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2012 Pickup Truck Of The Year

Ford F-150 FX4 vs. Ram Power Wagon vs. Ram 2500

Sean P. HolmanWriterKen BrubakerPhotographer

Welcome to our 23rd installment of Four Wheeler’s Pickup Truck of the Year, where we take the newest trucks and put them through a week of hard testing to find out which truck will earn the right to call itself our Pickup Truck of the Year.

In order for a vehicle to be eligible for our competition, it has to be all-new or significantly revised from the previous year, have a two-speed transfer case, have a production run of at least 1,500 vehicles available in the U.S., and must be on sale by January 15, 2012. We score each of the vehicles based on an extensive testing criteria of five weighted categories that include Trail Performance (30%), Empirical (25%), On Pavement (20%), Interior (15%), and Exterior (10%).

This year our field included three trucks. First up was Ford’s F-150 FX4 with the impressive EcoBoost 3.5 V-6 twin turbocharged V-6 with 365hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. The Ford was invited last year, but was not available in time so it remained eligible for 2012. Also eligible this year were the ’12 Ram Power Wagon, which benefits from a new six-speed automatic transmission and the ’12 Ram 2500, which now has an enhanced 6.7L Cummins I-6 putting out 350hp and 800 lb-ft of torque. Also eligible this year, but not available in time, were the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor SuperCrew and Toyota Tacoma.

Much like last month’s Four Wheeler of the Year test, we drove our pickups through a 1,000-mile loop that encompassed all things from city gridlock to technical trails. Our seven judges took turns at the wheel of each vehicle over the course of a week and reported their thoughts, findings, and scores in to logbooks, which were collected and added up culminating with our choice for 2012’s Pickup Truck of the Year.

The Contenders
Our first entry in to our PTOTY test was the Ford F-150 FX4, sporting a technologically advanced twin-scroll 3.5L V-6. Our SuperCab truck was an ’11 model that was updated to the ’12 spec. With a base price of $36,625 our F-150 included a rear locker and skidplating, but was optioned out with the EcoBoost V-6 ($750), 4.10 gearing ($50), Sony navigation radio ($2,495), running boards ($455), power moon roof ($995), FX Luxury package ($2,950), Max Trailer Tow package ($565), and 20-inch FX2 cast aluminum wheels ($755) that were swapped out for the FX4’s optional and more aggressive 18-inch rubber. After some package discounts and destination charge, our Ford came to an as-tested price of $44,615, making it the most affordable in our group.

Delivered with a base price of $45,565 was our Ram Power Wagon, which still comes with the 383hp and 400 lb-ft 5.7L Hemi, albeit now backed by a six-speed automatic, further extending the Hemi’s flexibility. To the base price, we added the Technology Group ($495), power sunroof ($850), security alarm ($150), Media Center 430N ($1,200), ParkView rear back up camera ($200), power adjustable pedals ($125), remote start ($185), RamBox Cargo Management system ($1,295), spray-in bedliner ($475) and a destination charge of ($995) to bring our as-tested total to $53,030.

Our most expensive truck was the Ram 2500, which arrived in Mega Cab form, sporting Laramie Longhorn trim. To the base price of $49,875 we added the Protection group ($50), Heavy-duty Snow Plow prep package ($85), 350/800 6.7L Cummins turbodiesel ($7,195), 68RFE six-speed automatic transmission ($1,100), 4.10:1 axle ratio ($50), limited slip differential rear axle ($325), power sunroof ($850), roof-mounted clearance lights ($80), dual transmission oil cooler ($345), LT265/70R17E OWL on/off-road tires ($200), RamBox Cargo Management systems ($1,295), rear seat video system ($1,200), and a destination charge of ($995), making the grand total of our as-tested price $63,645.

By the Numbers
This year our instrument testing venues included Off Road Evolution in Fullerton, California, and the former El Toro Marine Base in Orange County, California. Off Road Evolution provided us with access to a couple of lifts, allowing us to survey the undercarriage of each vehicle. We were also able to take advantage of its 30-degree RTI ramp to gauge flexibility of each truck’s suspension. At El Toro Field, we had full use of an abandoned runway to perform our instrumented testing, including 0-60 and 1⁄4-mile acceleration tests, and 60-0 braking tests.

On the ramp it was the uber-flexy Power Wagon and its electronically disconnecting front sway bar that travelled 68-inches up the ramp for a score of 457. The F-150 followed with a score of 324 after traveling 48 inches, while the mile-long Ram Mega Cab managed 48.5 inches for a score of 295.

