Once again it's time for us to round up the new year's crop of pickups and drive them through the gauntlet of tests that comprise Four Wheeler's Pickup Truck of the Year comparison test. This year, this meant braving triple-digit temperatures while we changed rock-cut tires out in the middle of the desert, but trust us--it's worth it. That's because putting six new trucks through our test prescription definitely is a terrific opportunity to learn what we need to know about these vehicles.
This year we decided upon a small deviation from past practice. Instead of asking the manufacturers to send us only what was new, we invited each manufacturer to send us one fullsize and one compact. Everyone came to play, but sent the products they most wanted to see us evaluate. In the end, the Chevrolet Avalanche, Dodge Ram 1500, Ford F-150, Nissan Frontier, Toyota Tacoma, and Toyota Tundra showed up to duke it out.
We found ourselves having to come up with some rules to deal with vehicles that blur the line between pickup and SUV. For instance, we decided that if a vehicle possessed something that could be described as a pickup bed, it had to compete in Pickup Truck of the Year, and not our Four Wheeler of the Year competition. This saved us from the headaches of trying to split hairs between whether a vehicle was actually a truck or an SUV.
With the vehicles at hand and our test equipment packed, we headed out for our multi-day, multi-faceted competition. Here's how it all shook out.
How We Test Them
Lots of work goes into Four Wheeler's Pickup Truck of the Year. First, we have to get all the vehicles and staff together, a chore which is a lot like herding cats. Then we head out to our testing grounds in the desert of Southern California. Over a period of four days, we cover lots of ground with plenty of rocky trails, high-speed washes, and sand dunes thrown in. In between the dirt sections, we try to traverse a good mixture of highway and twisty back roads in the effort to find the best performing pickup on and off the road.
Throughout the test, the judges are constantly evaluating the pickups and making illegible notes in their books. Judging consists of five separate categories each with many subcategories. The Mechanical category counts for 25 percent of the total, and takes into account such aspects as performance of the engine, transmission, transfer case, brakes, and steering. Next is Trail Performance, which makes up 30 percent of the total points and consists of performance on high-speed trails, rocky trails, and sand dunes. Accounting for 20 percent of the points total is the Highway Performance category. Here highway ride, handling, maneuverability, visibility, and other aspects are judged. The Interior compromises 15 percent of the scoring and every aspect of the interior is evaluated. Finally, the Exterior accounts for 10 percent of the score. Fit and finish, quality of paint, and overall appearance are evaluated here. In the end, the scores are tabulated and a winner is determined.
The Four Wheeler Slow Race
One of the tests to which we submit every set of Pickup Truck of the Year candidates is the slow race. We intend it as a simple and graphic demonstration of how each vehicle uses its particular combination of idle speed and gearing. What we're looking for is a long, slow crawl. We stick each vehicle in low-range, shift each into Drive (or First gear), and when someone hollers "Go!" into the walkie-talkies, then we take our feet from the brakes. We crawl for about 50 feet, and when someone yells "Stop!" into the radio, we stop.
This year it was clear that the Avalanche had the best combination of idle speed and gearing, for it finished at the back of the pack. Almost as slow, however, was the Dodge Ram. Next came the Tacoma, then the Ford, then the Tundra, and, fastest of all the crawlers, the Frontier.
Engines and Transfer Cases
Chevy Avalanche 5.3L V-8
The Chevrolet Avalanche is powered by the Vortec 5300 V-8. Measuring in at 5.3 liters, or 327ci, the Vortec uses a bore and stroke of 3.78x3.62 to develop 285 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 325 lb-ft or torque at 4,000 rpm. The block is constructed of iron. Aluminum heads with two valves per cylinder top it off. Compression ratio is 9.5:1, and fuel is fed into the combustion chambers by a sequential electronic fuel-injection system.
The Avalanche uses a New Venture 246 transfer case. This uses an aluminum case and features a low-range of 2.72:1. A unique feature of the 246 is Autotrac, a system that, when selected, keeps the truck in two-wheel-drive until tire slippage is sensed. When that happens, the system transfers power to the front axles until traction is restored.
