We put seven trucks through their paces in our Midsize Shootout, and here’s how they finished, listed in reverse finishing order:
What we liked: There was no question the Ranger was the “time machine” of our Shootout. Jumping behind the wheel during our sweep through Southern California and in each of the individual tests was like teleporting back to the early 1990s. And, as odd as it may sound, that was kind of cool. There’s something admirable about a vehicle that still looks much the same as it did after more than 20 years in the marketplace. The dated dash and gauge cluster were strangely comforting, as it reminded us of a time when vehicles were simpler and deserved lower expectations in road feel and comfort.
As you might expect, our XLT Ranger was the price leader of our test, coming in several thousand dollars underneath the next competitor. Our judges also liked how much payload the vehicle could comfortably handle, with a third-place finish (its highest finish in any category). Finally, as full of older technology as the aging 4.0-liter V-6 is, it did make a good amount of torque that, at times, made it feel somewhat zippy through side streets.
What we didn’t: As previously noted, the older technology in the engine and transmission made itself most obvious during our fuel economy drive. The Ranger was our lightest vehicle in our test and had a five-speed transmission, but it got more than 10 percent worse fuel economy than the heavier Colorado with a V-8 and a four-speed. Go figure. Add to that a rough and ruggedly designed front torsion-bar suspension and a bucky, unsophisticated rear leaf setup, and you can see why the Ford trailed by a good margin in just about every event we threw at it.
The verdict: For those not happy that smaller pickup trucks are becoming too much like cars and too soft around the edges, this was the best truck of the group to offer that “retro” feel. The good news is now that the Ranger is no longer produced in the U.S., there will be some great deals out there for newer and used vehicles, and we can’t think of a better low-cost choice if you’re in need of a “beater” or project truck.
What we liked: The GMC Canyon is like that solid and steady player on any sports team that doesn’t stand out in any particular way, but is always involved and ready to do the work. The Canyon did not come close to winning a single category in our test but did offer a good middle-of-the-road cost and capability formula.
From a design point of view, our judges seemed to like the balanced approach with the bigger wheels and tires — no fancy gimmicks or loud sticker packages — and predictable road feel. Qualified praise came when several testers were surprised to find out the engine had only five cylinders. The Vortec 3700 I-5 produced a solid amount of horsepower at the rear wheels during our dyno tests at the K&N facility, producing just six fewer peak horsepower than the Toyota Tacoma. EPA fuel economy ratings were also a strong point for the Canyon, tying it for top honors with the Tacoma of 16 mpg city and 21 mpg highway. Unfortunately, that wasn’t one of our scored categories.
What we didn’t: The Canyon also suffered from a chassis and suspension (like the Ranger and Colorado) that are long overdue for an engineering redesign. The outdated front torsion setup, combined with the stiffer (though heavier-duty) Bilstein shocks in the Z71 package, makes the ride and comfort levels recognizably lower than the competition. Also, the cabin seals and interior materials were noticeably subpar, with lots of road noise and a lack of seat support. As a track performer, the engine struggled to justify its 192 horsepower chassis dyno number, finishing as the slowest zero-to-60-mph performer empty and coming in sixth (by a hair) during loaded zero-to-60 times. In fact, the Canyon was slower empty than the Tacoma was at maximum payload.
The verdict: Our verdict may look harsh against the Canyon, but the little truck is a consistent performer and does have a price point that could make it attractive to certain buyers. Still, with so much attention lately is on the new, small GM pickup coming to the U.S. — with new engines, a new front and rear suspension, and a much cleaner exterior design — it’s difficult not to look at this truck as anything more than a midpack choice at best.
What we liked: It was a sad day when the last Dodge Dakota rolled off the line in August because that meant there was only one midsize left that offered a V-8 option. (We’re counting the GM clones as a single unit.) The all-aluminum 5.3-liter V-8 is a $1,300 option but gives the little truck a completely different feel compared with its I-5 alternative. As you might expect, throttle response was wonderful, and the Colorado had a throaty sound (although we would have liked even more) that was missing from other competitors.
