By Dan Sanchez; photos by Joe Bruzek
Most people considering an off-road truck might think they need the torque of a V-8 and the strong chassis of a full-size pickup to carry friends and cargo and to be able to conquer steep hills and rocky terrain. The truth is that a midsize four-wheel-drive pickup can be just as capable. They’re lighter and often equipped with a potent, fuel-efficient V-6. Add four doors and an off-road suspension package, and you’ve got a truck just as capable off-road as its larger siblings, a fact we surmised during this Shootout.
With our seven 4x4 trucks — Toyota Tacoma TRD, Nissan Frontier Pro4-X, Suzuki Equator RMZ-4, GMC Canyon, Honda Ridgeline, Ford Ranger and Chevrolet Colorado — we had every midsize truck sold in the U.S. Most had manufacturer off-road packages that included heavy-duty shocks, a beefier suspension and all-terrain tires; two even had locking rear differentials.
Overall, we were impressed with the performance of these trucks, especially when they were subjected to some extreme testing on the difficult terrain of Johnson Valley, Calif., where we conducted the 4x4 testing. This dry, quiet and desolate desert is home to the King of the Hammers extreme off-road race, which is so grueling that less than 20 percent of the racers don’t even finish. While we didn’t subject our test trucks to the serious racecourse obstacles, we did put them through two separate challenges: a steep and rocky hill climb and a short and punishing off-road course that tests the limits of the trucks’ shock-absorbing abilities.
We broke out 4x4 testing into two separate events, each worth 50 points and accounting for 5 percent of the overall test score. In the hill climb test, we used the same driver and spotter for each truck, with several observers keeping a close eye. At the end of the event, the judges determined the scores based on the ease and elegance of how each truck conquered the steep rock slope.
In the off-road course, the judges drove each competitor over the same route, making notes and observations at the end of each loop. At the end of the event, after each judge had driven the route in each vehicle at least once (some judges drove each vehicle on the course more than once), the judges came together to determine the scores based on the pickups’ perceived performance. These two tests (and our Value category) are our two most subjective tests, where empirical data does not determine rank or score.
Our hill climb test started on packed dirt, but our trucks quickly wound up crawling up a steep grade and over a small, loose rock field that felt like a pile of large marbles. Our driving skills and the vehicles’ suspensions weren’t really tested until the trucks reached some deep ruts and a nasty, short ledge near the top. All but the Ridgeline made it up the first section of the hill, as it suffered from having no low range, limited articulation, a set of street-biased Michelin tires and excessive wheel spin. It also didn’t have much ground clearance and forced us to abandon its ascent to avoid damaging the front spoiler, among other things. So the Honda’s overall performance here was greatly separated from the rest of the trucks in this test, all of which made their way, in one way or another, slowly to the top.
Of the remaining six, the Tacoma proved itself the most stable and sure-footed, followed by the Equator, Frontier, Canyon, Colorado and the Ranger. It’s obvious that after many years of off-road experience, racing and trial and error by TRD, the Tacoma set the bar pretty high. However, the Nissan and Suzuki were also very capable, and the former didn’t even have the Pro4-X off-road package. Even the Ford — with its dated design, old-fashioned torsion-bar suspension (which the GM trucks also use) and the smallest tires of the group — surprised us with its performance. The Canyon took the hill with a touch more confidence and strength but not enough to separate it from the rest of the group. The Colorado, with its 5.3-liter V-8, felt a little nose-heavy, and with the smaller-sidewall 18-inch wheels and chromed side steps, we scraped a few rocks where others did not.
For our 4x4 off-road course, we scouted out a short route through the desert terrain that allowed us to take the trucks across a deep, sandy wash; up a climb out of a riverbed; down an empty, rough dirt road; through a soft, off-camber drop-off; then straight onto a dry-lake bed. From there we made a long right-hand turn back onto a choppy, washboard section where we could test the full compression and extension of the shocks and suspension. Our speeds ranged between 15 mph and 80 mph, depending on the section and desire.
This test, where the truck’s suspension systems worked hard, gave us the best feedback about which suspension was sorted best. The Tacoma achieved unanimous praise here, feeling more solid, and it was also the most balanced, with much less “kidney-jarring” than the other trucks. The Suzuki and Nissan felt quick and light and manageable and stable. The Nissan was perhaps the most fun of the bunch to toss around, but it was difficult to discern any significant differences between it and its Equator sibling, even though the latter sported Bilstein shocks and larger tires.
The Ranger’s performance exceeded our expectations by being predictable, easy to toss, easy to control and offering the most fun-to-drive, old-school feel. Delivering the most confident all-around traction, the Ridgeline performed better than most expected here as well, feeling more carlike, running quite flat with a quick acceleration feel and having a smooth ride (as long as the ruts didn’t get too big). The Canyon also performed well, absorbing bumps with its taller-profile tires. We did enjoy the power of the Colorado’s V-8 engine more on this course than in the hill climb, but we believed the truck was better suited for an autocross or a flat-road course than pushing it here. In that sense, the Z71 Package was a bit disappointing.
As noted, this portion of our test was less empirically based than some of our other tests. Judging on the truck’s off-road performance alone, the Tacoma rose to the top with an extremely capable package. While the Toyota TRD’s off-road capabilities clearly separated the truck from the rest of the field, the Equator and Frontier had only slight variations between them. While our testers liked the no-nonsense appearance and capabilities of the Frontier, the Equator came out slightly ahead of the Nissan by including a locking rear differential, better shocks and bigger all-terrain tires with its RMZ-4 Package.
The Canyon, with its off-road package, performed closely to the Suzuki and Nissan trucks. We liked its roominess, and it provided good all-round performance during both challenges. The Ranger — with its dated appearance, small tires and less aggressive tires — did well, ranking near the Canyon. We assume there will be great debate why the Ranger is even here, as it is not produced or sold anymore. Our answer is simple: It offers a definitive measurement of how far the newer midsize pickup trucks have come.
The Colorado also ranked very close to the rest of the pack. While it seemed just as capable as the Canyon, the heavier V-8, lower-profile tires and chromed nerf bars most likely prevented it from scoring better. If it were ours, we’d outfit the truck with a three-inch body-lift, install larger-diameter tires, add locking differentials and take off the step bars and see if we could get it to perform like a Hummer H3T Alpha.
While the Ridgeline does have some very admirable qualities, it’s just not set up for the type of off-road use. In fact, we fully expect some to cry foul since our Ridgeline came in the new Sport packaging. Its ranking in this category was a little behind the rest of the group, but we found it definitely capable of handling some tough terrain. But the lack of a transfer case, an all-wheel-drive system that only locks the center diff in 1st gear, and its lower ground clearance all add up to the weakest off-roader of the group.
2012 Midsize Shootout