Dodge Ram 4.7L V-8
Our Dodge Ram 1500 test vehicle appeared in our parking lot wearing a 4.7L (287ci) engine that produces 240 horsepower at 3,200 rpm and 300 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm. The block of this engine is made of cast iron and features a bore of 3.66 inches and a stroke of 3.40 inches. On top of the block sit aluminum heads that feature a total of 16 valves controlled by a single overhead cam for each head.
Splitting the power front to rear on our Dodge Ram 1500 is a New Venture 241 transfer case. Made with an aluminum case, it is chain-driven and features low-range gearing of 2.72:1. A manual shifter controls this easy-to-shift transfer case, a feature that was appreciated by our testers.
Ford F-150 5.4L V-8
We found the biggest engine of our bunch this year under the hood of the Ford F-150. Measuring in at 5.4 liters (330 ci), the Triton V-8 produces 260 horsepower at 4,500 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque at a nice-and-low 2,500 rpm. Other specs include a 3.55x4.16 bore-and-stroke and a compression ratio of 9.0:1. The valvetrain is composed of single overhead cams controlling two valves per cylinder. A sequential multi-port electronic fuel-injection system supplies the fuel.
A Borg-Warner 44-06 transfer case sends power to both axles. This aluminum transfer case is part-time, and is chain-driven. Low-range for the 44-06 is a respectable 2.64:1 and our test vehicle featured an electronic shifter.
Nissan Frontier 3.3L V-6
Powering our Nissan Frontier was the optional supercharged 3.3L V-6 engine. It uses an Eaton M62 Roots-type supercharger that delivers a maximum of 7.5 pounds of manifold pressure to boost output to 210 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 246 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm. Also helping produce horsepower and torque are heads equipped with 24 valves and controlled by dual overhead cams. Running 91-octane fuel is recommended.
The job of transferring power to both axles is handled by Nissan's corporate two-speed transfer case. It is similar to the other transfer cases in this test in that it is made of aluminum and is chain-driven. However, it does feature the highest low-range gearing of our group, at 2.02:1.
Toyota Tacoma 3.4L V-6
Toyota designates the engine powering the Tacoma as the 5VZ-FE. The 3.4L V-6 uses a compression ratio of 9.6:1 and a bore and stroke of 3.68x3.23 to help it create 190 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 220 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm. More power-producing parts come in the form of 24-valve aluminum heads with dual-overhead cams. A distributorless ignition system sparks fuel that is fed by an electronic fuel-injection system.
Controlling distribution of power is a transfer case built by Aisinseiki, a subsidiary of Toyota. Constructed of aluminum, the part-time transfer case features a low-range of 2.56:1. Shifting the T-case is a lever that uses a button to engage high-range and a rearward pull of the lever itself to find low-range.
Toyota Tundra 4.7L V-8
Our favorite engine of the test was the 4.7L i-Force V-8 that produces 245 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 315 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. Lots of technology can be found on this mill. It is the only V-8 of our test to feature four valves per cylinder and double overhead cams. Its block is constructed of cast iron and features a 3.70x3.31 bore-and-stroke and a compression ratio of 9.6:1. Aluminum heads top off this high-tech engine.
Another Aisinseiki transfer case is found under the Tundra. Like the Tacoma's, it is constructed of aluminum, is part-time, and features a 2.56:1 low-range. However, unlike the Tacoma, the Tundra uses a fully electronic system that utilizes buttons to shift the transfer case.
Nissan Frontier Crew Cab SC
With the introduction of the Crew Cab Frontier in 2000, Nissan was one of the first companies to enter the compact crew-cab market. Since then the Frontier hasn't been left alone. Last year, the Nissan received a new front fascia, along with a supercharger option. For 2002, the Frontier gets a redesigned interior and now comes in a long-bed version that features a cargo area that is 74.6 inches long--the standard bed measures 56.3-inches.
