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Half Ton Haul Off

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on February 1, 2010
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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.

Chevy Silverado Hybrid
GM brought out its first-generation hybrid pickup truck in 2004, and like the early Toyota Prius, it sold in only small numbers. But unlike the Prius, it did not generate the same media coverage that has made the Prius the poster child of the retro-hippie set. Strange, that. But, like Toyota and Ford, GM is committed to hybrid propulsion and understands the need to keep building vehicles like this pickup, which in many ways is more important than a passenger car. Small cars abound, but trucks have to remain large -it's their function-so what better vehicle to be built as a hybrid?

Equipped with a standard 6.0L Vortec V-8, this truck also generates its own power by using gravity each time the truck slows-recharging the 300-volt batteries that will then feed the voltage back to the electric motors after the next stop. Of course there is a bit more to it than that, but the key idea is that this hybrid system recaptures energy that the truck produces anyway; energy that in other vehicles is wasted as the byproducts of combustion.

Backing the engine is GM's Electrically Variable Transmission (EVT), which uses a 300-volt nickel-metal hydride Energy Storage System (ESS) to save and provide power. This EVT is a unique setup of two 60kW electric motors, three planetary gear sets, and four traditional hydraulic wet clutches. This arrangement is continuously in variable operation, offering the greatest efficiencies at any given moment under any specific load.

From a standstill, the Silverado launches and drives up to 30 mph on electricity alone, then the 6.0L gas engine takes over; but this V8 engine also has Active Fuel Management (AFM) and late intake valve closing (LIVC) technology, which allows it operate in "V-4" mode once it's reached highway speeds. To help it stay in V-4 mode as long as possible, the EVT also offers the equivalent of a 30hp boost of electric power when needed at high speeds. Again, it's all about physics-minimize friction, use gravity to make electricity, and maintain motion using the least possible amount of energy.

Earlier this year, we drove this hybrid on a highway run to Ottawa from Brampton, Ontario. It was clear but cold at around 5 degrees (F); there were five riders in the truck, and the bed was stuffed with one university-bound passenger's belongings (including a brilliant red beanbag chair bungeed on top of the pile). I set the cruise at 75 mph and made the trip of 312 miles on 19.8 gallons of regular fuel-or 15.8 mpg. The return trip data was almost identical.

With some hybrids currently on the market, towing is an issue. Specifically, they can't. Not so with the GM system. This tranny will handle up to 5,900 pounds using the variable electric/gas operation and fixed-gear ratios in the transmission for heavier loads. Interestingly, much of this technology and build experience was gained from GM's development of hybrid bus drivetrains. Equipped with an optional engine block heater, our test unit priced out at $50,965.

Dodge Ram 1500 Laramie
In 1932, a sculptor named Avard Fairbanks met with Walter P. Chrysler and tried to sell him a bust of a bighorn ram as a Dodge symbol. Fairbanks explained that the animal was "King of the Trail" in his presentation, but Chrysler was unconvinced until Fairbanks added, "Besides, if you saw one on the trail in front of you, you'd think, 'Dodge!'" Chrysler immediately agreed. In 1981, the ram became more than a corporate symbol and the Dodge Ram pickup was born.

The most recent generation of the Ram debuted last year as a 2009 model, and we first had a chance to drive one in California, where, like many places, the Dodge Ram has serious fans. Like the guy who ran up to us in the Starbucks parking lot to show off his Ram logo tattoo, or the kid who on Christmas Day circled the two-tone Crew Cab Ram we were driving, finally commenting, "Man, that's pretty."

What our tattooed friend was reacting to was the subtle yet powerful redesign of the Ram "big-rig" look that first dropped in '94. With some rounding of the fenders and a forward-tilt to the cross-hair grille, the truck has kept its silhouette, yet by pulling the lights back over the new one-piece bumper, it's taken on a fast, rakish, slippery look. But without a doubt the biggest difference is in the interior design. This new interior features redesigned bolstered seats of soft-touch material in two and even three colour patterns (rather than hard gray plastic). A new center console, upper and lower gloveboxes, and a sculpted dashboard feature chrome, leather, and cloth accents-including items like real saddle stitching across the dash. Other available options include power adjustable pedals, double the number of previous storage spaces, and first-time items like heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, and a heated steering wheel.

