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2003 Pickup Truck of the Year

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on July 1, 2003 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Ken Brubaker

America loves pickup trucks, and for good reason. Rugged, capable and extremely versatile, today's pickups are able to tackle a wide variety of tasks with ease. While pickups have always been the workhorses of America, they haven't always been easy to live with. But that was then, and this is now. Today's breed of pickups combines the creature-comforts of a car with the capability of the rugged pickups of the past.

It's tough for us to not get excited about putting the latest crop of super pickups to the test. We bounce them across the desert, creep in low range across nasty trails, blow through sand dunes and rack up plenty of miles on pavement in an effort to see which pickup can best handle the multitude of tasks we throw at the group. After four days of testing, plenty of note taking, and scoring the trucks in a wide variety of categories, we add up the points and a winner is named.

So how does a pickup become eligible to enter Four Wheeler's Pickup Truck of the Year competition? To enter, a truck has to have enough of a change to affect its performance. This means that something as simple as a new front clip won't make a truck eligible, but a change such as a new engine or transmission will. Once we figure out who is eligible to compete, the invitations go out, and we wait for the invited trucks to show up ready for battle. Showing up for this year's shootout were the Dodge Ram Heavy Duty 2500 with the 5.7L Hemi Magnum V-8, the Ford Super Duty F-250 with the 6.0L V-8 Power Stroke diesel, the Ford Ranger FX4 Level II, and the GMC Sierra 1500 with Quadrasteer. Here is how everything sorted out after the dust settled.

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Fourth Place

The Short Version: Great steering precision. Lots of storage. Are there really springs back there? The cachet of a classic engine design.

Dodge Ram Heavy Duty 2500

What's new

Dodge enters the '03 heavy-duty wars with an all-new truck. Probably the most obvious change is a new exterior that gives it a more aerodynamic look, a look that's almost identical to that of the 1500 that got this sheetmetal last year. Inside that fresh skin is an all-new interior. All that is good, but at the heart of the new Ram Heavy Duty, resting on an all-new chassis that includes a revamped recirculating ball steering system, are two new engines--the 5.7L V-8 Hemi Magnum and the high output Cummins turbodiesel.

Thankfully, a solid axle remains up front with a refined version of the five-link, coil-spring suspension that has been used on previous Dodge Ram HDs. The rear consists of the standard leaf-spring, live-axle setup but uses springs that are 3 inches longer, compared to previous generations.

What we liked

Every one of our judges raved about the new interior of the Dodge. The new design is big and roomy. Adults can actually fit in its rear seat and ride in comfort. This interior is a very comfortable place in which to tick off miles, as the leather seats offer lots of adjustability and support. Versatility is also a strong feature of the interior, as its clever design offers plenty of storage areas.

More praise was lavished on the steering, which was exceptionally tight and responsive. Surprising most judges was the Ram's handling on twisty pavement, which was judged as above average for such a large vehicle.

What we didn't like

The Ram 2500 Heavy Duty that we tested was powered by the new 5.7L V-8 Hemi engine, which produces 345 hp at 5,400 rpm and 375 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. To say that we didn't like this engine would not be fair; but most judges noted that the power output was good, but not great.

On the highway, the big Dodge rode quite firmly, but this wasn't a huge shock. Unfortunately, that stiff ride was translated to the trail. On high-speed sections of our testing venue, the Dodge's ride was unbearable. The firm suspension also gave it a massive case of wheelhop. Step on the gas in the dirt and the big Dodge would shudder worse than an L.A. earthquake. While the Ram did better at slower speeds, its touchy throttle in low range made it difficult to drive with finesse.

Final Verdict

The Dodge was hampered by its stiff suspension, which hurt its highway ride and trail performance and cost it points. While this should be no surprise--this is a 3/4-ton truck, after all--this is a comparison test, weighted toward trail performance, in which all trucks are evaluated on the same criteria. And the Dodge did not compare well. If you are looking for a trail truck with lots of suspension compliance and a smooth ride, this is not the rig for you. But if you are in the market for a rig with the capabilities of a 3/4-ton and a big, comfy interior, you'll do well to check it out.