With the suspension evaluated, we turned to the track to gauge powertrain performance. It was here that the surprise of the test took place—two six-cylinder trucks outran the V-8. Not only were they faster, they were significantly faster. With a 1,000-pound weight advantage, a twin-turbo engine, and more horsepower, one might assume the F-150 would take acceleration honors with its impressive 0-60 time of 7.36 seconds. However, it was the Ram 2500 and its massive 800 lb-ft of torque that proved quickest off the line, hitting 60 in just 7.2 seconds. The Power Wagon gunned it through 60 in 8.36 seconds, exactly a second after the F-150 and a hair faster than our ’10 five-speed Power Wagon, which did it in 8.68 seconds.

As the quarter mile was reached, the trucks maintained their positioning, as the EcoBoosted F-150 nearly caught the Ram 2500, which was still pulling hard crossing the line in just 15.64 seconds at 89.29 mph. The F-150 was right behind at 15.80 seconds at 89.3 mph. The Power Wagon was the tail gunner with a run of 16.91 at 82.93, almost identical to our ’10 test.

The F-150 pulled out a win in the braking test, coming to a stop in 148.76 feet, while both Rams ended up within a foot of each other. The heftier Mega Cab stopped in 158.44 feet, while the Power Wagon, with its more aggressive BFG All-Terrain tires hauled itself down in 158.5 feet.

Another important area the trucks are scored on is fuel economy. At the end of 1,000 miles of hard testing, it was the Ford, with its 12.59 mpg that lead the pack, followed by the turbodiesel Ram 2500 at 12.27 mpg, and the Hemi Power Wagon at 10.21 mpg. We expected the EcoBoost F-150 to have a substantially higher fuel economy average, but did note an anomaly during one tank, that delivered numbers that were inconsistent with the rest of our testing. Perhaps it was a bad tank of fuel or a computer issue, but the issue cleared up after fresh fuel and a restart, and the Ford continued the test delivering the much higher numbers that we expected, such as a final mixed tank of 17.5 mpg.

Staff Impressions
This year’s test included three cab styles, a twin-turbo V-6, a gas V-8, and a turbodiesel I-6, one ½-ton, two ¾-tons and pricing differences that covered a range of nearly $20,000. On the surface it would appear that none of these vehicles are direct competitors, yet they are all adept at fulfilling the pickup truck mission. It is the customizability in today’s selection of trucks that makes this segment so compelling. While they may not go head-to-head on the showroom floor, these three trucks represent a great look at today’s pickup technology.

Arguably the most advanced truck in the group was the Ford F-150. From its state-of-the-art V-6, an engine that really does offer the power of an Eight with the fuel economy of a Six, to its smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission, the Ford was the epitome of a modern pickup and the favorite of early-adopters and techno-geeks. Ford also uses an electrically assisted power steering system to save gas, but our testers found it over boosted and vague, with as much feedback as you would get from yelling at the San Diego Chargers through the TV.

Technology didn’t stop under the hood, however. The interior of the Ford featured a modern layout that included full gauges and a 4.2-inch LCD screed nestled in the instrument cluster that Ford calls a Productivity Screen. Similar to having a smartphone at your fingertips, the Ford system has the ability to show common information, such as fuel economy and towing information, but has a special Off-Road menu that shows the status of the drivetrain among other things. We also found Ford’s navigation system and weather radar overlay superior to either system in the Ram trucks. Front power and heated seats matched with power pedals and large mirrors made finding an optimal seating position easy. The niceties offset the fact that Ford had the smallest cab of the group and although the rear legroom was compromised, the rear seat was surprisingly accommodating.

On the highway, the Ford offered the best ride with its soft front end tuning. Overall the F-150 was the most fun to drive, with a sporty feel, aided by an ability to summon hard power when exiting out of corners. More than once the EcoBoost surprised with exceptional passing power, but it also reminded us every time we stepped in to the throttle and heard its odd exhaust note that it is not a V-8.

On the flip side, the Hemi-powered Power Wagon never disappointed the ears when we dipped in to the throttle. With a purely American truck exhaust note emanating from the smooth V-8, the Power Wagon was nearly as fun to drive as the Ford, but in a more traditional and truck-like way. The Bilstein shocks are tuned about as perfectly as one could expect and they manage chassis motions of the 6,800-pound Power Wagon remarkably well.

The interior of the Power Wagon is sized right in between the Ford and the Mega Cab and offered the best outward visibility of the bunch. The inside is not as flashy as the other trucks with vinyl flooring and cloth seats, but it still had all the basic amenities one would expect, such as power windows and door locks, full gauges, and a few upgrades such as navigation. Although the cheaper 430N Garmin-based system we used didn’t do anything to win over the staff. Its interface was simple, but sometimes frustrating to use and the quality of the display was lower than that of the nicer, albeit more expensive, 730N system in the Mega Cab.