In a departure from traditional full-size pickup design, Dodge has given its new Ram a coil-spring rear suspension, which has changed the ride of the solid rear axle for the better. Over washboard roads, the coils soak up the impact, and the rear wheels don't snap and dance as they did with the leaf springs.

Another key element in this new Ram design is the RamBox-there are two of them. These are two weatherproof, lockable storage bins that run the length of the 5-foot by 7-inch box and which are as wide as the wheelwell, creating a space big enough for a full set of golf clubs. The inside width of the truck bed remains at that magical four-foot number, despite the intrusion of these storage spaces. And the way the lids are integrated into the box looks pretty nice. This item is an option on the Crew Cab only.

This sort of striking design feature is a Dodge hallmark, and frankly no one has been better at mining its history for model ideas. Look at the past few years, where Dodge has come up with variations of its Ram such as the Daytona, the Rumble Bee, and the Power Wagon.

Model-year 2010 looks to be a carryover year for the Ram, but with the new body, interior, and a good selection of components, they are in good shape. Rams are available with the 3.7L V-6 and four-speed automatic, a 4.7L V-8 with a five-speed automatic, and the 5.7L Hemi with the five-speed automatic. Four rear axle ratios are available, three bed lengths, and three cabs: Regular Cab, Quad Cab, and Crew 1500. With the optional 3.92:1 axle gearing, leather-trimmed bucket seats, Class IV Hitch and Protection Group, our test Ram sported a sticker price of $47,565.

Ford F-150 Super Crew Lariat
The newest Ford F-series pickup is 61 years removed from the original 1948 F-1, but it still carries many of the forward-thinking features that first model offered, such as a larger cab, improved suspension, better payload, and extra driver comforts. Sticking to a program of innovation and improvement over many generations of F-series trucks helps explain Ford's decades-long sales success with this model.

For 2009, the F-series sported several key changes. Payload and towing capacity were increased, supported by a new frame designed with new high-strength steel. To support these weights, Ford opted to add longer (six inches) and wider (3-inch) leaf springs that improve lateral stiffness and offer a better ride, particularly under load. Compare this to GM's 2.5-inch-wide leaves or Dodge's new coil-spring rear suspension. Also upgraded are the tires-new LT (Light Truck designated) tires have stiffer sidewalls for better towing and payload support.

The Ford's new cab is also better insulated for noise and is supported entirely on isolated rubber mounts that make it more comfortable than previous versions. As a comparison, we recently test drove a new Ford Flex (that cleverly disguised mini-van), and after driving the F-150 on public roads in the Michigan countryside, we were struck by how similar they were-firm, smooth, and quiet.

The Ford's quiet interior is complemented with a nice range of driver comforts in the newly appointed base cabin package. Another high-end trim level called the Platinum has been added; sliding in above the King Ranch, this brings to seven the number of appearance packages that is now offered for the F-series. While largely unchanged from 2004, the new cabin (with tweaks) leaves Ford's interiors competitive-and no one else offers this array of interior trim packages.

Among the best of Ford's latest innovations for the F-150 is the integrated trailer brake controller first introduced in the Super Duty three years ago. Now available in the 1/2-ton, this feature will be of particular interest to the more than 50 percent of owners who tow regularly (GM has this now, but Dodge and Toyota still do not). This F-150 also adds another new towing feature-a Trailer Sway Control that can sense yaw motion in the trailer (fishtailing) and apply precise braking and less power to bring the truck and trailer back into line.

In keeping with the current trend of fuel conservation, Ford invested a considerable amount of development dollars in powertrain and fuel economy improvements for the new truck. The net result is fuel economy gains as high as 12 percent, versus the previous generation (equipped with the high-volume three-valve 5.4L V-8). Including the other engines, fuel economy across the line averages out at around eight percent.