Check It Out If:
You're looking for a state-of-the-art truck interior in a vehicle with the capacity to haul huge loads.

Avoid It If:
If you feel that a vehicle ought not to jar your fillings loose.

Third Place

The Short Version: Strong like a bull! Stiff-legged. Towmeister. Herd it rather than drive it. Due for a freshening.

Ford Super Duty F-250 6.0L V-8 Power Stroke

What's new

The big news for the Ford Super Duty is the availability of the new 6.0L V-8 Power Stroke diesel. While this engine is smaller than the venerable and much loved 7.3L Power Stroke of previous years, it features reduced emissions and noise and produces a whopping 325 hp and 550 lb-ft of torque. Also new is the five-speed TorqShift automatic transmission. Another new option to the Super Duty is the FX4 Off-Road package. It includes skidplates, Rancho shock absorbers, a steering damper and, of course, FX4 decals.

What we liked

Our judges fawned over the 6.0L V-8 Power Stroke like a bunch of schoolgirls at a boy-band concert. Oodles of low-end torque meshed with plenty of ponies meant that the baby 'Stroke had no problem propelling the massive Super Duty along at a rapid clip. With power to spare, the 6.0L felt like it could tackle any task thrown at it. The TorqShift transmission coupled to the 'Stroke also did its job well. Its shifting was so seamless that none of our pesky, picky testers griped about its performance. The tow/haul feature worked well also, as once engaged, it would automatically downshift the five-speed automatic at the appropriate times to take maximum advantage of the awesome compression braking of the diesel.

On the trail, the Super Duty did better than expected. The diesel engine makes this truck an awesome crawler at slow speed and in low range. Helping out on the trail was the fact that the Super Duty still sits up nice and high, like a proper truck should. Except for its hideous chrome running boards, one of which we eventually pruned off on a rock, it rarely got hung up or had clearance issues. In faster sections of trail, the Super Duty could cruise along at a fairly quick pace, stiff but controlled.

What we didn't like

Tops on everybody's gripe list was the Super Duty's steering. It was sloppy, imprecise, and slow to react to driver inputs. On top of this, there were times on the trail when the steering simply would not move the wheels, no matter how hard we cranked the steering wheel. Additionally, Ford's engineers saw fit to mount this truck's steering damper below the diff pumpkin on the front axle. What were they thinking? We pruned that off on a rock on our very first trail section.

The interior also received its share of tester gripes. The inside of the Super Duty is fairly bland, and did not do much to excite our judges. The comments weren't all bad, however, as the interior was still very comfortable.

Final Verdict

The Super Duty isn't for everybody. Its rough ride and sluggish steering definitely cost it points, resulting in this third-place finish. If, however, you want to hook up to a heavy load and haul it up the side of Mt. Everest with ease, this is your baby.

Check It Out If:
You want a wheeler with one of the truck world's great engines.

Avoid It If:
You expect to be able to steer precisely.

Second Place

The Short Version: Nimble as a Wrangler. A real T-case shift lever. Minimal cargo capacity. Minimal low-end grunt. Maddening T-case shift lever.

Ford Ranger FX4 Level II

What's new

Actually, not much is new on the FX4 Level II for '03. But since we didn't get one in time for testing last year, it was eligible for this year's competition. What is new, and a bit confusing, is the name change. Last year the same Ranger was simply called the FX4. However, since this particular off-road package consists of a lot more than the FX4 package as applied to the other 4x4 trucks in Ford's line, the company decided to change its name to FX4 Level II. So what does the FX4 Level II package on the Ranger consist of? First comes a sweet tire-and-wheel combination of 31-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain KOs on a set of Alcoa aluminum wheels. Next is a Bilstein shock at every corner. Out back is found Ford's 8.8-inch axle--other Rangers come with Ford's 8-incher--with 31-spline shafts, and stuffed with 4.10 gears and a Torsen limited-slip. Skidplates, tow hooks front and rear and fender flares also help to make up the package.

