Pickup trucks are so ubiquitous, so common on American roadways that we tend to take them for granted. They’re hugely important vehicles, both to consumers and their manufacturers, and they make up a significant percentage of vehicles on the road. If the Ford F-Series and Chevrolet Silverado were brands instead of individual vehicles within a brand, they’d both be among the top 10 best-selling auto brands in the country, and that’s without counting the Silverado’s GMC twin. Ram wouldn’t be far out of the top 10, and its sales are on the rise.
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Trucks are also among the most versatile vehicles you can buy. They tow and haul, and they also commute and road trip. They can be everything from a stripped-out work truck with manual windows and door locks to a leather-stuffed special edition that costs as much as a full-size luxury sedan. They carry anywhere from two to six passengers in a mind-boggling number of cab, bed, and wheelbase configurations. To its owner, a truck can be a tool, a commuter vehicle, and a luxury car all rolled up in one.
Fully aware of the weight these vehicles carry with their builders and their buyers, we brought together the big three: Chevy, Ford, and Ram. Each has launched an all-new model within the past five years stuffed with significant updates based on volumes of customer research. Each brand is confident that its truck represents the best answer to the truck customer’s competing needs in towing, hauling, fuel economy, and comfort. From Chevrolet, the Silverado 1500 LTZ with 5.3-liter EcoTec3 V-8. From Ford, the F-150 Lariat with 2.7-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6. From Ram, the Ram 1500 Outdoorsman with 3.0-liter EcoDiesel turbo-diesel V-6. We drove them well over 1,000 miles through California and Arizona empty, loaded, trailering, in cities, on highways, and in the mountains to determine which is the best all-around truck. Before that, though, we pored over customer research from multiple sources in order to understand how truck buyers in this class actually use their vehicles so that we could base our judgment on their needs.
From the outset, you can see a small problem: One of these trucks is not like the other. The only F-150 with 2.7-liter EcoBoost available for our test was this Lariat SuperCab, a mid-grade model that retails for roughly $7,000 less as-tested than the nearly top-trim Ram and Silverado. Thankfully, we also had an F-150 3.5-liter EcoBoost Platinum SuperCrew at the office with which we could compare features and interior space. As far as price goes, a few minutes spent browsing the brands’ respective websites reveals that a comparably equipped F-150 would run about $54,000. Just moving up to a comparable, four-door SuperCrew body adds $2,660 to the price tag, and from there you’ll need to add things like the $1,295 sunroof, $695 side step, $525 premium stereo, $475 bed liner, $375 tailgate step, and on and on to match all the equipment on the Ram and Silverado. Conversely, you could strip down the Ram or Silverado to meet the F-150’s price with similar content. For all intents and purposes, the trucks are offered at roughly the same price if comparably equipped. To work, then.
COMPARABLY EQUIPPED, THESE TRUCKS ARE ESSENTIALLY ALL THE SAME PRICE: ABOVE $53,000.
Despite what truck advertising would have you think, customer research is consistent across the board: Most light-duty trucks drive around empty most of the time. Think about it: Of all the trucks you saw on the road today, how many were hauling something besides air? With that in mind, we started with a drive around town and down the freeway with empty trucks. The differences between the three trucks were stark.
As the test data at the end of the story shows, the F-150 is a screamer. The 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine feels wildly more powerful than its official ratings suggest. It sprints off the line as if competing in a NASCAR Truck Series race. As Lieberman relates, “Our road test editor Scott Mortara had just finished straight-line testing the 2.7. We had to rush off with all three trucks to get to a photo location. As Evans tried to grab the 2.7, Mortara pointed to the 3.5-liter F-150 and said, ‘That’s your truck there.’ To which all three of us involved in the test replied, ‘Nuh-uh!’ Mortara had assumed the 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6 engine was the 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 because the Lariat was that quick. (He hadn’t tested the 3.5 yet.)” Up in the mountains, the turbochargers made short work of the altitude, though the six-speed transmission tended to hunt among the upper gears as it went up and down hills and around tight corners. Beyond that, we were less impressed. The steering is the lightest of the three and rather vague. The truck rides well and is quiet inside, but the front end feels floaty on the freeway.
The biggest surprise was the disparity between the Silverado’s test data and its real-world performance. On the test track, the Silverado was nearly as quick as the F-150. On the street, you’d never know. The objectively slower Ram felt quicker around town than the Silverado, and for that we blame the Chevy’s powertrain software. The combination of incredibly lethargic throttle response and fuel economy-biased transmission programming that strives to always be in sixth gear made the Silverado feel the slowest by a country mile. Sure, if you floor it, it books, but how often does the typical owner do that? Up in the mountains, these problems were exaggerated. As for the rest of the experience, the first word in my notes is “isolated.” The Chevy is very quiet inside, the ride is soft and a bit floaty, and all the responses are a bit dull. The test numbers say it’s the quickest around a corner, but you wouldn’t guess that from inside, either.