In everything else it does, the Power Wagon exudes simplicity and functionality. For example, the simple three-knob climate control was the easiest of the bunch to use and all of the switchgear was intuitive, requiring no learning curve at all. The Crew Cab also has countless interior storage cubbies and new-for-2012 RamBox option further enhances the cargo capability of the Power Wagon. We also love that the Power Wagon comes in different trim levels for 2012, including a more basic ST and more luxuriously appointed Laramie without the gaudy sticker package.

If the standard Laramie isn’t enough luxury for you, step up to the Laramie Longhorn. Our tester was finished with the finest leather we have ever sampled in a pickup with jewel-like details spread across the interior. Intended to be a competitor to Ford’s King Ranch series, the Ram brand might get the nod in this head-to-head. Mix it in with the Mega Cab and suddenly you own your own luxo-barge as well what must have once been at least two head of cattle.

The Mega Cab has the most room of any cab on the market with enough space for rear seat occupants to cross their legs. The Mega Cab also expands storage over the Crew Cab by offering extra space behind the rear seat. Increasing the usefulness of the rear bench, the individual seatbacks not only recline, but also lay flat, allowing the rear seat to be used as a bed, if desired. Owning this truck is like owning an SUV and a pickup all-in-one, and you wouldn’t be too far off if you thought of this finely crafted interior as being in a land yacht.

But unlike most yachts, a lot has been done in the suspension tuning department of this truck. No longer does a Ram HD equal a bone jarring, man-flab jiggling ride, which is good because we imagine most people driving this truck have a soft spot for, and because of, the kind of meat one would grill over mesquite coals. And we imagine they probably didn’t miss any extra helpings of cowboy beans, either. Get out on a wide-open highway, the kind you might stretch out on in Texas, and the MegaCab is good for all-day comfort. The only place where size seems to matter is in city settings, such as LA, where bigger isn’t always better.

Owning the nearly 21-foot-long Mega Cab will ensure you never get a close spot (or two) at the mall, that is, if they even make spots large enough for this truck. You might also have to come to grips with the fact that your days of maneuvering in parking structures and three-point turns (five-point is more like it) are over. Think you might one day find the need to parallel park in New York City? Fuggedahboutit.

As for power, all of our favorite clichés apply to the 800 lb-ft 6.7L Cummins, although you can disregard the one about stump-pulling power, because it can tow the whole tree. Enjoy abusing those Load Range Es with absurd burnouts and excessive tongue weight? Have fun. Need to tow a house? Well some people actually do - with this truck. The Cummins is up to whatever workaday task you can dream up and when matched to this cab and trim, it does it in style.

3rd Place: Ram 2500 Laramie Longhorn Mega Cab
What’s Hot:
Power, RamBoxes, luxury everywhere, interior space

What’s Not:
Exterior size, weight

Our Take:
Probably aimed more at successful rancher than vegans

From the Logbook:
“Side steps really help with ingress/egress, but hamper trail performance.”
“Fold-flat rear seat is great for camping!”
“Fortunately there are enough seats to bring along a spotter.”
“At speed, the chassis works pretty well and the shocks do an adequate job.”
“I was surprised at the comfort level, even on nasty roads.”

Trail Ability
One look at the Ram Mega Cab and you might not expect it to win this test based on trail performance, and you would be right. It wasn’t the best trail rig in the group, but it wasn’t the alleged penalty box either. With great occupant isolation and supportive saddles, only the worst terrain was transmitted to the cabin.

We found the limited-slip differential to be effective and the running boards disposable. Sure, it had its hang-ups with its 12.4-foot wheelbase (more than three feet longer than the entire length of a Smart ForTwo), but with solid axles and dialed-in shocks it wasn’t horrible. The long wheelbase helped to mellow out harsh motions over whoops and stabilize the truck on our Hill Climb.

In the washes, the big Ram required more effort to keep the intended course at speed and in the sand excessive power modulation caused equally excessive axle hop. So those environments might not be ideal, but get the Mega Cab out on a hard packed dirt trail, and as long as it is devoid of major undulations, the shocks do a fine job of soaking up the road. We imagine a family and a load of gear would have no problem getting out and exploring the backcountry in one of these trucks.

The Ford, on the other hand, was much more suited to the trail, with its smaller size and rear locker. The EcoBoost was an absolute blast to drive in the dirt, especially in the wash where it was pretty easy to steer with the go pedal. This is good because steering with the wheel was a letdown. Lacking the beautifully balanced feedback of the hydraulic Raptor system, the FX4 was betrayed by a virtual steering feel that would be better left in a simulator.