The Colorado won three of 11 events, taking top honors in the zero-to-60-mph empty and loaded categories, as well as being the peak horsepower category winner, making more than 20 more hp than second-place Suzuki Equator. Not surprisingly, the V-8 made the most torque as well, producing 254 pounds-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm. Most impressive about the engine is how incredibly flat the horsepower and torque curves are, essentially delivering at least 90 percent of its power just after 2,000 rpm all the way up to 6,000 rpm.
What we didn’t: Unfortunately, in those areas where raw power wasn’t an obvious asset, the Colorado did not do as well. Our Chevy delivered subpar performances in both empty and loaded braking duties, with groaning and front-end chassis rattles that we didn’t hear from the others, as well as offering the second worst fuel economy of the pack. Realistically, we know that it was doomed from the start with 4.10:1 gears and an older four-speed automatic, but this was a bit worse than we expected. Finally, our calculated payload gave us a paltry 600 pounds of real-world carrying capacity (once we factored in two normal-sized adults), and if you were to carry four people, even less. Not so good for a pickup.
The verdict: Quite possibly the best power option in this segment, the $1,300 V-8 in either the Colorado or Canyon is worth every penny, as long as you know what you’re getting. You will have to give up about 350 pounds of usable payload capacity for the heavier engine, but you will also get a higher towing capacity and a snap from the throttle that will always put a smile on your face. Still, $34,000 is a lot of money to pay for a midsize full of compromises, especially when it’s looking so long in the tooth.
What we liked: Fully equipped with Suzuki’s off-road package, our RMZ-4 Equator came to us at just over $30,000 and missed placing third overall in this tight top grouping by just one point.
From the outset, although the Equator is mechanically identical to the Nissan Frontier, it surprised us how different the two vehicles felt. Both were sharp and snappy off the line when driven around town, but the Suzuki had a more controlled feel during hard cornering and over rougher roads. The RMZ-4 package does offer stiffer shocks and a rear locking differential, and the vehicle weighed about 100 pounds more than the Frontier, but none of those differences explained why the Suzuki’s engine made about 6 more hp and more than 13 additional pounds-feet of torque than the exact same Frontier powertrain. The guys at K&N’s dyno suggested it might be the way the computer is better able to interpret recent atmospheric conditions and communicate that to the engine controls.
Regardless, we liked the sportier personality of the Suzuki and, consequently, how well it was able to deliver on that promise. It was also the only test truck with a spray-in bedliner, a clever bed extender and five different tie-down channels.
What we didn’t: The Equator was another one of those vehicles that didn’t dominate any single category but was in the hunt wherever it competed. As you might expect, it handled all the off-road chores with calm and control, but interior materials and center console design were issues the judges made comments about. Also, the judges were mixed on the amount of engine noise in the cabin, especially during our mountain elevation climb — some liked the audible feedback while others found it intrusive. Both the Nissan and Suzuki, as you would expect, suffered from a bit of engine vibration through the floor as well.
The verdict: The Equator has never become the sales player in this segment Suzuki had hoped for, but by having this kind of off-road credibility, it seems to make sense for all those motorcycle fans looking for a way to keep their truck choice in the Suzuki family. Still, this is badge engineering at its worst, with very little visual or package distinction between the two clones. For those looking for a truck sales guy that might be willing to work a little harder on a new-truck deal, the Suzuki could be the better choice.
What we liked: Beating the Suzuki Equator by just a single point, the Honda Ridgeline won two of our 11 categories, and it did both forcefully. As the truck with the highest gross vehicle weight rating and largest payload number, it’s a fairly impressive feat to also win our fuel economy challenge by a fairly significant margin. Maybe to no one’s surprise, it also had the smallest engine (but not the least powerful) in our test.
During track testing, our Sport Package-equipped Ridgeline did well in both acceleration and brake testing when empty. Likewise, the Ridgeline had the highest factory-rated payload capacity, beating some others by several hundred pounds. The Ridgeline’s true nature was most obvious during the elevation-climbing mountain-road stretch of our fuel economy run. There, the four-wheel independent suspension and 4.53:1-geared all-wheel drive carved through the winding corners and paved chicanes like a sports car pro. Of course, the 245/60R18 Michelins didn’t hurt, either.