Other engineering that has made these gains possible includes a new six-speed automatic transmission and an optional 3.15:1 rear axle. These in tandem contribute to a 4- to 6-percent fuel economy improvement over the old four-speed gearbox. With a slew of options, including the tires, skidplating, Max Trailer Tow package (with brake controller), power trailer mirrors, pickup-box and tailgate access steps, rear-view camera, and Lariat trim package, our test F-150 listed an MSRP of $53,499.

Toyota Tundra Double-Cab
The current Toyota Tundra is the second generation to sport that name-but it's the third attempt by Toyota to enter the full-size North American pickup market in a meaningful way. Who remembers the T-100? Well, success is really no longer a question-they have established a foothold in the market. Now it's more a question of what they will do with it. Specifically, when will Toyota ramp up to offer what the others offer?

To recap: The second-generation Tundra launched as a 2007 model to much fanfare and managed to nearly double its sales from the previous version. Part of that success was because of a new engine-the snorting 5.7L V8 with 381 horsepower, which outgunned its competition. But as a very real lesson of "timing is everything," that advantage turned out to be short-lived. With the upward trend in gas prices in 2008 and the subsequent collapse of the auto market (a 27-percent overall decline in pickup sales in 2008 alone), the Tundra (like all the trucks) went for a spill after its honeymoon debut.

As the '09 model year approached, the new generation of Ford and Dodge pickups magnified one of the problems confronting the Tundra-namely, a lack of engine choices. And while originally it offered the i-Force 4.7L that made 271 horsepower and 313 lb-ft of torque coupled to a five-speed automatic, the older engine had fallen behind its competitors and was only a stop-gap measure. This observation makes even more sense when looking at the fuel economy ratings of the 4.7L, which turned out to be poorer than the company's predictions for the new and larger 5.7L.

With the release of the 2010 Tundra, Toyota has now addressed the problem. The 4.7L is gone in favor of a brand-new 4.6L V-8 engine that's now the base-model standard. Unlike the old 4.7 though, this new motor actually offers benefits for its smaller displacement. In addition, Toyota has packaged two new versions of the Tundra around this engine. This engine's performance is attributed to two technologies that are new to the Tundra. The first is a Cooled Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) System which reduces smog-forming emissions and improves overall fuel efficiency. The second is an Acoustic Control Induction System (ACIS) that optimizes power and torque output. These technologies help the engine produce 310 horsepower and 327 lb-ft of torque, while still offering a combined fuel consumption rating of close to 20 mpg. Compared to the outgoing 4.7L engine, this is a 12-percent increase in horsepower and an 11-percent increase in fuel economy.

The new engine is now coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission instead of the old five-speed. So while this powertrain combination is the key change for 2010, Toyota has also done a bit of housekeeping (so to speak) on the truck itself, with some modest fascia changes and added safety and standard features.

As mentioned, Toyota is fully aware that it doesn't quite compete with the Detroit Three pickup builders in the number of choices it offers. Then again, it took GM, Ford, and Dodge decades to develop their portfolio of components and build trucks that were aimed at a customer's specific needs and geographic location. Toyota is now working on that-though perhaps not as quickly as it would if the economy was more robust. Still, added to the equipment list for 2010 are an adjustable headlamp leveling system, fog lamps as standard, more models with towing mirrors as standard, and an upgraded navigation system that responds to voice commands.

Convenience equipment this year includes models with standard features such as map lamps, an auto dimming rear view mirror with integrated compass, an integrated garage door opener, and/or a fold-down seatback table fitted to the front passenger seat.

Model choices for the '10 model year will cover a choice of three cabs: The three-passenger Regular Cab, five or six-passenger Double Cab, and CrewMax cab configurations, and 5 1/2-, 6 1/2-, or 8.1-foot beds. With the new engine factored in, Toyota is now claiming a choice of 15 models-five 4x2 Tundras and 10 4x4 models. Trim levels include "Work Truck" up to a new loaded Platinum 5.7L model.