The Ram was also a surprise, but a good one. The EcoDiesel’s torque comes on quickly and makes it feel quicker than the Chevy around town. Part of that is due to its exclusive eight-speed automatic transmission, which we agreed was the best here by far. “It’s unflappable,” said Seabaugh. “It’s never caught in the wrong gear. It makes the Ford’s and especially the Chevy’s six-speed transmissions feel like they’re from an entirely different era.” Up in the mountains, this winning team never noticed the altitude or the twisty road. It was always in the right gear with ample power. The Ram’s class-exclusive, optional air suspension rode the best and the truck felt confident and responsive in turns. It wasn’t quite as quiet inside as the Chevrolet and it wasn’t as fast as the Ford, but it was the truck we agreed we’d want to drive on a regular basis. But we would prefer a faster steering rack.
Next up was hauling. Per the research, the typical light-duty truck owner hauls about 1,000 pounds on average, so we dropped 1,000 pounds’ worth of rubber horse-stall mats in each truck and hit the road. The results, as you might expect, mirrored the unladed driving. The all-powerful Ford didn’t seem to notice the weight at all when accelerating, and the Ram seemed only vaguely aware of the load. The Chevy felt like it was working harder and every move required more throttle pedal than before. The Chevy also didn’t ride any better or worse, but its floaty, under-damped body motions were exaggerated slightly. The Ford’s ride was less affected, though the bumps in the road became more noticeable, even if they were handled well by the suspension. The Ram, for its part, rode just as well and didn’t sag in the rear at all, thanks to its load-leveling air suspension.
With flat land hauling impressions in the bag, we headed out to the Davis Dam grade, a 12-mile stretch of Arizona Highway 68 just outside Bullhead City and the site of the SAE J2807 voluntary, standardized towing test for pickup trucks. The combination of altitude, payload, and a continuous 6-percent grade allowed us to observe how the powertrains reacted to a worst-case scenario we called “the frustration test.” That is, trying to pass uphill while weighed down. Once again, the Ford felt unencumbered and skipped up the hill as if the weight wasn’t there. Objectively, the time it took to jump from 50 to 70 mph nearly doubled compared to passing when empty and on flat ground, but you wouldn’t know it by feel alone. The Ram likewise felt unburdened, and though it had the longest passing time, the difference was also less than double. The Chevy, though, felt seriously weighed down. Passing took a whole lot of throttle, and even then its passing time more than doubled.
Leaving the grade behind, we dumped our payload and scrounged up a trailer. While maximum trailering weight has become the same sort of ego-measuring contest as horsepower, the reality is that 60 percent of light-duty truck owners tow less than once a month. When they do, the data says they tow 7,000-8,000 pounds on average, regardless of what the truck is capable of. Armed with this information, we loaded our trailer up to 7,000 pounds and hit the road.
Before we got moving, though, we had to get hooked up. The Ford scored points here for including an extra line on the backup camera screen to indicate the position of the ball hitch, making it super easy to line up with the trailer tongue. The Ram won even more favor with its ability to lower the ball hitch under the trailer, then raise up into position using its adjustable air suspension, saving us a lot of cranking on the trailer jack. The Chevy had no special trailer hook-up feature, and its low-resolution backup camera made precise positioning difficult without a spotter.
ONLY 5 PERCENT OF LIGHT-DUTY TRUCK OWNERS GO OFF-ROAD ONCE OR MORE PER MONTH.
Once hooked up, we did a bit of acceleration testing to replicate those hairy freeway entry moments. As you might expect, the trucks all performed about the same subjectively, but slower. The Ford still felt and was the quickest. The Chevy felt the slowest and most labored, but was actually the second-quickest. The Ram felt quicker than the Chevy even though it wasn’t. Here again you might say the numbers tell the tale, but when you’re behind the wheel, knowing the Chevy is faster doesn’t make it feel any less slow. To its credit, though, its power delivery was the most linear. Both the Ford and Ram suffered from turbo lag off the line, the Ford especially so. The Ram hesitated a moment as its turbo spooled, while the Ford made a whole lot of noise for a few beats until the turbos got in the game and the truck got moving at a reasonable pace.
A bit of driving revealed more about each truck’s towing characteristics. Neither the Ford nor the Ram seemed bothered by the trailer when cornering, easily controlling all the weight hanging off the bumper. The Chevy, though, rolled a bit more in the curves and had to work slightly harder to control the trailer around bends. Both the Chevy and Ford suffered from a firmer, bouncier ride with the trailer hooked up, but the Ram’s air suspension had it riding about the same as it does without a trailer. All three trucks felt confident and composed when braking hard with the trailer attached.