Powering our longbed Frontier was the 3.3L supercharged V-6 that we first tested in last year's Pickup Truck of the Year test. As was the case last year, this engine was not a favorite of our testers. While this engine's claimed 210 horsepower and 246 lb-ft of torque look good on paper, the reality of this truck's performance didn't impress our judges. The supercharger merely changed the 3.3L V-6 from being underpowered to adequate. However, no gripes came from our judges with the rest of the drivetrain, and most liked the fact that the Frontier used a lever, instead of push-buttons or dials, to shift the transfer case.
The interior redesign for 2002 includes a new dash with what Nissan refers to as "cockpit-style" gauges. While most of the judges liked the new look of the dash, every one of them commented that the black and grey gauges are extremely hard to read during the day. Not helping the situation is the fact that the gauges are set way back in the dash so that little direct light reaches them. Many judges also had complaints about front seats that are extremely flat and offer little support. The rear seats also offer little legroom for adult passengers.
We were happy to find that Nissan ditched the low-profile street tires that came on last year's version of this truck and replaced them with 265/65R17 BFGoodrich RuggedTrail tires. These provided a major step up in terms of off-road traction. However, not changed from last year was the same stiff ride that tossed occupants about on our slow-speed trails. While the firm suspension performed a little better in our high-speed dirt sections, it lacked travel, and that forced us to proceed through the high-speed sections of our test loops at a slow, careful pace. The Frontier's firm ride and lack of wheel travel also hurt it on the sand dunes. So did excessive amounts of wheelhop.
Things didn't improve too much for the Frontier when we headed out for the highway. The firm ride that was present off-road made for a busy on-road ride. Plenty of wind noise crept into the interior at highway speeds. However, the firm ride did make the Nissan into a decent canyon carver and its small size made it maneuverable and easy to park.
While Nissan has been constantly improving the Frontier, some areas remain that need a bit of help. The truck needs more horsepower and better suspension. That's why this year it finished at the back of the pack.
The terrific BFG RuggedTrail T/A tires this truck came equipped with. Good off-road tires on 4x4 trucks ought to be a given, but this isn't always so. We're pleased that this year, Nissan is equipping its 4x4 trucks with effective off-road rubber.
The recommended use of 91-octane fuel. Even using the highest grade of fuel, the Frontier is an underperformer. Put lower-grade fuel in it, and it will be more likely to detonate under boost, which will cause the spark to retard, further injuring performance.
Check it out if...
You like the Frontier's "with-it" looks.
Avoid it if...
You like to accelerate.
25 Words or Less
Every year, in spite of Nissan's continuing economic struggles, the Frontier gets better. Unfortunately, it still has a ways to go.
The supercharged 3.3L V-6 just doesn't cut it. It needs better suspension, too.
Take the "Supercharged" emblems off this truck! They announce a false sense that this is a powerful truck, when in reality it is just adequate.
The Frontier is not as refined as the other trucks tested here. Not even close.
Ford F-150 Supercab
Ford is offering a brand-new off-road package for 2002. It's called the FX4 package, and it includes better wheels and tires, Rancho shocks, more skidplates, and lower gearing to take on the dirt. Much to our dismay, however, Ford was unable to supply an F-150 equipped with the FX4 package. Instead, a normal F-150 4x4 showed up to do battle.
Ford's 5.4L V-8 was nestled under the hood of our chestnut-colored F-150 tester. It's the biggest engine available in the F-150. Producing 260 horsepower and 360 lb-ft of torque, the 5.4L isn't a slouch, but it didn't impress our judges much, either, power-hungry degenerates that they are. Most described the power as adequate but not overly impressive. Feelings for the transmission and the transfer case were mostly neutral. Neither got much criticism or praise. Stepping inside of the F-150 also didn't do much to stimulate our judges. The interior of the Ford is in no way offensive, but it is not exciting, either. One color and texture is used throughout the whole dash, and that gives it a simplistic and bland appearance. Our judges found the front seats to be neither uncomfortable nor inviting, but merely adequate. The rear seat of the extended cab was found not to be a nice place for adults to spend time, but appropriate for cargo.
