2012 Midsize Shootout: Off-Road Day

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Overview
Track Day
Dyno Day
Fuel Economy
Judgment Day
Results

 

Comments

How much of the Ridgeline's failure here is clearance and articulation and not just having the wrong tires on? Does the front spoiler come off?

On paper the approach angle is decent (24) and clearance (8.2) is only about an inch off some of the other trucks.

lol honda fail

@Dan- fair question. Keep in mind, though that once you swap some grippyer rubber on and take off the chin spoiler, the on-road performance could suffer, especially in terms of fuel economy.

Honda will lose off road but onroad its all wheel drive system is far superior to the old fasioned part time systems on these other trucks, especially compared to vehicles like the Ranger that have a 35MPH max speed in 4x4.

Cool review! Kudos to the Tacoma!

@Don
Where do you get this idea that the Ranger tops out at 35 MPH in 4WD?

That 35mph is a recommendation.
Off-road drive is what these pickup have, not four wheel drive. Their drive system is not for use on pavement, ever.
They only have 2 differentials, not 3.

Honda's drivetrain isn't that much better than a traditional rear drive PTO transfer case. GM has used the NV 246 transfer case for over a decade. If you know how to countersteer, and how to modulate the gas pedal it is just as useful as the VTM4 system, if not more so.
Unfortunately no such PTO systems are used in these compact/mid-size PUs

I don't think to many guys would consider the Ridgeline an offroad warhorse. Small 2-3 inch lift kits are the only things I've ever seen available. Only 1 range in the transfer case is another issue.
To be honest - how many guys use their trucks offroad in tough environments? 1 % is the number i recall where people actually need 4x4.
If I wanted a 4x4 small truck - the Tacoma or Nissan would be my choices. (No Suzuki car dealership in my town).

The ridgeline should be able to get up most hills out there. The only possible things that could have held it back here would be if a low gear ratio were needed or more than 8 inches of clearance were needed (but magically under 9 for most of the other trucks), which would indicate a poor choice of course to me. Real dumping around on rocks needs at least 12" of clearance. None of these trucks would do very well with that type of driving in stock configurations. If you need a low gear ratio to get up whatever hill you're on that means its very steep and you need to move very slow. That is a very specific and rarely encountered set of circumstances. Especially for trucks like these which will nearly never find themselves in conditions like that. Oh well whatever. Nissan Frontier can catch a plane's landing gear in its bed. Which truck can beat that?

@George:

"Off-road drive is what these pickup have, not four wheel drive. Their drive system is not for use on pavement, ever."

B.S. You from Arizona or something? They work great on snowy roads.

@Jason H. You should look at what the 'Big 3' did after the 1970's 'oil crisis'.
They took out the center differentials, and still called their drivetrains 'four wheel drive'. [clear cut case of fraud]
They are not. Look at the owner's manual from when the vehicles still had a center differential + lock function.
It calls operation with the center differential locked-emergency drive, and recommends that it be unlocked ASAP.

Do you ever turn on such snowy roads? Can you see the pavement?
Can you tell me that the rolling circumference of the front & rear axles are within 1% of each other [tread depth + inflation pressures], probably not.
That is the problem with pickups, they drive over 90% of their miles in rear drive, wearing those tires more, and then expect the drivetrain to work with 2 different rolling diameters. When you use it off-road, the drivetrain strain is relieved when a tire looses contact with the ground.

I cannot believe what I am reading! I cannot believe that pick-up aficionados would be so ignorant when it comes to four wheel drive systems and four wheeling in general. It seems to me that all of you should go sell your trucks and buy some old El Caminos or Rancheros!

First, I am so tired of people saying you cannot use four wheel drive on the street or other hard surfaces. Yes you can and people do it all the time. The slick rock in Moab has more traction than any street I have ever driven on, and I, as well as many other fourwheelers, have driven on it numerous times in four wheel drive without problems. If you are too afraid to operate your truck in four wheel drive, go buy a Camry or something instead of wasting a perfectly good truck.

Secondly, if you are not in low range, you are not really fourwheeling. The only times I ever use high range are when I am driving on really icy roads, or at speed in soft sand or light mud. Have you ever tried to drive down a desert canyon in high range before? If you have you only did it once because you burned up your torque converter or your clutch. If you haven't needed low range, you have not been four wheeling. End of the conversation.

The ridge line is a sad sack of truck and this joke of a test confirms it. Everyone who claims otherwise must be using theirs solely in their local Walmart parking lot.

All you who claim, "no one really uses their trucks off road," must be pure bred suburbanites. I like the guy who claims only 1% of trucks go offroad. Where do you get your figures? Cracker Jack boxes? I don't believe I have ever been surveyed. I know I am just from a small town in southern New Mexico, but almost everyone takes their trucks off road for recreation or to tend to their farms and ranches.

I guess I must be in the vast minority of people who consider the offroad credentials of a truck one of their main criteria for choosing a vehicle. I guess that's why new trucks are becoming more irrelevant to me as time goes on. New trucks are becoming a bunch of fragile, plastic-clad turds that are adorned with stickers as a weak ploy to convince the city folk that their new pickup is capable of going somewhere other than a picnic ground.

