We Choose The Best Of 2006
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.