Out on the road, the Ford's suspension was very firm--so much so that every irregularity in the driving surface could be felt. This same stiff suspension did a good job of tossing the Ford's occupants around on our slow-speed off-road course. However, the Ford did go wherever we pointed it on the trail without too much effort. Also helping on the trail was the fact that the F-150 still sits up high like all good pickups should, and this trait provided it with enough clearance to cruise through most sections without problems.
As speeds picked up on our high-speed dirt road, the Ford did better. Though it was plenty stiff, the suspension did soak up the bumps without constantly bottoming. Some found the ABS braking system to be a little overactive in the dirt at speed, but for the most part the brakes did an OK job. In the dunes, the suspension did produce a bit of rear wheelhop, and the 5.4L V-8 had to be flogged hard to make the big Ford plow through the dunes.
While the F-150 has proven itself to possess few serious negatives, it really didn't do anything to get our judges excited. It neither shined nor drew harsh criticism in any of our judging categories. For that reason it finished toward the back of the pack.
The F-150 came to us with the largest cargo bed in the bunch. That's a good deal. Pickup trucks with miniature beds kind of miss the point of the exercise. The Ford doesn't miss this point.
The F-150's backseats, which are seats in name and style only. No adult would tolerate any time at all in these, and no thinking child would, either.
Check it out if...
You're a Blue Oval loyalist who wants to carry a full load in the largest pickup bed of this bunch.
Avoid it if...
You expect a cushy ride.
25 Words or Less
Ford's engineers have succeeded in making IFS feel and drive just like a beam axle, but without the beamer's benefits of strength and articulation.
The Ford just didn't do anything for me. It wasn't a bad truck, but it wasn't that great, either.
Payloadwise, this is the workhorse of the group. It's a good, solid truck that performs well, but it did not excel in any one area.
The F-150 is what a truck should be: rugged and ready to work hard.
Toyota Tacoma Double Cab TRD
Last year the Toyota Tacoma Double Cab with the TRD package went up against some heavy competition in our 2001 Pickup Truck of the Year and came away the winner. Much praise went to the Tacoma's TRD package that included progressive coils, Bilstein shocks, and BFGoodrich tires. Of course, it possessed one of our favorite options: a push-button-actuated electric rear locking differential that, when engaged, instantly sends power to both rear wheels.
This year we received a mostly identical Toyota Tacoma Double Cab with the same TRD package but the results were much different. How can this be? Well, the outcome of a comparison test is always different when you have different vehicles. However, one simple change was a major contributor to the less than stellar results for the Tacoma this year.
Last year our Tacoma TRD came with Bilstein shocks. For some reason, this year's Tacoma TRD came equipped with Tokico shocks. They were horribly stiff, and they completely changed the character of this vehicle. Once a bump-gobbling speed demon, the Tacoma was transformed into a truck with a teeth-shattering ride on our high-speed dirt road. Last year, the Tacoma's suspension impressed us with its ability to handle high-speed blasts and low-speed crawling with equal prowess. This year, the Tacoma's stiff suspension did the best job of any of our contestants of tossing occupants around in our low-range trail sections. The stiff ride also jarred and jiggled passengers on paved surfaces.
While the extremely stiff suspension hurt the Tacoma, its push-button electric rear locker helped to salvage its off-road performance. Working in low-range and below 5 miles per hour, the locker greatly improves the Tacoma's capabilities off-road. With a simple push of a button the Tacoma could walk through the toughest trail sections--sections which would defeat some of the other contenders in this test.
The performance of the Tacoma's 3.4L V-6 provided a bit of a surprise for our judges. Producing 190 horsepower and 220 lb-ft of torque, the V-6 isn't a rocket, but it does supply a decent amount of power. The four-speed automatic transmission did a good job of working the engine to get the power to the ground but a five-speed manual would have been better to wring all the power possible out of the Tacoma.