We also found the rear suspension of the FX4 to be harsh in rough terrain, especially in rippled sand. The soft front seemed to absorb imperfections, while the rear transmitted them, as evidence by the suspension chatter and noticeable bed deflection. Fortunately the Ford has a locker that was quick to engage and the majority of its vitals were protected with a mix of metal and composite skidplates, giving the Ford some props in the dirt. We also liked that Ford offers more aggressive optional rubber, in the form of Goodyear Wranglers, for those who need it.

In the sand, the Ford may have been our favorite play date. Not because of the suspension, but because of the EcoBoost’s willingness to amuse us. Although, during some spirited driving for photos we did heat the truck up enough that it apparently went into a limp mode. Surprisingly, there was no light to indicate this on the dash, but power was noticeably down. After a period of cool down, the Ford was back to its playful nature again.

In most of the off-pavement terrains we tested these trucks on, it was the Power Wagon that dominated the test. Whether it was a supple suspension, increased ground clearance, or the superior tires, the Power Wagon excelled almost everywhere we drove it. We suppose the front and rear lockers and electronic sway bar disconnect didn’t hurt either.

On dirt roads, even ones with smaller whoops, the Power Wagon was able to carry a surprising amount of speed for its weight and suspension setup. The Bilsteins soaked up the larger bumps pretty good, although short sharp impacts could be felt in the cab. Bumpstops on both Rams have a nice, soft material that deadens the really big stuff without requiring those who found the suspension limits to exit via backboard.

In the washes, the Power Wagon was just as much fun as the Ford, but with more room to clear those half-hidden rocks. Plenty of Hemi power and a six-speed that kept it on the boil, the Ram, much like the Ford could be steered with the throttle, although unlike the Ford, the steering system was weighted nicely with good feedback, allowing us to easily place the Power Wagon right where we wanted it.

As good as the Power Wagon was at speed, it was exceptional in the rocks, as if Ram built this truck for our Hill Climb. With the lockers engaged, the sway bar disconnected, full steel skidplating and good clearance, our judges never had to worry about harming this truck in jagged terrain most owners would never drag a $53,000 truck through. For us, it is about one set of rock rails away from coming perfectly equipped from the factory, but as it stands, it is more truck in the dirt than the majority of buyers will ever need.

If the Power Wagon was Superman off-highway, it was sand that proved to be its only kryptonite. Soft sand was a match for the solid axles, often producing hop and causing the transmission to second guess its gear selection. We also noted that the Power Wagon lockers were somewhat slow to engage and the enormous hood made visibility a challenge when dropping over rises. Overall though, it was the Power Wagon’s go-anywhere performance that won the judges over on the trail.

So at the end of a long week of testing, we had three great trucks and a tough decision to make. After the judges were polled and scores added up, only one of these trucks walk away as winner of the 2012 Four Wheeler Pickup Truck of the Year award.

“However, it was the Ram 2500 and its massive 800 lb-ft of torque that proved quickest off the line, hitting 60 in just 7.2 seconds.”

2nd Place: Ford F-150 FX4
What’s Hot:
EcoBoost power, fuel economy, rear locker, capability

What’s Not:
Vague steering, stiff rear suspension

Our Take:
A 1⁄2-ton that can play with the big boys

From the Logbook:
“The EcoBoost is like a two-stage rocket once the turbos spool up!”
“SuperCab rear seat is surprisingly comfortable.”
“The momentary switch turn signals are frustrating to get used to.”
“If you long for the classic rumble of a V-8, you will be disappointed.”
“Are you sure it is a 1⁄2-ton, it is rated to tow 11,300 pounds and haul 2000 pounds.”
“The EcoBoost was an absolute blast to drive in the dirt, especially in the wash where it was pretty easy to steer with the go pedal.”

Staff Picks
John Cappa, Editor
I like pickups that can do everything well. The EcoBoost V-6 in the Ford F-150 provided remarkable power and unbelievable fuel economy, however its off-road performance was uninspiring. The Ram 2500 Cummins truck no doubt had the highest tow capacity and it took to the trails impressively for a 3⁄4-ton, but it drives very heavy off-road. My pickup-of-choice is the Ram Power Wagon. It can tow, crawl, haul ass over rough terrain, and comfortably get me to work everyday. The only real drawback in my mind is the poor fuel economy.

Ken Brubaker, Senior Editor
Wow, this was a tough one because each of these trucks make me drool and I’d love to own any one of ’em. If forced to choose just one, I gotta give the nod to the Ford F-150 FX4. I dig the power and fuel economy flung out by the turbocharged EcoBoost; the seating position and visibility from the cab is great; and the ride and handling is refined. The truck is fun and economical to drive, it can hold its own off-highway, and it has respectable payload and towing numbers. And I think it looks cool, too.

