Four Great Pickups Settle It In The Dirt
In all the years we have been running Pickup Truck of the Year tests, we can't remember one that was as closely matched from the start as this year's 2009 competition. With four vehicles that each had the ability of taking home the trophy, even the staff was stymied as to who the victor would be. So unsure were we after an initial poll of testers, that friendly bets weren't even taken on a possible outcome. The closeness of the competitors continued all the way in to scoring, with the point spread so close, we recounted and double-checked for hanging chads. In the end we had to pick a single winner, but these vehicles are each so capable and so geared toward our reader that even the last-place finisher was likened to being fourth in a most beautiful person contest. You may not have won, but to everyone else you still look damn good.
The eligibility requirements are simple and remain unchanged from Four Wheeler of the Year. Each vehicle is invited to participate based on it being all-new or substantially revised for the upcoming model year. Each vehicle is also required to have a two-speed transfer case, have a production run of at least 1,500 vehicles available in the U.S., and must be available to the consumer by January 15, 2009.
For 2009, our field of vehicles included the Dodge Ram 1500 TRX4, Ford F-150 FX4, Hummer H3T Alpha, and the Suzuki Equator RMZ-4. And before you harangue us through e-mail because Chevy isn't represented, we hope to offer you solace in knowing that Chevy was invited to participate with both the 6.2L V-8-powered Silverado and the 5.3L V-8-powered Chevy Colorado, but declined both invitations.
As always, we score each of the vehicles based on a testing criteria of five weighted categories that include Trail Performance (30%), Empirical (25%), On-Pavement (20%), Interior (15%), and Exterior (10%).
One of the most anticipated vehicles in our test was the all-new Dodge Ram. Not only is the design gripping, but the overall quality has been moved up the scale a notch while introducing a full complement of features, such as the Ram Box in-bed storage system, rear in-floor storage bins, an electronic vehicle information center, and a 115-volt auxiliary power outlet-on the dash. While storage cubbies and cool features are nice to have, the real news about the 2009 Dodge Ram is in the rear suspension design. Ditching the leaf-spring setup in favor of a heavier-duty multilink coil arrangement similar to the JK Wrangler, Dodge's Ram has revolutionized the fullsize truck category, such part-time haulers as the Chevy Avalanche or Hummer H2 SUT notwithstanding. Front suspension is still handled by A-arms with coilover shocks.
Our tester came in a Quad Cab configuration with the newly massaged 390hp and 410lb-ft of torque 5.7L Hemi V-8 with Dodge's Multi Displacement System backed by a five-speed automatic. It was equipped with the TRX4 Off-Road package, which includes such savory mechanical bits as a tight helical limited-slip rear differential, 3.92 axle ratios, 32-inch Goodyear Wrangler AT/S tires, heavy-duty rear shocks, skidplates, tow hooks, and foglamps. Our example arrived with an as-tested price of $42,030, the highest in the test.
Ford's F-150 has also been redesigned for 2009 and Ford is banking on it being a huge hit. Highlights of the 2009 redesign include a gorgeous interior, stronger frame, longer leaf springs for a better ride, a retuned coilover shock A-arm front suspension, a Super Duty-esque tailgate step, and more configurations than a Quizno's sandwich. To that Ford added its new cargo management system and an integrated trailer-brake controller for our test vehicle. Also new for 2009 is an FX4 package that has much more substance than a badge and some stickers. In addition to being a trim level on the F-150 line, the FX4 package includes a trick new electronic locker that can be activated in 4-Lo up to 66 mph and in 4-Hi up to 25 mph. Other features include aggressive 32-inch Goodyear Wrangler A/T Extreme tires, a full complement of skidplates, tow hooks, specific shock tuning, and 3.73 gears. The venerable 5.4L returns, but is now backed by Ford's new six-speed automatic transmission, making 310 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque. Our Ford had an as-tested price of $41,855.
Also in our test was Hummer's first real entry in the pickup truck market with its midsized H3T. The H3T was made possible by stretching the H3, resulting in a wheelbase that has grown to 134 inches versus 116 inches for the H3, providing room for a true 5-foot bed. The H3T has its own frame with a deeper cross section for added strength as well as a higher-capacity steering pump and a quicker steering gear to make the long H3T drive more like its little brother. Leaf springs are still the order of the day in the back, while torsion bars handle the duty up front with monotube shocks at all four corners. Hummer also includes a bedrail system and storage cubbies in the bed. As with all Adventure Package Hummers, our H3T was loaded up with the 4:1 transfer case, 4.10 gears, the best skidplating in the test, front and rear lockers, 33-inch Bridgestone tires, along with unmatched approach and departure angles. Powered by the General's 5.3L V-8 with 300 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, the H3T was delivered with an as-tested price of $41,450.
The final contestant in our shootout is the result of Suzuki's partnership with Nissan that has resulted in the new-for-2009 Suzuki Equator. Built off of Nissan's well-loved F-Alpha platform, the Equator is essentially the same as the Nissan Frontier that has made our 10 Best Buys list as Best Midsize 4x4 for the past four years, albeit hailing in Suzuki livery. Our tester was equipped with the Suzuki RMZ-4 package that included 32-inch BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires, Bilstein shocks, rear locker, and a 3.357 ring-and-pinion, in addition to the factory bedliner and Utili-trak cargo tie-down system. The Equator had the lowest as-tested price in our group at $32,309.