Words by Mike Levine, Mark Williams and Kent Sundling, Photos by Ian Merritt
Best Overall Heavy-Duty Summary and Selection
To determine the best overall truck in the Heavy-Duty Hurt Locker comparison, we considered the data we gathered along with our opinions from living with the trucks for a week and driving them more than 2,000 miles.
We also created a two-part chart (below) that summarizes all of the empirical data we collected for each test and turns those results into relative scores based on individual truck performance against the best-performing truck.
For each test -- the fastest truck by time or the shortest to stop by distance – first place was awarded 100 points, and the second- and third-place trucks were assigned points relative to how close they finished to the leader. For example, if the fastest truck through the quarter-mile finished in 15 seconds (getting 100 points) and the second-place truck finished in 16 seconds, then the second-place truck received 93 points.
Exhaust brake performance had a significant impact on the final scores.
For your own purposes, you can weight each test section to create your own total score based on the results of our testing.
2011.5 Ram 3500 High Output
The Ram has the most improved interior of any of the trucks we tested and the best exterior, and it has made tremendous strides in powertrain cooling. But despite those efforts, it lags the Ford and GMC HDs.
Inside, the seats were the most comfortable over long distances, and its information display has a good selection of important engine information.
The Ram’s exhaust brake and DEF-free NOx reduction approach are the standout performance features. The High Output 6.7-liter six-cylinder engine is a monster, but paired with the enhanced transmission, it feels the least refined of the group. Only half-jokingly, now that Allison Transmission is fully independent from GM, an Allison gearbox should be paired with the Cummins oil burner. The pair would be unstoppable.
The mandatory 4.10 rear gear set that comes with the Max Tow Package to increase GCWR didn't help to make this combo feel smooth and well-integrated. We couldn't help but feel that power was being lost somewhere, slipping away maybe in a torque convertor or clutch plates.
Pricing for this truck was a stretch. The High Output Cummins that is now standard with all Ram HDs with automatic transmissions automatically adds $500 to the window sticker. As equipped, it seemed on the high side for certain options, like the Garmin touch-screen navigation computer, which has an aftermarket feel instead of feeling like it’s factory equipment.
If Ram can continue to improve on its transmission, this truck has the opportunity to seriously rival the other two rigs.
2011 Ford F-350 Super Duty
Integration is probably the most impressive aspect for this truck. The way the transmission shifts is impressive. We love the range select capability in the transmission, but the noticeable absence of exhaust brake effectiveness is troubling, if not unnerving, on big grades. Repeated use of the wheel brakes under heavy load is going to cause issues with long-term wear and cost of ownership. We love the Ford’s rich driver information center. It’s the best trip and truck management computer of the bunch and reflects Ford's superior ability to make life easier for the Super Duty driver/owner.
Looking under the hood at the 6.7-liter diesel V-8 is confusing. There’s a lot going on because of its unique reverse airflow design, where fresh air comes in through the sides and exits through the engine valley directly into the turbo. We prefer Ford’s DEF solution, with the fuel and urea filler tubes next to each other for easy access when refueling.
For towing, the Ford’s electric mirrors are a huge asset that offers excellent visibility. We also like the in-bed trailer plug and integrated tailgate step. Contrast this with the other two trucks and their bumper-mounted plugs that required us to pull the trailer wire over their tailgates, causing one trailer plug to disconnect and the other trailer wire to pull loose the trailer wire from the junction box on the trailer. We had to bungee cord the GMC and Ram trailer cords to prevent those issues from recurring.
When it comes to performance, we’ve yet to drive a 2011-era Super Duty with the strength and capability of the truck we tested. It was closer in performance to the GMC than we’ve ever seen.
Best Overall Heavy-Duty: 2012 GMC Sierra 3500
The GMC Sierra 3500 is our choice for the Best Overall Heavy-Duty Truck in the Hurt Locker test. Its performance continues to affirm what we’ve seen from previous 2011-12 GM HD pickups. Their chassis and on-road performance should be in the crosshairs of Ram and Ford.
The GMC Sierra led with best-in-class performance, with wins in almost every test we put the trucks through.
The Sierra was the most comfortable rig over our long days. It was also the quickest for the driver to get comfortable with the trailer and load.
We were disappointed with the lack of information displayed in contrast to the other trucks. It needs to get a better information center, yesterday. We’re also disappointed in the solution found for the DEF maintenance. The Sierra needs an accurate DEF gauge -- not a low-DEF/empty warning light or an OK indicator. The DEF filler area under the hood next to the engine is awkward, and the tank sits well below the bottom of the doorsill. It’s too exposed, especially if any four-wheel driving is required.
That said, if we were going to shop for a heavy-duty truck today, we'd buy the Sierra.