Sean P. Holman, Tech Editor
This is clearly a rhetorical question considering I can’t afford any one of these trucks, so I will pretend I have the money to gas them up too. I really loved the Ford’s technology, and the EcoBoost was impressive, but I am a sucker for a real V-8. The Mega Cab is frankly more truck than I will ever need, but I was impressed by its refinement. That vehicle has come a long way since the first generation. However, if I had my choice of the three and a Chevron Black Card, it would be the Ram Power Wagon all the way. It is a great truck that does everything well, including trail work.

Jason Gonderman, Web Editor
If I had to live with one of these pickup trucks it would have to be the Ram Power Wagon. All the trucks are nice but the Power Wagon has everything I need. It can tow, haul, wheel, and is comfortable on the street. It’s a big Rubicon and I like that.

Greg Smith, Art Director
I really liked the Ford with the EcoBoost V-6, but it’s difficult to beat what you get with the Power Wagon. It has a great off-road package but can still tow a sizeable toy hauler, plus it rides very comfortably on the highway even though it’s technically considered a 3⁄4-ton truck. The only downside is the mileage. Can we put the EcoBoost in the Power Wagon?

Steve von Seggern, Publisher
Raptor. Oh wait, we can’t pick the Raptor? Damn. I love the Raptor. I’d have to go with the Ford F-150 FX4 then because of the ground-breaking engine technology. You have to hand it to Ford for sticking their necks out to try something this different with the bestselling vehicle in their entire portfolio. There’s no doubt that it works—this thing’s a rocket. Watching the F-150 outrun the Hemi and the big Cummins across the dry lake and on El Toro’s runway was breathtaking. However, I’m not convinced the fuel economy benefits are as big as one would expect from the small displacement and all that technology.

David Hamilton, Account Executive Vermin
I picked the Ram Power Wagon for the Pickup Truck of the Year. It’s the mullet of the group; all business in the front (awesome 5.7 Hemi, locking f/r diffs, electronic sway bar disconnect) and party in the bed (ultimate Toy Hauler and the RamBoxes are genius!).

“It is an all-around performer that can haul 1,880 pounds of cargo, tow 10,250 pounds of trailer, or hang with Jeeps on the trail.”

Winner: Ram Power Wagon
So here we are again, Ram’s Power Wagon wins Four Wheeler’s Pickup Truck of the Year, making it the fourth win for the big truck since we first started running these competitions in 1974, and the third since the Power Wagon was reintroduced in 2005.

We guess you could say we like this truck. We get this truck and the engineers behind its development get us. The Power Wagon is the Swiss Army Knife of ¾-ton trucks, especially now with the RamBox option with bed rails and a spray-in bedliner. It has a tractable Hemi engine and the new crisp shifting six-speed improves the truck and makes it more competitive in its class. The high seating position, large greenhouse and configurable mirrors make for great outward visibility and you’ll never have to apologize for the Power Wagon’s firm, yet smooth ride.

It is an all-around performer that can haul 1,880 pounds of cargo, tow 10,250 pounds of trailer, or hang with Jeeps on the trail. As one editor noted in the logbook, “If Jeep made pickups, this would be it.” He wasn’t far off, considering that the front coil spring suspension is a scaled up version of the Wrangler’s.

The Power Wagon offers front and rear lockers (the rear is a tight helical limited slip when not locked), an electronically disconnecting sway bar, a manual transfer case lever, increased ride height, 33-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires, forged wheels, 4.56 gears, and Bilstein monotube shocks. It even has a 12,000-pound Warn winch nestled behind the front bumper. Jeep doesn’t even give you a winch from the factory and with equipment like this there isn’t much, if anything, that needs to be done to this truck. Out of the box, it can be used and enjoyed with the knowledge it is covered by a full warranty.

Congratulations to Ram for another win with its incredible Power Wagon. On ours, we’ll trade the stickers for the chrome p-o-w-e-r w-a-g-o-n across the tailgate on the Laramie trim. It reminds us of our much-loved ’05 Power Wagon.

What’s Hot:
Fully equipped, well-rounded, good balance of size and capability

What’s Not:
Fuel usage, graphics

Our Take:
2012 Pickup Truck of the Year

From the Logbook:
“If Jeep built a pickup, this would be it.”
“Love the simple three-knob HVAC layout.”
“Vinyl flooring is a great idea.”
“Sand might be the only place I wouldn’t have fun in a Power Wagon.”
“It has everything but rock rails.”