To evaluate fuel economy, we took our three competitors on a 147.3-mile loop through central Michigan, starting very close to the Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, then heading north toward Flint, then west toward Lansing, then back down through Ann Arbor, and finally back to Romulus.
The course took us on many city streets, a few backcountry highways, some freeway sections and, in some cases, right through the heart of a few small downtown municipalities. We passed many cornfields, pumpkin patches and a clean McDonald’s at each of our several driver rotations.
Our test drivers were allowed to drive at their own pace (normal driving patterns), and each driver rotated into each vehicle at least once on each of the loops. Each loop took about three hours, and we made two complete loops in a single day. Each truck made the loop unloaded and another loop with a 2,300-pound trailer attached over the same route, with the same stops and the same drivers rotating into each vehicle. Likewise, every fill-up was performed at the same pump at the same fuel station, at which point the miles and fuel quantities were recorded.
Upon completion, the results we found were interesting but not surprising. In the unloaded test, the Ford F-150, with its six gears and two overdrives, had the easiest time accelerating through traffic while shifting into a lower gear quicker than the other four-speeds (in the Ram and Sierra). As a result, the F-150 (weighing in at 4,760 pounds) completed our road course with an average of 21.4 mpg over the loop. In second place was the Ram (weighing 4,562 pounds), averaging 19.0 mpg; the lightest vehicle, the Sierra (at 4,486 pounds), averaged the worst at 18.3 mpg.
Each test vehicle completed the same loop while towing our work-truck trailers, which had a construction-site cement buggy on top, lashed down tight for safety. The Ford repeated test-leading numbers during the trailering loop. With each truck in Tow/Haul mode, the engines typically made their shifts later and held each gear longer, especially when letting off the throttle.
We had a hunch the new F-150 V-6 would do well here, but it wasn’t clear by how much. As it turned out, the margins on the towing loops were much closer than when cruising empty. In fact, after looking at the numbers, it looks as if the Ford engineers did a better job programming the F-150 for empty driving. That probably makes sense, given the fact most people typically spend more time driving an empty pickup.
The final results of our fuel runs have the F-150 winning the “loaded mpg” run averaging 14.7 mpg, while the Ram recorded 14.0 mpg and the Sierra 13.9 mpg.
Ride and Comfort
During our fuel-economy loops, our test drivers had plenty of time to get familiar with the ride quality and comfort features of each V-6 half-ton pickup.
The GMC Sierra had reasonable ride quality over much of our loop, with some cabin noise from the front A-pillar at higher freeway speeds. The engine and transmission communication was good, but sort of like an old married couple. With 3.23:1 axle gears, the Sierra did not move off the line well and always seemed to hold the shifter a touch too soon to a higher gear, keeping engine speed right around 1,500 to 1,700 rpm — a bit low for around-town driving. When towing, the Sierra seemed more comfortable, offering a smoother and more powerful feel, but paying a larger penalty in fuel used. Not surprising, the transmission seemed more enthusiastic when in Tow/Haul mode.
The Ram seemed more comfortable and spirited when empty. The transmission had quite a bit of trouble knowing when exactly to shift from 3rd to 4th or 4th to 3rd with the load. And when in 3rd gear, we found some rather harsh vibrations through the firewall and floor. There was also a transient burbling noise that would briefly enter the cabin at speeds around 50 mph. Still, the Ram’s base seats were a standout and got several positive comments from our loop drivers.
It should be noted our F-150 was a slightly different sort of animal from our Sierra WT and Ram ST base model regular cabs. Both of those vehicles had crank windows and manual mirror adjustments. Our Ram even had five-lug axles whereas just about every midsize and half-ton truck around sports a six-lug.
Our F-150 did have the nice rims, power windows, power mirrors and vastly superior interior with the STX trim package. Seating comfort was strong with the 40/20/40 seating that gave better-than-most bolstering and backside comfort. The six-speed transmission helped the vehicle get in the right gear in city driving, and the 302-horsepower motor allowed it to scoot off the line. With the trailer hooked up and in Tow/Haul mode, there was plenty of gearing to get it moving from a stop light or when merging into traffic. The transmission is the key here, using some significant computer power to figure out in milliseconds just the right amount of power and force to move the extra weight with the least lost energy. The gearbox downshifted quickly and upshifted when sensing downhill spots coming ahead. And in perhaps the least surprising discovery, the most expensive truck of the test also had the quietest interior, empty or loaded.
Still, with all the advantages and higher trim package, the F-150 is a good value proposition. At $4,000 more than the GMC and $6,000 more than the Ram, the added pricing would be justified if just considering the powertrain gains alone -- more power, more fuel economy and more gears are hard to argue with. Throw in the rest of the interior upgrades, and the F-150 was our clear winner here.