The year 2008 saw pickup truck sales across North America fall by around 300,000 units. But despite this, purchases of new pickups continue to be steady and were forecast to top 1.6 million units for 2009. As the truck market starts to slowly recover, we thought that a comparison of the top-selling 1/2-ton pickups was in order. So, on Canada Day, the four top- selling 1/2-ton pickups came out to Head Lake, Ontario, for some comparison testing.
While the field is small, it was obvious from our time behind the wheel that each of the manufacturers' research and development teams work hard at constantly improving the state of their trucks; qualities and components that we considered superior just two or three years ago now seemed second-rate by comparison -that's how quickly things change in this highly competitive market.
Of the trucks we tested, the Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram were the newest in terms of their most recent updates. Both were '09 models (neither brand plans any changes of any significance for the '10 model year, save the limited-production SVT Raptor version of the F-150), and both featured body, powertrain, and suspension upgrades. Both trucks have scored various wins from automotive publications and writers' groups. The Chevy Silverado that we were given to test by GM Canada was the unusual one of the bunch because of its hybrid powertrain. This gas/electric system allows this pickup to start on electric motor power only, and during traffic stops the engine shuts down to save fuel. The electric motors also kick in at highway speeds to aid in acceleration, again saving fuel. This hybrid's best feature, though, is probably the fact that operations are seamless and require nothing special from the driver.
The Toyota Tundra we had on hand was one of the first 2010 models available in Canada. It was equipped with the new 4.6L V-8 engine, which will now be the entry-level motor, and has been specifically added to offer a fuel-efficient alternative to the powerful 5.7L V-8 that powered the latest Tundra since its debut as an '07 model. Toyota is actually just the latest builder to pay special attention to fuel economy. Each of the other vehicles has reduced fuel consumption as well, most by at least 10 percent from previous generations.
We spent over 30 hours driving these four pickups hundreds of miles testing them back-to-back. This is key, because as we've learned over the years, nothing highlights the good (or bad) of one vehicle over another like driving them back-to-back. To elevate this technique to the next level, we decided to do the testing on a fixed loop of gravel/secondary road/highway circus-style, following one another and pooling our conclusions on each truck between rounds.
The testing of these four pickups was as intense as any we have ever done, but because of the small number, we felt that to try and judge categories numerically wouldn't work-the sample was too small. So with only three judges on hand, we agreed that it was best simply to report our observations rather than try and declare a winner.
Each of our test trucks was V-8 powered, with the Toyota sporting the smallest engine and the hybrid Chevy the largest at 6.0 liters. Interestingly, from a fuel perspective, the hybrid saved less than 1 mpg over the new 4.6L Toyota engine. And while this spoke to the strides made by Toyota to put a fuel-efficient motor in its Tundra, the real difference emerged when towing.
The new Ram came to us equipped with the 5.7L Hemi engine that has been doing duty in that truck for several years now. The F-150 was equipped with the 5.4L V-8, which has also been around as long as the Hemi, but which was updated with new valves and coupled to an all-new six-speed automatic transmission (the Dodge stayed with the previous generation's five-speed auto).
The Dodge is now the only truck in the group that doesn't run a six-speed automatic transmission, so it's obvious that multi-gear transmissions are playing a much larger role in power and fuel management these days. (A far cry from three-on-the-tree.) These gearboxes also show off advanced computer programming with tow/haul settings that electronically change the shift points for acceleration and also allow manual control for use with engine braking on long grades. Many of these changes are innovations that have migrated from the heavy-duty truck segment. And frankly, considering what 1/2-ton trucks tow nowadays, these changes are needed.