The interior of the Toyota was a mixture of pros and cons. Most of our judges liked the easy-to-read gauges, but noticed that there was a bare minimum of them. The majority also liked the seats but our bigger testers felt a bit cramped in the smaller interior. While the interior got mixed reviews, all of our judges liked the solid feel of the brakes and the precise steering that the Tacoma offered.
The Tacoma Double Cab TRD is a terrific compact pickup that is plenty capable off-road. However, its ultra-stiff suspension really hampered it this year. While this would be an easy fix with some aftermarket parts, we test the vehicles as they come to us and this is why the best the Tacoma could muster was Fourth place.
Love that locking rear differential. Shift into 4-Lo, push the locker button, and away you go with nary a spin of a rear wheel. This might just be our all-time favorite factory accessory from any manufacturer.
The Tacoma's very stiff-legged ride. How the Tundra can be so plush and the Tacoma so harsh eludes us.
Check it out if...
Off-highway capability matters more to you than on-road comfort does.
Avoid it if...
You've got to haul people in the rear seat.
25 Words or Less
Just about all the 4x4 pickup most 'wheelers actually need--a bit small and stiff riding on the road, but terrific in the dirt.
The locker is cool and it's a good size. Just swap out the stiff shocks and you are good to go.
What can I say, I love this truck. The quality is outstanding, it performs superbly, and it seats four adults comfortably.
The Tacoma Double Cab is a great truck. It would be even better with the Tundra's V-8 under its hood.
Chevrolet Avalanche 1500
The Avalanche, which Chevrolet refers to as an "Ultimate Utility Vehicle," is designed to give consumers the best of a pickup and an SUV. To accomplish this, the Avalanche uses a folding midgate that allows for the space of the bed to be expanded into the cab for longer objects.
Besides the folding midgate configuration and interesting bed design, the Avalanche also has a look that we can best describe as, uh, distinctive. Look, let's get this right out there: Never before have our judges been so united in something as in their dislike of the looks of the Avalanche. Every judge had negative opinions on the excessive use of plastic that is a major part of the Avalanche's look. Luckily for the Avalanche, our competition isn't based on looks alone.
The Avalanche is based on the Suburban chassis, and that stroke of luck gives it the same strong points that the Suburban has. All of our judges deemed that the Avalanche had the most comfortable and quiet interior of this set of competitors. The leather seats are extremely comfortable, provide enough support, and have plenty of adjustment. However, more than one judge noticed that the driver's seat was an odd mix of manual and electric adjusters. Another quirk that our judges discovered is that with the driver's door closed, there is barely enough space to get a hand down the side of the driver's seat to adjust the back. The interior of the Avalanche earned more points, with plenty of legroom and a large rear seat that folds flat for cargo stowage. Also receiving praise was an instrument panel that conveys lots of information and is easy to read.
Another strong point of Suburbans is that they ride great on the highway, and this was also true of the Avalanche. A soft, bump-absorbing suspension made for a plush ride on the bumpy freeways and backcountry roads of Southern California. The excellent highway ride combined with the cushy and comfortable interior made our testers agree that the Avalanche was the most desirable of this bunch for long, cross-country drives.
Interestingly, the Avalanche also is at home off the pavement, especially on our high-speed dirt course. In fact, in this section of testing, it easily spanked every other vehicle in this competition. Shocks and spring rates were spot-on, and the Avalanche could be pushed much faster through our whoop-infested course than the others. On slow-speed trails the Chevy also performed very well, thanks in part to its Eaton Gov-Loc locking rear diff. Our only gripes were that, first, the Gov-Loc diff required considerable wheelspin to engage, and second, that the Avalanche's lack of clearance made it drag its belly in a few locations.
Once the Avalanche got in the sand, however, a problem that plagued it for the whole test became even more apparent. The power produced by the 5.3L V-8 is less than stellar. While the engine produces 285 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque, it just is not up to the task of powering a vehicle the size of the Avalanche, whether in the sand or on the highway. All of our judges wished the Avalanche had more motor.