We had a chance to drive several hundred miles on a run to Kingston, Ontario, and then back to Brampton. Our combined average fuel consumption (as shown on the instant readout in the truck) was 18.4 mpg. Powerwise, we noted that the transmission works in concert with the engine (by downshifting two gears when called upon) to build speed, yet at the high end lopes along at minimal rpm-saving fuel even at 75 mph. With the optional Upgrade Package and rear step bumper, our Tundra Double Cab priced out at $38,859, making it the most economical truck in our evaluation. (We'll have more on the 2010 Tundra in our 2010 Pickup Truck of the Year test, appearing in next month's issue.)

Driving: Gravel Roads
Gravel roads are great for three things: evaluating cabin noise levels, assessing steering feel, and driving dirt into every possible crevice on the truck. Thanks to recent rains, we experienced all three equally.

The consensus among our testers was that the Chevy and Ford were the quietest of these trucks. Not just on overall road noise, but they also deadened the pinging in the wheelwells from the gravel hits. On pavement, tire noise was low and with both engines at idle, it was almost impossible to tell they were running. (With the hybrid, that's a bit deceiving because at stops, the engine stops as well.)

Steering feel was good on all the trucks, but again Ford and Chevy seem to have it over the other two with a more controlled and confident feel. Certainly with the Ford, the new longer wheelbase adds to the overall ride quality-the trade-off is that it increases its turning radius. Inside though, the Ford puts this added length to use as rear cabin space, adding almost six inches of floor space. For spaciousness, Ford has it over the others.

It was interesting to see that the 2010 Toyota Tundra we tested featured a fold-down cargo bed step, an add-on that mimics the Ford step. It's good to see that Toyota reacts quickly to the changing market, not necessarily waiting until the next-generation update to make build changes.

Driving: Off-Road
That said, it was noted in the off-road portion of our test that of all the trucks, the Tundra has the most play between the box and cab and could use some stiffening up. With the rain pelting (and mosquitoes attacking), we attempted our off-road course in two-wheel drive, First gear with each of the trucks, but in slick mud, we were soon stuck. Still, we noted that the mechanical locker that the Chevy has in its rear differential provided the quickest hook-up before we switched into four-wheel drive. From here, each truck preformed adequately, but the Ford's turning radius once again required that we back up in tight switchbacks; with the other trucks, we didn't need to.

Also on our off-road route, we noted that the Tundra and the F-150 persisted in putting their trailer light connections below the rear bumper. We managed to bend both. We think these belong above, or in, the bumper-as the Dodge and Chevy have them placed.

Our test trailer was a dual-axle, landscape-type trailer with an unladen weight of 2,400 pounds. We loaded two ATVs on it that we had on hand for another test-a Yamaha Kodiak 450 and a 475cc Honda Foreman, and these weighed in at 629 and 639 pounds, respectively. So with the trailer included, we put together a modest tow test weight of 3,668 pounds-respectable for any of these trucks to tow, but far from a real workout. The towing capacity on the new Ford, for instance, has increased to 11,300 pounds, while payload has risen to 3,030 pounds as a direct result of a new frame designed with new high-strength steel (which, despite its increased load-bearing ability, weighs 100 pounds less than the last-generation frame). Our trailer was equipped with "surge brakes," meaning that it didn't require an onboard brake controller-but it's worth noting that while aftermarket units have been the norm for decades, Ford and Chevy now offer integrated controls installed at the factory.

While towing this trailer, once again the power and wheelbase of the Ford and Chevy proved to be the best combinations. The Dodge lacked only in its gearing, where a long Second gear tended to bog a bit on hills while accelerating. While it handled the weight, the Toyota used all its power, and the transmission worked hard to keep pace-an obvious trade-off for the improved fuel economy. On the Chevy hybrid, neither was affected. With its 6.0L Vortec engine, it pulled with strength and confidence, and the electric motors even have enough power on their own to move the truck and trailer from a standing stop on electric power only. As for rear suspension performance, we concluded that our modest load wasn't heavy enough to highlight any significant differences in ride and handling characteristics between the leaf springs found on the Ford, Chevy, and Toyota and the Dodge's coils and links.

As for design, we try to be practical in our evaluations, but we are as swayed as any buyer by a truck's looks. And while there isn't a mutt in the bunch, we have to admit that the current Ram is a very pretty truck, inside and out.

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