P.S. Jason H. Arizona is renowned for having some pretty brutal trails. Do you homework, guys from Arizona know a thing or two about four fourwheeling.

In response to your 1% comment Leland, you right there contradicted your self with the small town comment. What total percentage of trucks do you think are sold in small towns? Yes I bet a solid percent of small town trucks leave the payment but that is only a small percentage compared to the number of trucks sold in the large towns. What percentage of trucks sold in total do you think come from Houston alone? I bet a very high percent of those don't leave the payment. I am willing to bet it is less then 1% of those platinum, king ranch, lariat trucks sold leave the payment since those are typically sold to the box checker dads who want to look tough but don't use a truck or probably even need it let alone one with four wheel drive. No right guy who is actually gonna use the truck or take it off road is going to want a dolled up interior and 20" wheels with street tires. I remember reading an article from the person who heads the Wrangler program saying the off road rate of the Rubicon was somewhere below 50% and the remainder were sold to box checkers (that is where I learned that term). If the highest off road version is less then 50% and accounts for a smaller percentage of overall sales what do you think the total off road percentage of the remainder of the fleet is? That is a vehicle designed for off roading, trucks are no doubt less. If I was a betting man though I would say you are right that 1% is low, but I would say it is no doubt below 5%. Trucks have become more an image tool these days, most the lifted trucks (6" or more) don't leave the payment that you see running around town (big cities) but rather are that extension of them. One thing that is annoying is seeing purpose built vehicles getting changed to adapt to the big city dads that want to look cool. That is the only reason the Raptor and Rubicon got 4 doors, they in no way improve upon what they were originally designed for but to accommodate more people in something they will never use. It is really funny to see wimpier tires put on them then what they came with, that shows what they use them for. You can't blame the manufacturers, its all about the money.

Jason H, I think you are mistaking center differentials like on a all wheel drive car with a transfer case on a truck. A transfer case locks the front and rear drive shafts together, the only part that truly decides if it is real four wheel drive is if the front and rear differentials lock. Not sure why you think it is fraud calling them four wheel drive, if you were to put any truck on a sheet of ice with open diffs in four low all four would be a spinning, seems like four wheel drive to me, just depends on the matter of traction at each given wheel. Hence the reason no truck is recommended to be driven on dry pavement.

PS, tire rotations take care of the tire wear inconsistencies you are talking about. And while the rear tires may be the only ones driving it most of the time, the fronts turn and brake and under normal circumstances wear faster then the rears unless someone has an extreme case of lead foot from stop lights.

Sorry, that last comment was meant for George too

Flagstaff, AZ gets about the same amount of snow per year as Buffalo, NY. So yeah, we get snow here. Leland is right. Anyone that thinks the Honda VTM4 is adequate off-road should come out here and run some mild trails.


the ridgeline sucked and the 100 yr old ranger still gets it done like no one's business.

The ranger is also the best looking of all the trucks and of course the ridgeline is the ugliest.

the frontier tested was not the pro 4x model it is just the sport appearance package. the pro 4x also comes with a locking differential and beefier shocks and offroad tires. the sport appearance package does not.

I know this is a little late, and not many will read this, but on tha Ranger there is anoff road package that would have made a world of diff., it's called FX-4, like on all the Ford trucks, and on a couple of yrs. there was a couple of diff FX-4 types, the most off road cappable was the FX4 II, it had more ground clearence, Bilstien shocks, and BFG 285/70-16 tires, the realy meaty ones with 6ply! and all the skid plates in place, this model would have placed much higher, maybe even with the taco, but we won't ever know now will we, but I have seen them in action and let me tell you they were great off road right from the factory, and were a lot less $$$$ then the others here.

In the beginning of the article you say the Nissan had the Pro4X, and then further along you say it didn't. Not really a fair assessment to put a TRD vs. a non Pro4X... In addition the Suzuki is all but a re-branded Frontier, so to give the Suzuki the off-road package and not the Frontier seems strange. All in all it is unclear if these results are completely fair.

Haha...late reply to an old post, but got a good laugh about the guy that thinks the big 3 pulled center diffs from their trucks in the 70's...those were gone in the 50's. I drive a Range Rover Classic with permanent 4x4 and a lockable center differential, as well as a new Ford F-250 with part-time 4x4. Its really simple...if you drive the Rover with the center diff locked on pavement, it will cause the same damage as driving the F-250 on pavement with 4x4 engaged. Of course the center diff needs to be locked for any serious off-road driving, too. Driving off-road or in any snow is no problem for the F-250 in 4x4 hi or low. Sometimes on very tractive surfaces you get a little 'hop' on tight turns, but as long as wheels can slip from time to time there is no driveline windup and its OK.

Also agree that even the best of these 'stock' trucks would be stymied on a tougher trail. They just don't have enough ground clearance. Trucks also typically have poor breakover and departure angles vs a short wheelbase SUV. It used to be axle articulation was very important; lockers tend to fix lack of flex...The F-250 actually has a driver-operated rear locker which is nice...but my Rover is far more capable just by virtue of its design, but running a small lift and 33" mud tires certainly helps.

By the way, I too have been surprised in the past by the off-road performance of the Ford Ranger, for as basic as it seems to be it performs well.



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