRX4 package is great for the common wheeler."* "All of the door seals are continuous, helping to keep dust out of the cabin."* "The new IFS is supple without being wallowy."

View Slideshow

One commonality of our test mules was the presence of independent front suspension. We spent a good amount of time under each vehicle, evaluating IFS architecture and componentry to find out how new technology is finding its way into 4x4s. This year, it was Chrysler's well-thought-out IFS under the big Ram that commanded applause from our editors. Immensely improved from the previous generations, the Ram's latest revision features a coilover shock in place of the torsion bars that were found on all 1/2-ton previous-generation ('02-'05) Dodge Ram 1500s. The system also uses an innovative aluminum spindle, which adds strength while reducing unsprung weight, which in the world of 'wheeling is of utmost importance. We favored the Dodge IFS because it dramatically improves handling, gives a smoother ride, provides more cross-lateral articulation, and can take tons of abuse. In addition, the coilover design opens the door to aftermarket suspension systems and lift kits that can offer far greater performance gains than could ever be achieved with a standard torsion-bar setup.-Robin Stover

GENERAL
Vehicle/model {{{Dodge Ram 1500}}} SLT Quad Cab 4x4 {{{Isuzu}}} i-350 Crew Cab 4x4 {{{Mitsubishi Raider}}} DuroCross Extended Cab 4x4
Base price $30,860 $27,368 $28,590
Price as tested $42,090 $30.{{{300}}}.{{{57}}} $31,080
Options as tested Inferno Red Crystal Pearl Coat Paint ($225);
premium cloth 40/20/40 bench seat ($455);
Customer Preferred Package 26T ($1,250);
Light Group ($175); Trailer Tow Group ($335);
antilock four-wheel disc brakes ($495);
545RFE transmission ($1,170); 3.92 axle ratio ($50);
5.7L Hemi MDS engine ($995); rear power sliding
window ($295); security alarm ($150); 34-gallon fuel tank ($55); steering-wheel-mounted audio controls ($75); six-CD/GPS display nav radio with seven Infinity speakers ($2,545); Uconnect hands-free communication ($275); leather-wrapped steering wheel ($45); LT275/70R17 OWL all-terrain tires ($175); power adjustable pedals ($120); under-rail box bedliner ($245); rear-seat video system ($1,{{{200}}}); destination ($800)
Limited Package ($1,839); special paint ($165)dealer-installed bedliner ($278.57);destination ($650) High-Output Audio Package ($1,845);destination ($645)
ENGINE
Type OHV V-8 with multi-displacement DOHC I-5 SOHC V-8
Displacement (ci/liter) 343/5.7 211/3.5 287/4.7
Bore x stroke (in) 3.92 x 3.58 93.0 x 102.0 3.66 x 3.40
Compression ratio 9.6:1 10:1 9:1
Intake SMPFI SFI SMPI
Mfg.'s power rating @ rpm (hp) 345 @ 5,400 220 @ 5,{{{600}}} 230 @ 4,600
Mfg.'s torque rating @ rpm (lb-ft) 375 @ 4,200 225 @ 2,800 290 @ 3,600
Mfg.'s suggested fuel type Regular unleaded Regular unleaded Regular unleaded
DRIVETRAIN
Transmission 5-45RFE five-speed automatic 4L60-E four-speed automatic 5-45RFE five-speed automatic
Ratios:
  First 3.00:1 3.06:1 3.00:1
  Second 1.67:1 (upshift), 1.50:1 (kickdown) 1.63:1 1.67:1 (upshift), 1.50:1 (kickdown)
  Third 1.00:1 1.00:1 1.00:1
  Fourth 0.75:1 0.70:1 0.75:1
  Fifth 0.67:1 N/A 0.67:1
  Reverse 3.84:1 2.29:1 3.84:1
Axle ratio 3.92:1 3.73:1 3.92:1
Transfer case NV243 Isuzu T150 NV233
Low-range ratio 2.72:1 2.48:1 2.59:1
Crawl ratio 32.0:1 28.3:1 30.5:1
FRAME/BODY
Frame Steel ladder Welded steel ladder H-frame Steel ladder
Body Steel Steel Steel
SUSPENSION/AXLES
Front

Double wishbone, coilover-shock IFS/Detroit Axle with205mm-diameter ring gear

Hi-stance IFS, torsion bars, shock absorbers,stabilizer bar/AAM with 7 5/8-inch ring gear IFS, upper and lower A-arms, coil springs over gas-pressure shocks, link-type stabilizer bar/8.07-inch ring gear
Rear Longitudinal leaf springs, gas-charged shocks/Detroit Axle with 9.25-inch ring-gear diameter, limited-slip Hi-stance two-stage multileaf springs, shockabsorbers/AAM with 8-inch ring gear,limited-slip Multileaf two-st age longitudinal springs, staggeredgas-pressure shock absorbers, link-type stabilizerbar/live axle, 9.25-inch-diameter ring gear,limited-slip
STEERING
Type Power rack-and-pinion Power rack-and-pinion Power assisted rack-and-pinion
Turns (lock-to-lock) 2.75 3.2 3.18
Ratio 15.4:1 18.3:1 17.4:1
BRAKES
Front 13.2-inch, vented disc, two-piston pin-slider caliper 11.1-inch disc 12.3-inch vented disc with dual-piston sliding caliper
Rear 13.8-inch disc, single-piston pin-slider caliper 11.6-inch drum 11.6-inch drum
ABS Four wheel Four wheel Rear (four-wheel ABS optional)
WHEELS/TIRES
Wheels (in) 18x8 aluminum 15x7 aluminum 16x8 cast aluminum machined
Tires LT275/70R17 Goodyear {{{Wrangler}}} P265/75R15 General on/off road steel-belted radial P265/70R16 BFGoodrich All-Terrain
FUEL ECONOMY
EPA city/highway 14/18 17/22 15/20
Observed city/highway/trail 12.5 19.6 14.4
DIMENSIONS/CAPACITIES
Weight (lb) 4,819 3,802 4,593
Wheelbase (in) 140.5 126.0 131.3
Overall length (in) 227.7 207.1 (without rear bumper) 219.9
Overall width (in) 79.5 68.6 71.9
Height (in) 75.9 67.0 68.6
Track f/r (in) 68.0/67.9 59.6/57.5 {{{62}}}.8/62.9
Minimum ground clearance (in) 9.6 9.3 7.9
Turning diameter, curb-to-curb (ft) 46.0 44.6 44.0
Bed dimensions LxWxH (in) 98.3x66.4x20.2 61.1x57.2x18.6 76x59.6x17.6
Approach/departure angles (deg) 18.3/25.8 29/26 22.3/22.6
GVWR (lb) 6,350 5,300 6,010
Payload (lb) 1,600 1,190 1,420
Maximum towing capacity (lb) 9,250 4,000 6,500
Seating 6 5 2 or 3/2
Fuel capacity (gal) 34 19.6 22
PERFORMANCE
0-60 mph (sec) 9.73 11.42 11.13
Quarter-mile (sec @ mph) 17.38 @ 82.1 18.35 @ 78.3 18.36 @ 77.0
Braking 60-0 mph (ft) 174.9 161.3 147.8

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