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Looking for a Half-Ton Truck? We Test Them All Head-to-Head!

2019 model Half-Ton Truck Shootout

Harry WagnerPhotographer, Writer

The 1/2-ton trucks segment is super-hot right now, and it’s easy to see why. They get better fuel economy than ever, comfortably fit the entire family for daily use, can tow more than the 1-ton trucks of yesteryear, and are surprisingly capable on the trail. You might not know all of that though from reading reviews on car websites. Most reviewers seem more concerned with how big the infotainment screen is or how many cupholders the truck has. For daily driving those are useful pieces of information, but you can find that info anywhere. By contrast, we actually take these trucks in the dirt. And sand. And snow. We won’t complain about the noise from Goodyear Duratracs or confess that our only off-roading was driving over a curb, both are actual comments from other automotive outlets who have reviewed these trucks. Stick to Audis and BMWs, boys, and leave the trucks to us.

Our staff spent a week living out of these four trucks, starting in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles where we tested their ability to keep us from going postal in bumper-to-bumper traffic before hitting the RTI ramp and dragstrip to collect some data. From there we set out for the desert, driving northeast to the shadow of Mount Whitney, elevation 14,505 feet. We rotated through the trucks en route to Cerro Gordo, crossing fast washes and low-speed, technical rocks along the way. We tested each of the trucks in the dunes before heading north to Bishop, where we spent a few days subjecting the pickups to everything from deep water crossings to steep, slick hill climbs, and even snow bashing. We don’t always agree on which truck is best, but the robust and diverse testing does allow us to paint a pretty detailed picture of the capabilities of these trucks that you aren’t going to get by driving over a curb.

Chevy Trail Boss

The 1/2-ton Chevy Silverado has been completely redesigned for 2019, with a variety of drivetrain choices and trim models. We received the LT Trail Boss, which features a 2-inch lift from the factory, painted bumpers and grille instead of chrome, and 32-inch-tall Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires. The Trail Boss also boasts Rancho 5000 shocks and a G80 locker (Gov-Lok) in the rear axle, which seem a little outdated compared to the competition.

What doesn’t seem outdated is the styling; quite the contrary. The exterior wasn’t as ostentatious as we were expecting based on photos we had seen, but good luck building an aftermarket winch bumper to match the lines of this truck! Inside, even in the relatively low LT trim we found the Chevy to be comfortable and well laid out. There was plenty of room for four passengers, yet the Chevy felt nimble on the road with good visibility and ease of parking.

The 5.3L V-8 made plenty of power for fast sections of the trail and dunes, but the suspension definitely could not keep up. While soft and supple on the road, it blew through the suspension travel even over small irregularities, resulting in crashing and banging. The Trail Boss worked well in the snow and other low-traction situations once we had the traction control nannies turned off, but in low-speed, technical crawling we found the limited suspension travel and G80 rear locker stopped us as soon as we hung a tire in the air.

GMC Sierra AT4

The GMC Sierra AT4 is the sibling to the Silverado Trail Boss, with the same suspension and dimensions but also some significant differences. The Sierra AT4 packed the most power and the most gears with a whopping 435 hp and 469 lb-ft from the 6.2L V-8, backed by an excellent 10-speed automatic transmission. This combination would be our choice if we planned to use the truck to tow a Jeep or a boat on a regular basis. Like the Silverado Trail Boss, the Sierra AT4 has a 2-inch suspension lift from the factory with Rancho shocks and Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires. And like the Silverado, we found the Sierra to be at a disadvantage to the competition in the sand dunes and fast off-road conditions, where it blew through the suspension travel and spent a significant amount of time on the bumpstops.

The upscale GMC has some pioneering features, including a heads-up display and surround vision that displays a bird’s-eye view of the truck on the 4.2-inch info center. And the truck has a host of safety features, including forward collision alert, following distance indicator, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, park assist, and more. The AT4 also has an innovative six-function Multipro tailgate that has a load stop, a step, and even a stereo built into the tailgate. The bed has 12 cargo tie-down points, LED lighting, a 120V outlet, and a spray-in bed liner from the factory. All of these features come at a cost though. The Sierra AT4 will set you back a whopping $64,680.

Ram Rebel

Ram’s redesigned 1500 is lighter for 2019, increasing payload capacity and mileage. The Rebel package was introduced for the 1500 in the 2015 model year with a 1-inch steel-spring suspension lift and specially tuned Bilstein shocks, all-terrain tires, and skidplates. Ram upped the ante for 2019 by combining those features with a selectable rear locking differential that made the Rebel the most capable vehicle in our test for technical, low-speed situations on the trail. Trail prowess is further boosted by the small dimensions of the Ram, which is great for trail use and parking in crowded places, but at the expense of legroom for rear seat passengers.

Power comes from a 5.7L Hemi V-8 backed by an eight-speed automatic transmission. This combo felt well matched to any situation and never hunted for gears. Our test truck was not equipped with Ram’s eTorque system, but this 48V belt-driven generator is a $1,450 option that adds 2 mpg in city driving. The Ram Rebel was the only vehicle in the test with a four-link coil rear suspension in lieu of leaf springs. While we did not note a huge improvement in ride quality relative to the other trucks (particularly the excellent Tundra TRD Pro), the coil suspension exhibits zero wheelhop in the sand—the Ram Rebel just puts the power to the ground. We appreciate the simplicity of the coil suspension, but based on past tests the optional air suspension provides a better ride when unladen and has the ability to raise and lower depending on the terrain. We would tick the boxes for eTorque and the air suspension if buying a new Ram Rebel.

Toyota Tundra TRD Pro

This generation of Tundra was introduced in 2007, and the vehicle is starting to show its age. In particular the interior of the Tundra feels cheap and plasticky relative to the other trucks we tested. The drivetrain, however, is great. Despite being down 40 hp to the Sierra AT4, we found the Tundra to be the only truck that could hang with the GMC powerwise, thanks in part to the deep 4.30 gears in the axles. Those gears make for good acceleration, but you pay for them at the pump; the Tundra got the worst mileage of the test. The only saving grace there is the huge 38-gallon fuel tank, which gives the truck admirable range—it just gets expensive when you do finally pull up to the pump.

The TRD Pro package adds a 2-inch lift with excellent Fox 2 1/2-inch-diameter remote reservoir, internal bypass shocks to the normal Tundra. These gave the Tundra a controlled feel on the pavement and the best ride in the sand dunes and on high-speed fire roads. The TRD Pro package also ups the Tundra ante with forged BBS wheels, Rigid LED foglights, and a TRD exhaust. Our testers were split regarding the exhaust, which is loud and aggressive. Some loved the sound, while others felt the novelty wore off quickly.

As for complaints, in the sand we couldn’t get the transmission to hold a gear long enough to make the most of the high-end suspension. And for a dedicated off-road package you couldn’t completely eliminate the electronic nannies, and the tires were street-oriented Michelin LTX AT2. Other complaint hit on the lack of a true locking differential, such as found on the TRD Pro Tacoma and 4Runner. The TRD Pro Tundra has an “Auto Limited Slip Differential” that is brake actuated like traction control, not mechanical, in the huge 10.5-inch rearend.

Why No Ford?

While Ford updated the F-150 for 2019 with an optional 3.0L diesel engine, the company declined our invitation to test the truck against the rest of the field. The aluminum-body pickup looks great on paper, and we regret that we couldn’t put it through its paces.