By Trevor Reed; photos by Joe Bruzek
Midsize pickups go through the EPA’s fuel economy cycle that results in city, highway and combined miles-per-gallon ratings you see on window stickers. But that’s not good enough for us.
The EPA’s fuel economy cycle is pretty good at predicting what mileage to expect from a new pickup in those three specific situations, but no two drivers are alike. That’s why we rotated seven drivers through each truck during our 203-mile fuel economy test. The route had us climb from 850 feet above sea level to more than 4,600 feet in the surrounding mountains. The route also dropped us back into some of the worst stop-and-go traffic in the Los Angeles area during the peak of rush hour.
Each pickup was fueled at the start and the end of our Southern California loop. Each truck was filled at the same pump by the same person until the pump automatically stopped, and then the same person would pull the handle until a second auto-stop occurred to assure each truck was equally full.
All the pickups were equipped with five-speed automatic transmissions except for the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, which relied on an older four-speed automatic. The Nissan Frontier and its Suzuki Equator sibling came equipped with 3.36:1 axle ratios, while the Ford Ranger, Colorado, Canyon and Toyota Tacoma had 3.73:1 axle ratios. Finally, the Honda Ridgeline used a deep 4.53:1 ring-and-pinion.
The first stage of the test began at an intersection of a gas station and a short, almost 90-degree twisting freeway on-ramp that required heavy throttle to merge into traffic packed with full-speed semi trucks – in other words, a typical L.A. merge scenario. Much of the driving here was on the freeway, which was moving quickly but was pretty full. We needed to make plenty of lane changes and downshifts to keep the pack of trucks relatively close together.
After exchanging keys and rotating vehicles at the next stop, our convoy left the freeways for a more rural setting. With two lanes on each side of the road, 1,500 feet of elevation to climb and slower-paced country drivers all around us, the pickups faced lots of fuel economy challenges. This put the transmissions to work and highlighted their willingness to cruise or quickly downshift. It’s worth noting we did encounter some strong winds on this stretch.
At the next stop, we swapped keys again and climbed in elevation by almost 1,300 feet. The pickups were allowed free rein for the most part, and they were able to cruise while climbing a moderate grade, heading to the base of the San Bernardino Mountains. Some slower commercial rigs needed to be passed, but there was no need to jockey around multiple lanes, and this route provided one of the best unimpeded highway stretches along the route.
With more than 3,300 feet of elevation to overcome on switchback mountain roads, this leg would push the smaller engines. The most powerful trucks in the test ate up the road, while the Ranger lagged behind. The Ridgeline had the easiest time with the mountain roads, carving corners like it was a large sedan thanks mostly to the independent rear suspension. The Ridgeline was also aided by having full-time all-wheel drive.
The rest of the trucks seemed to have no problem climbing through the twisties. The drive through the mountain town of Crestline, Calif., at almost 5,000 feet in elevation, included tight neighborhood roads winding through hills and around pine trees — all very picturesque, with the dividing mountain range between the Los Angeles basin to the south and the Mojave Desert to the north.
After an exciting trip up the mountain and spending a couple of minutes to look at the giant pine trees, we swapped keys again and headed back down to the city. Unfortunately, this section of the test meant more braking than anything else. A short, twisty section allowed us to get a good impression of the vehicles’ handling dynamics, but much of our driving was done in heavier freeway commuter traffic.
Mountain fun time was over when the group reached the outskirts of Fontana and the drivers swapped trucks for the sixth time. Soon we were back on the freeway, using visors to block the setting sun and driving smoothly in the opposite direction of the horrible rush-hour traffic. But that would change.
By the time we switched vehicles and re-entered the same freeway (now going with traffic), the sun was gone, and the traffic was much worse than it had looked from the other side of the road. Just merging onto the freeway was a stop-and-go, gas-then-brake, nerve-racking experience. Once again, drivers were thrown into a mix of semis, underpowered commuter compacts, luxury cars with annoying high-intensity-discharge headlamps and full-size lifted trucks. There was plenty of 25-mph-to-zero-to-25-mph driving, which undoubtedly hurt fuel economy, just like it would if this were your daily nightmarish commute. Hours later, we were at our final fuel stop.
While the results weren’t shocking, it was interesting to see how close this pack of pickups performed. Most trucks managed to get close to their EPA highway ratings, even with steep hill climbs and hellish traffic along the 203-mile course.
The Ridgeline finished in first place (20.9 mpg) despite having the heaviest curb weight, and the mileage masters at Honda apparently have found a happy medium between ample performance and decent fuel economy. The front-wheel-drive-biased setup and carlike suspension probably didn’t hurt, either.
The trucks in second through fifth place could almost be considered a tie, as the difference among them was less than 0.5 mpg. The V-8 Colorado (17.3 mpg), to no one’s surprise, was pretty thirsty. Still, even with the extra cylinders and just a four-speed automatic, the Chevy’s mileage ended up higher than the EPA combined rating of 16 mpg.
The Ranger came in last (15.7 mpg), and it was the only pickup to score lower than its EPA-estimated combined rating (16 mpg). It’s easy to beat up on the Ranger since its design is by far the oldest — with roots that reach back to the late ‘80s — but even with a five-speed automatic to help with fuel economy, the gas pedal was under constant attack to keep up with the other pickups in the Shootout. We know the Ranger was just finishing up its life in the U.S., but the mileage numbers don’t lie.
To see the complete driving route on Google Maps, click here.
2012 Midsize Shootout