Do You Really Need A V8?
Is that even a question? Isn’t ’wheeling all about big torque, big cubic inches, putting maximum power to the ground?
We’d guess that the V-6–powered Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and Ram 1500 will get the job done for a lot of pickup owners. Both trucks are roomy, comfortable, and quick when they need to be, and both can scramble up a trail and return mid-20-mpg fuel economy numbers on the highway—not bad for trucks that weigh close to 3 tons.
It is true that their payload and towing numbers aren’t up to those of their V-8 brothers. If you tow or haul big loads, you still need a V-8 (or a diesel). But a trailer with a UTV, ATVs, or a light trail rig can be pulled with either truck. Heck, while towing Fred William’s CJ-5 Lemon Pie we passed other traffic on the highway—uphill!
So don’t dismiss these V-6 trucks as slow, weak penalty boxes. If your loads are mostly family and their gear, and what you tow weighs 5,000 or 6,000 pounds, these trucks just may be all you need.
The Chevy’s 4.3L V-6 is all new but shares similar block architecture with the EcoTec3 V-8 engines. The V-6 has an aluminum block, cross-bolted main bearing caps, and a deeper, 6-quart oil pan. The engine’s top half is all about efficiency, with direct fuel injection, variable valve timing, and cylinder deactivation technology (called Active Fuel Management) that closes the valves on two cylinders under light loads. GM says the transition between V-6 and V-4 takes less than 20 milliseconds; we can tell you the shift between six- and four-cylinder power is imperceptible. You’ll only know it’s happening when the small V-6 light on the dash changes to V-4.
GM rates the 4.3 at 285 hp at 5,300 rpm and 305 lb-ft of torque at 3,900 rpm. For those used to driving V-8 trucks, the biggest difference between the eight and the six (in the Ram, too) is the lack of instant torque response when you tip into the throttle. With the Chevy in particular it takes more pedal to get the truck moving, though the truck will scoot when you boot it. Informal acceleration tests (timed with a stopwatch) saw the Chevy go from 0 to 60 mph in 10 seconds or so.
Affecting the Chevy’s driveability is the six-speed 6L80 automatic transmission. Considering all the time and effort put into engine efficiency—and the groundbreaking eight- and nine-speed transmissions coming from GM’s rivals—we expected a higher tech gearbox than this. It works; gear changes are smooth, and a manual mode allows you to up- and downshift via a toggle switch on the shift lever.
Well, sort of. It shifts when the computers deem your up- and downshifts to be appropriate. Often we would punch the button looking for a gear change only to be overruled by the ECMs until the truck decided it was time to shift. And when you select Third, for example, the trans doesn’t hold Third. Third just becomes the highest gear the trans will shift up to, but it will up- and downshift between First or Second and Third when it thinks it needs to.
The manual mode in the Ram’s transmission acts the same way, but that ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox is like a magic wand to the Pentastar 3.6L V-6. First gear is deeper (4.71 versus the GM’s 4.03), and with direct drive all the way out at Sixth gear, the ratios in between are much closer, keeping the Pentastar in a rev range where it’s making the most of its power. From behind the wheel you can’t tell that the Pentastar is three-quarters of a liter smaller than the GM V-6 or that its torque peak lags behind the Chevy. The Ram was quicker to 60 mph by three-tenths of a second, felt like it had more to give when towing, and overall was livelier to drive, loaded or unloaded.
The interface between driver and transmission did get mixed reviews. Ram has given up the traditional shift lever in favor of a rotary e-dial. Some of us got used to it; others found it annoying. We all found the shifting in manual mode frustrating, as the gears are selected using tiny buttons on the steering wheel. That’s hard to do while driving quickly up a mountain pass; virtually impossible to do with work gloves on.
The Pentastar has been in Chrysler’s fleet since it debuted in the ’11 Grand Cherokee, and it was new to the Ram when the truck was redesigned for 2013. It, too, has an aluminum block and heads, with combustion chambers, valve location, and cam phasing tuned for peak efficiency. It has traditional multipoint fuel injection, though, and always runs on all six cylinders. Yet the overall fuel economy on our test (18.5 mpg) was just a tick higher than the Chevy’s 18.4. And the Ram saw a best of 25.4 mpg during one highway stretch, while the Chevy topped out at 23.4 mpg on the highway.
PhotosView Photo Gallery
Both the Chevy and Ram ride on ladder frames designed for maximum torsional stiffness. Both utilize unequal-length A-arms as front suspension components and have live axles in the rear. Both are also equipped with electric-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, which is used to improve fuel economy, but received mixed reviews on driver feedback from judges.
Where the two differ is in the rear suspension, and it is significant. The Chevy retains a conventional Hotchkiss-style rear suspension, with multileaf springs suspending the solid axle. Starting with the ’09 model year, Ram gave up its leaves in half-ton trucks for a multilink/coil-spring rear suspension design. For its ’13 makeover, Ram added an air suspension option, which trades the coil springs at all four corners for airbags that can vary the truck’s ride height depending on conditions. At highway speeds it lowers a half-inch to improve aerodynamics and fuel economy, and when the transfer case is in low range it rises up to 2 inches for better clearance—though at the expense of downtravel.
The air suspension was a $1,595 option on our Ram, and worth every penny. The cleaner aero helped the smaller and less powerful Pentastar beat the Chevy’s highway fuel economy. We appreciated the extra distance between the body and the rocks during trail crawling. And when towing, the air springs automatically leveled the truck’s backend, keeping the headlights aimed where they should be and contributing to a more secure on-road feel and less wobble and head bouncing from the trailered load.
We would have ordered a similar air suspension system on the Chevrolet had it been available. It’s not.