We saved the hardest trailer test for last: backing up. Even for someone who tows regularly, reversing with a trailer can be a chore. The Chevy’s high beltline made seeing out slightly harder than in the other two and it felt like the largest truck here, so backing up was a little challenging but easy enough. The lazy throttle slowed down the process. The Ford was easier to see out of and responded better thanks in part to its power and quick steering, but its tall, skinny side mirrors kept losing the parking space. The Ram shone brightest with its ample outward visibility, abundant low RPM torque, and wide side mirrors that never lost the parking space.
By the time we ditched the trailer, it was clear that no one vehicle was the perfect towing machine. Each carried a flaw in one test or another, but given only one truck to tow with regularly, we’d pick the Ram for its ease of towing, backing, and its ride quality.
Driving done, it was time to look at other aspects of these trucks. Each featured a factory available bed tie-down system, and each was an exercise in frustration. The little loops in the Chevy’s bed sides required a whole lot of screwing or unscrewing to install or remove and a bunch of fussing with the mechanism to get it into or out of the hole in the bed side. The Ford’s locking tie-downs are beefier and quicker to remove, but only if you know the trick to getting them out (pull up on the tab under the cleat while simultaneously pushing the whole thing down). The Ram’s sliding tie-downs were the most versatile, but required a lot of screwing and unscrewing and still got stuck on every notch in the track.
Getting into the beds to test those tie-downs was a wildly different experience depending on the truck. While Ford’s tailgate step (or “man step,” as it’s known) makes climbing into and out of the bed the easiest, it has some drawbacks. If the tailgate is up or blocked, you’re out of luck. It also requires several steps to set up and stow, and all the moving parts seem likely to get gummed up with dirt. Chevy’s Cornerstep bumper, by contrast, is a beautifully simple solution. The steps in the rear bumper ends sit only half an inch higher than Ford’s step, but require no setup and work whether the tailgate is up, down, or blocked. Their only drawback is that they require slightly more balance and dexterity to use. Ram, for its part, ought to figure out its own solution quick, because the best it can do is lower itself 1 and ¾ of an inch with its air suspension set to Entry/Exit height, which leaves it 11 inches higher than the Ford or Chevy’s solution.
Moving inside the trucks, we liked the aesthetics and materials of the Ram’s interior the best. Its seats are the most comfortable and supportive, its Uconnect information and entertainment system is the most intuitive to use, it’s got tons of storage space, and we like the rotary gear selector. The Chevy earned praise for its surfeit of USB ports and 12-volt power points, as well as 110-volt plug. “Apparently, Chevy is the only carmaker on the planet to watch what four people get up to when inside a vehicle for an hour or more,” Lieberman remarked. We liked the Ford’s massive, customizable display screen in the instrument cluster, but the only console shifter in the group eats up a lot of center console space and the power and USB ports are hidden down in a cubby we could barely get our fingers in.
Then there are the features. Each of these trucks carries a laundry list of available features to make your trucking life easier. The Chevy’s on-board 4G LTE wireless hot spot turns it into a “mobile office,” as Seabaugh put it, though the Ram offers a slower 3G hot spot. The Ford’s 360-degree camera ought to be standard on all vehicles this size, and its enormous sun roof is impressive. The Ram’s lauded air suspension and super-handy Ram Box bed storage system made it the ultimate weekend excursion machine. In the end, we called it a draw because with so many diverse features available on each truck, it becomes simply a matter of customer preference as to which matter most.
Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss fuel economy. Some of you will say it doesn’t matter, that trucks get bad fuel economy and buyers accept it. To that we respond that we have never seen truck owners who looked happy after pumping $130 worth of gas or diesel into their trucks. Fuel economy means money, and with massive fuel tanks, it means a lot of money. That goes double for business owners who purchase these vehicles and can see significant cost savings from better fuel economy. Understanding that, each company has invested huge amounts of money into three very different solutions.
WE HAVE NEVER SEEN A HAPPY-LOOKING TRUCK OWNER AFTER A $130 FILL-UP.
Looming perhaps the largest in this category is the all-new F-150. Not only has Ford developed a tiny 2.7-liter, twin-turbo V-6 designed to simultaneously provide V-8 power while returning V-6 fuel economy, but it’s made the truck’s body and cab out of aluminum to significantly reduce weight. (Despite that, its shorter cab still weighs 4935 pounds to the Chevy’s 5607 pounds and the Ram’s 5990 pounds.) The EcoBoost engine is a huge boon for Ford, returning substantial results in EPA testing while still providing big power for the customer. Unfortunately, most customers have realized by now that it’s Eco or Boost, not both. Drive like there’s a Faberge egg on the gas pedal and you’ll get decent fuel economy, but dip into the power at all and you’ll get V-8 fuel economy to match your V-8 power. The EPA rates the four-wheel-drive 2015 F-150 with the 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6 at 18/23 mpg, and when we put it through our Real MPG testing, we saw 17 mpg city, 22 mpg highway, and 19 mpg combined. We also did a far less scientific test while the trucks were loaded down with the mats and divided the miles driven by the gallons pumped. In that test, we got 16.8 mpg.