The Avalanche is an interesting vehicle and definitely a unique design. It handles some tasks very well, and performs others less well. Combining that with the lackluster power of the 5.3L V-8 resulted in a mid-pack finish for Chevy's Avalanche.
The front seats. Maybe the best in the business. Well contoured, with plenty of support and adjustability. We like 'em. The back ones we like less well.
Plastic exterior cladding. Plastic everywhere. Plastic held on by plastic. Enough, already. Especially when it's used as a styling element, and not for protection. Protection? Not hardly. Hard knocks prune it right off.
Check it out if...
Your 'wheeling isn't hard-core. Just be sure to get the Z71 option.
Avoid it if...
You want to haul cargo you'd like to keep secure. For that, a Suburban would be a better choice.
25 Words or Less
A passenger compartment I really like, a look I don't care for. A Suburban without the Suburban's utility. Can't knock the Gov-Loc rear diff, though.
The Avalanche has a strong foundation, but for me, it's just plain ugly. There is way too much plastic for my tastes.
My only gripe lies with the different and confused exterior/interior designs. Keep the interior's plushness, but make it more in sync with the exterior look.
The Avalanche is an odd combination of parts, with way too much plastic. Oddly enough, this vehicle was the most comfortable and the smoothest riding.
In 2000, Toyota finally stepped up to the plate and introduced a fullsize pickup equipped with a V-8. Since then the Tundra has been a strong seller and Toyota hopes to take an even bigger chunk out of the sales of the Big Three's pickups. So does the Tundra have what it takes to compete against the big boys? That is the question we sought to answer when the Tundra showed up to do battle in our 2002 Pickup Truck of the Year slugfest.
Underneath the hood of our Tundra rested the 4.7L V-8 that is the only V-8 Toyota has to offer. Small in displacement, the V-8 puts out 245 horsepower and 315 lb-ft of torque. While this wasn't any more than the other engines, the 4.7L is the only powerplant that really feels like a V-8. With instant throttle response, especially in the initial part of its throttle-pedal's travel, the Tundra's engine will push you back in the seat. This was a characteristic that none of the other V-8s in our test possessed and was most appreciated by our judges. All of them voted that the Tundra's engine was their favorite. Helping the engine out was the Tundra's excellent four-speed automatic transmission, which provides instant downshifts when the throttle is mashed.
More praise was lavished on the Toyota's interior. The dash is pleasing to the eye, is well laid out, and its full complement of gauges conveys all the necessary information to the driver. Most found its leather front seats to be comfortable, with plenty of adjustability, but noted that they lacked lateral support. The rear seats were too small for any of our adult testers and deemed appropriate only for cargo.
Out on the highway, the Toyota was a pleasant place to spend time. The interior was quiet, the ride was plush, with plenty of passing power on tap. When the pavement turned twisty, the Tundra's precise steering and strong brakes helped it carve through the canyons.
Unfortunately, things weren't as peachy off-road. The Tundra's front suspension is extremely soft and this made it the slowest by far in our high-speed dirt section. This was because the front suspension easily would blow through its travel when it encountered even small bumps. On low-speed, low-range trails, however, the Tundra's soft front suspension wasn't as much of an issue. It was able to absorb bumps without tossing around the passengers. Most judges did notice, however, that the instant throttle response of the V-8, and also the Tundra's touchy brakes, could make it somewhat difficult to drive in very technical sections. Out on the dunes, the Tundra was fun, as the power of the V-8 let it romp through the sand without difficulty.
The Tundra is a great pickup. With its car-like ride, handling, and real V-8 power, it won many of our judges over. However, it's not a perfect pickup and its few flaws kept it out of First place. Just barely, though.
That overachiever of an engine. At 61.02 cubic inches per liter, the Tundra's 4.7 liters work out to about 287 cubic inches. Friends, that's small. But somehow this engine powers the Tundra strongly and smoothly.
The suspension tuning that makes the Tundra so comfortable on the highway works very poorly indeed off in the dirt, especially on high-speed roads. It's just too soft, and at the very least, needs much firmer shocks.
Check it out if...