What we liked

The Ranger FX4 Level II was definitely the trail king of the group. Its Bilstein shocks did an excellent job of sucking up the bumps, whether at speed or crawling along in low range. And its spring rates seemed spot-on. Also, a decent amount of flex at the rear helped make up for a lack of articulation up front, which is what we've come to expect from IFS. The BFG tires provided excellent grip, while the Torsen limited-slip rear helped provide traction when those 31-inch tires started to spin. Also of great importance was this truck's small size, which helped out on the trail, making the Ranger FX4 Level II nimble and easy to maneuver.

We also were impressed by the Ranger's highway ride, as the suspension and shocks absorbed all types of bumps without jarring. The Ranger's crisp, precise steering also received praise and helped to give the Ranger the ability to handle twisty pavement with relative ease, and helped us place the Ranger with precision on the trail. More praise was lavished onto the Ranger's smooth-shifting five-speed transmission, which always seemed to have the appropriate ratio.

What we didn't like

While saying we didn't like the 4.0L V-6 would be unfair, it was out of its league when compared to the bigger and more powerful V-8s in the test. It also didn't have much low-end power and felt like--at least when mated to the five-speed trans that came in our test truck--it needed a heavier flywheel. This gave the Ranger a propensity to stall often during launches. Other gripes included the small and somewhat plain interior. Every one of our judges appreciated the fact that the Ranger uses a manual transfer-case shifter, but every one of them wished the shifter knob didn't hit them in the leg when they shifted into low range. Finally, the Torsen limited-slip seemed to allow a bit too much wheelspin before it started transferring power. For our tastes, it needs to be tighter.

Final Verdict

If you are looking for a compact pickup truck in which you can hit the trails, the Ranger FX4 Level II is for you.

Check It Out If:
You're looking for a terrific trail rig that has cargo capacity.

Avoid It If:
You insist on a manual transmission, or if you want some interior room in your rig.

The Short Version: Lightfooted. Tiny turning circle. Indestructible bedsides. Pushbutton T-case.

The Winner!

GMC Sierra 1500 Quadrasteer

What's new

For '03 the Sierra 1500 received a significant change, which made it eligible for competition: the addition of Quadrasteer. This optional system turns the rear wheels up to 12 degrees in relation to the front to increase low-speed maneuverability and high-speed stability. The rest of the truck did not see a significant makeover, but got a host of smaller changes. Significant amongst these are new seats and an upgraded instrument panel that freshen up the interior. On the outside, the front of the Sierra receives a new three-horizontal bar grille and chrome bumper.

What we liked

On top of each judge's list of favorites for this truck was the Quadrasteer system. It made the truck extremely easy to maneuver on the trail and into parking spots. At higher speeds, the rear wheels turn with the front wheels, and this helped to make the GMC carve through twisty paved roads easier than a coyote through a flock of house cats.

Another favorite of the majority of our testers was the interior. "Very plush," and "extremely comfortable," were phrases that came to mind while sitting in the cushy, yet supportive, leather seats. If we had to pick one truck to drive across the country, this would be it.

While the GMC's comfy interior definitely helped, so did its plush ride. Road irregularities really didn't seem to disturb the GMC. The combination of the plush ride--thanks in part to its two-position electronically controlled shocks--and cushy interior made us feel like we were driving in a Cadillac. Only some wind noise from a poorly sealed window in one of the rear doors disturbed our serene highway experience.

In the dirt, the GMC really proved its worth. On high-speed trails, its chassis flat-out worked. None of the other trucks could come close to the comfort and control that it could deliver across our section of disturbed Earth. Even at a crawl over nasty terrain, the suspension provided admirable compression and rebound control and decent articulation. Somehow, the GMC always seemed to find traction. It crawled up most sections without dramatic wheelspin. The Quadrasteer system also received great praise on the trail, as the GMC could take lines that the other trucks couldn't. What 12 degrees of rear-wheel steering can do is flat amazing.