What we didn't: Of course, those same strengths that made the Ridgeline Sport such a strong player on the paved mountain highways didn’t translate so well when the pavement ended. To be honest, the Ridgeline is not made for anything worse than a dirt road, and even then you don’t want a lot of ruts or loose rock. And you certainly don’t want a hill climb or choppy 4x4 off-road course, which we did. Although we pushed the Honda well past its comfort zone, the Ridgeline finished last in both our 4x4 events, and it also struggled a bit during our loaded track testing. We found that just because the Ridgeline could carry a certain amount of load didn’t mean it could do it well or with enough reserve capability to communicate confidence. In both braking and acceleration events, the Ridgeline felt overloaded.
The verdict: There is no doubt in our mind the Ridgeline is the perfect vehicle for certain truck buyers. It does a lot of things very well and is the only stock vehicle available in this segment to offer the kind of ride and handling dynamics you might find in sportier sedans and crossovers. And the fact it has tons of interior space, a deep bed, a hidden trunk and a cool dual-hinged tailgate will make this vehicle a hugely functional problem-solver for a lot of car people.
What we liked: Although the Frontier won just a single category (Value), it did finish in second or third place in six of the 11 events, making it a strong all-around player. Like a good Olympic decathlete, the strategy is not to necessarily win all the events, but to finish with a strong cumulative score. And that’s exactly what the Nissan did.
The strong and ready-to-rev engine had judges commenting about the spring it has off the line, and we saw direct evidence of that as it ran a zero-to-60 time (empty) just a sliver behind the V-8 Chevy. Likewise, the Nissan in regular SV trim had a calculated payload of over 1,400 pounds and was determined by the judges to offer the best bang for the buck with an as-tested price several hundred dollars under $29,000 (excluding destination).
What we didn’t: Most of the quibbles our judges had with the Frontier were issues of refinement and subtlety. The interior probably garnered the most mixed reviews, with comments aimed at the material choices and the clunky dash and gauge layout. Hard surfaces for elbows and dash textures also distracted the judges. Some of the same noise issues inside the cabin that we mentioned regarding the Equator directly apply here as well, with vibration through the floor also a problem.
The verdict: With truck totals so close here at the higher altitudes, there’s no question we would recommend the Frontier to a lot of friends looking to buy their first pickup. This was a vehicle that garnered solid points, especially when off-road and when fully loaded, in just about every challenge we threw at it. The Frontier was our all-around utility player, with plenty of grunt to pull and haul when called upon, while offering enough of the comforts (and extra work capacity) to let you relax while the work gets done.
And the winner is...
What we liked: Only 25 points separated first and second place in our Midsize Shootout, and that seems appropriate — these two trucks were the most steady and rock solid through the entire event. However, whereas the Frontier won only one of 11 events and finished strong in several others, the Toyota won five and finished in second or third place in four others. Let’s just call this what it was — total domination.
Our judges were pretty clear from the beginning of the fuel economy run — the level of refinement in the ride and the overall interior were on a different playing field from the segment competitors. Probably the biggest standout performance was in brake testing, where the Tacoma stopped 10 to 15 feet shorter than the others. Likewise, in acceleration at maximum GVWR, the Tacoma’s 4.0-liter seems almost to want to carry even more weight. It was not lost on the judges that the Toyota V-6's torque curve looked similar to the Chevy’s much bigger V-8.
What we didn’t: With all that said, this is not a perfect midsize pickup. The Tacoma was by a good margin the most expensive and most loaded pickup of the Shootout. Some of our judges found the center console quite busy, making it difficult to find any control in the bottom half of the dash. Lastly, the real-world payload number didn’t seem very large, especially when you consider how strong it felt in other areas.
The verdict: Sometimes during our Shootout comparisons, it’s difficult to find a clear winner. This was not one of those times. The segment has seen quite a bit of fluctuation as significant players have left, others have been left to languish, and still others are waiting on the sidelines. And through it all, the Tacoma has gotten better and better. There’s a lot of truck here for the money, and there’s a lot of money to be made in this segment. And for the time being, it looks like Toyota will continue to take most of that money — at least until someone wants to bring a strong competitor to market and give the Tacoma a serious push.
Who knows? Maybe in the next few years we’ll have a few new players and a chance to do this all over again. We’ll be ready.
2012 Midsize Shootout