Most of your driving is on-pavement.
Avoid it if...
If you expect to do serious 'wheeling.
25 Words or Less
Best engine, best highway manners. Best size, too. Not everybody liked this truck's seats, but I liked 'em just fine.
I loved the feel of the 4.7L V-8. It makes the Tundra a pleasure to drive.
Awesome engine, great build-quality, way too soft front shocks. This is the truck I would buy. Then I'd change out the front shocks.
The Tundra's front suspension was painfully soft off-pavement, but it was still the most fun to drive overall.
Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab SLT
Dodge completely redesigned the Ram for the 1994 model year, and in a very short time the Ram became a major player in the light-truck market. Now, in an effort to take an even bigger chunk of that market, the engineers at Dodge once again have completely redesigned the Dodge Ram--or at least its ½-ton version. The new Ram's exterior is not a radical departure from the previous generation but rather looks like a more aerodynamic version of it. Most of our judges liked the new look of the Ram, and it was near the top of exterior scoring.
Our judges also liked what they saw when they moved inside the Ram 1500. The new interior is cleverly designed, and is very functional. An instrument panel with white-faced gauges is very easy to read and pleasing to the eye. Seating in the front was found to be a bit on the firm side but still comfortable, with plenty of adjustment. In the rear, taking three inches off of the bed and adding them to the cab created three inches of additional cab space. Access to the rear comes through nearly-fullsize doors, and the rear seating area of the Quad Cab is much bigger than that of other extended-cab pickups.
But how does the new Ram actually perform? Under the massive hood of our Ram was found the 4.7L V-8 that produces 235 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. While this engine makes the Dodge Dakota and Jeep Grand Cherokee feel like hot rods, it wasn't up to the task of moving the big Ram around. All of our judges felt that it was underpowered, and each of them cringed at the thought of towing or hauling anything substantial with it. However, the rest of the drivetrain did receive high marks. The new-for-Ram 45RFE automatic had the right ratios, and behaved well. Our judges also enjoyed the easy-to-shift lever of the NV241 transfer case.
Out on the highway, the Ram made for a nice cruiser. Its soft suspension soaked up most road ripples and irregularities without any problems.
The Ram continued to impress us out on the trails. On our high-speed dirt course, the Ram's soft suspension absorbed everything well until the truck got into the whoops, where it was simply too soft to absorb the biggest impacts. In the dunes, the 4.7L V-8 was a bit overtaxed but the big Ram was still fun to sling sand with, as the massive wheelhop of the previous generation was greatly moderated. On slow-speed trails and in low-range the Dodge was truly in its element. The soft suspension let the Ram float over obstacles without jarring the driver, and its well-working rear limited-slip never had the Dodge hunting for traction.
The new Ram is definitely more refined and improved when compared to the previous generation. Its Achilles heel is the 4.7L V-8 engine, but the 5.9L V-8 is still available as an option. However, the rest of the truck is good enough to push it ahead of the competition and make it Four Wheeler's 2002 Pickup Truck of the Year.
Storage capabilities when the rear seat is stowed. Go ahead, fold up the rear seat. Once you do that, you can fold out a neat steel storage tray that provides a flat cargo surface across the entire width of the rear passenger area. A neat idea.
That bumper and air dam. This assembly is so low, and so far forward, that it seriously decreases this truck's front approach angle. It might look OK, and it might function well as an aid to improved fuel economy, but it has no place on an off-road truck.
Check it out if...
You want a truck that matches terrific passenger comfort with terrific load capacity.
Avoid it if...
You've got a narrow driveway.
25 Words or Less
A brilliant update of the Dodge Ram, with lots of clever touches. But how big is big enough? I hope this is the upper limit.
I really wanted to hate it because of its IFS. But it really is a terrific truck. Just don't get one with the 4.7L V-8.
The interior of the Dodge blew me away with its functionality. Trailwise, my only complaint was with the visibility over the high, long, flat hood.
The Ram's IFS provides a great ride and steering feel, but will make suspension mods difficult.