Then there’s Chevy’s solution. Recognizing that many truck buyers prefer V-8s regardless of power ratings, Chevy went through its 5.3-liter truck engine with a fine-toothed comb looking for efficiencies. Its piece-de-resistance is a cylinder deactivation system that turns it into a 2.7-liter V-4 under light loads. It’s a neat trick, but not as effective as Ford’s solution. The Chevy is EPA-rated at 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway, and 18 mpg combined. In our Real MPG testing, it returned a disappointing 13 mpg city, 19 mpg highway, and 15 mpg combined. In our payload fuel economy test, though, it came within striking distance of the Ford at 16.4 mpg observed.
Ram, for its part, went with the obvious but controversial solution: a six-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine. Diesels are an obvious fit for trucks, providing abundant low-end torque as well as impressive fuel economy. Given the recent trend of diesel fuel being more expensive than gasoline (the nationwide average difference is 58 cents/gallon as of this writing), though, diesels have never caught on in light-duty trucks until now. Ram took a gamble on diesel and it paid off in a big way. Demand is twice what the company expected and the results speak for themselves. The Ram EcoDiesel is EPA-rated at 19 mpg city, 27 mpg highway, and 22 mpg combined. In our Real MPG testing, it performed better than advertised, returning 20 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 23 mpg combined. Moreover, in our payload fuel economy test, it returned an observed 23 mpg. The Ram’s combined Real MPG is 21 percent better than the F-150’s, covering the current 19-percent national price premium of diesel, though paying off the EcoDiesel’s $3,120-$4,770 price premium would require time or a dramatic change in the fuel price landscape. It is worth noting, however, that in the popular crew-cab/short-box 4×4 configuration, the F-150 Lariat 2.7 EcoBoost and Ram Outdoorsman EcoDiesel price out pretty comparatively.
There is one caveat we have to mention before we get to the conclusion. Our Ram was struck with an air conditioning problem we’ve never seen before. A fused relay in the climate control system’s control module locked the clutch on the air conditioning compressor in the “on” position, forcing the compressor to run constantly and eventually overloading the system and causing it to shut down out of self-preservation. Keeping the electrically controlled clutch on all the time (even when the truck was turned off) also killed the battery. A new control module solved the problem, and while troubling, we must also consider that our long-term 2013 Ram 1500 had absolutely zero mechanical problems and an Internet search turned up no similar issues among Ram owners (the control module in question is the same regardless of engine). As such, we’ve decided to chalk it up to a fluke problem and not a reflection of the vehicle as a whole.
Also, if you’re wondering why we didn’t take these trucks any farther off pavement than a lightly maintained dirt road, the answer is again in the data. Only 5 percent of light-duty truck owners take their truck off-road once or more per month. Though truck buyers ranked off-road ability high in their purchase considerations, very few of them actually use that ability. A cursory look around your average off-road park will confirm that brand-new trucks are not well-represented as anything but toy haulers. No one wants to damage their brand-new, $50,000-plus daily driver.
After more than a week of driving and testing, it was inescapably clear how fiercely competitive this class is. All three are good trucks that will serve their deeply loyal customers well, but by the end, a separation was clear. The Chevrolet Silverado is simply a step behind the Ford F-150 and Ram 1500 in every regard. To quote Seabaugh: “You know things aren’t looking so hot when the best thing about your truck is its Wi-Fi hot spot.” The race was much tighter between the F-150 and the Ram. After each test we’d debate again, hoping that the next test would reveal an as-yet-unseen flaw in one of the trucks that would make it an easy decision. None came. So we kept debating, and in the end, the Ford’s unknown maintenance and aluminum repair costs gave us pause, especially when combined with less-than-expected benefits from the weight savings. The Ram’s combination of exclusive features, towing and hauling abilities, driving experience, and unimpeachable fuel economy put it on top.
Seabaugh said it best: “With the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, you get a truck that’s quick when you want it to be, efficient most all of the time, always comfortable loaded or unloaded, luxurious, and always ready to work. It’s amazing how capable this truck is — the more time I spend with it, the more I’m reminded why it’s our first-ever back-to-back truck of the year winner.” To that, I can add: winner of this test.
Third Place: Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LTZ Z71
The rolling office is a boon on the job site, but it feels outclassed everywhere else.
Second Place: Ford F-150 Lariat 4×4
An incredibly capable and well-thought-out truck, but fails to fully deliver on the hype.
First Place: Ram 1500 Outdoorsman EcoDiesel 4×4
Forget “jack-of-all-trades.” This truck masters every one of them.