What we didn't like

While every one of our judges liked the Quadrasteer system, most of them were highly suspicious of its vulnerable location hanging on the back of the rear axle. We did not smack it on our off-highway jaunts, but we could see how that could happen. Another gripe was the steering feel of the Sierra. One of judges put it best by saying that it felt like a steering wheel in an arcade game because it offered zero feel and felt like it was disconnected. We admit that we are horsepower junkies. When it comes to ponies under the hood, there better be a lot of them, or they need to be extremely angry. While the 5.3L V-8 is not underpowered, it just didn't appeal to our horsepower-crazed judges. Words such as marginal and adequate filled judge's notebooks when describing the 5.3L. Not a bad engine, but it could use a few more ponies. The only other major gripe of the judges was the feel of the brakes. While the brakes did a good job of slowing the GMC down, the spongy feel of the brake pedal didn't agree with many of our judges.

Final Verdict

The GMC Sierra 1500 with Quadrasteer won Pickup Truck of the Year because it handles most tasks with ease. While the other trucks in our test specialized in certain areas, such as hauling and towing heavy loads, or performance in the dirt, the GMC can handle a wide variety of tasks comfortably and very competently. For that reason, it is Four Wheeler's 2003 Pickup Truck of the Year.

Check It Out If:
You want to be in on the cutting edge of the Next Big Thing.

Avoid It If:
The notions of four-wheel steering and plastic bedsides seem weird to you.

How We Test Them

Four Wheeler's Pickup Truck of the Year is quite a process. First we have to actually get the trucks from the manufacturers, which usually involves plenty of phone calls. Then we have to figure out a time when all the staff can be out of the office for a week, which is short of impossible. Of course there is also a ton of logistics--like where we are going to go, permits, insurance and where we are going to stay. Once we jump through all the hoops and the vehicles arrive, the testing can actually begin.

Over the next four days we go from the drag strip to the desert with plenty of time on the pavement in between. In the desert we get to brave triple-digit temperatures and run plenty of trails. This year we learned that nothing beats trying to free a truck mired in the dunes when it is 110 degrees out. When on the pavement we try to get a nice combination of freeway and twisty mountain roads.

Of course along the way our team of judges is dutifully taking notes and picking each vehicle apart to see what it is good at and what it is not so good at. Finally the judges begin the process of scoring each pickup in five separate categories. The Mechanical category counts for 25 percent of the total score and is where the judges score all the mechanical aspects of the vehicle. Trail Performance is another category and accounts for 30 percent of the final score. Here judges score how a vehicle does in the dirt. Another important category is Highway Performance and it is where the ride and handling of the truck while it is one the pavement is judged. It is weighted at 20 percent of the final score. The inside of the vehicle is judge in the Interior category, which makes up 15 percent of the final score. Finally the outside of the vehicle is judged in the Exterior category, which is 10 percent of the final score. Once all the scores are in a winner can be determined.

The Scores

Vehicle
Mechanical
Highway
Interior
Exterior
Trail
Total
Dodge
Ram
124.4
99.9
51.0
81.0
123.6
479.0
GMC
Sierra
133.4
83.2
55.5
141.0
196.8
609.9
Ford
Super
Duty
140.6
81.0
48.5
93.0
144.0
507.1
Ford
Ranger
131.9
72.0
59.0
123.0
189.6
575.5


The Slow Race
Every year the trucks of Pickup Truck of the Year go through a wide variety of testing procedures. One of these is what we refer to as the slow race. While usually the word slow is not associated with the concept of a race, it fits here cause the idea of this race is to finish dead last. Why? Well, it is a test of the truck's ability to crawl, and in extremely rough terrain the slower you can crawl, the better. Thus the truck that finishes last crawls the best.

Conducting the test is fairly easy. We find a slight grade, line the trucks up evenly, put them in first gear and low range and let go of the brake. When the first truck hits the finish line, everyone comes to a stop. The truck that is in the back of the pack is the winner. This year it was no surprise to find the Ford Super Duty with the 6.0L V-8 diesel was the best crawler. Following closely was the Ford Ranger FX4 Level II with its 4.10 gears and manual trans. The Dodge Ram 2500 and GMC Sierra 1500 rushed to the line in a photo finish for last place.

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