Several months ago, we asked each of the truck makers to send us their best off-road package because we wanted to find out, once and for all, which of them offers the best four-wheeling pickup truck on the market. What we got back were four players ready to get down and dirty.
To win this decathlon-style competition (10 contests in which the winner is awarded 100 points), it’s all about being a well-rounded athlete. If you’re good only in a few events, you likely won’t have enough points to win. In fact, to score well, a truck really doesn’t have to be the best at anything — it just has to be able to score well in many events.
Of course, we could have included more tests, more terrains and more truck challenges, but we determined that these 10 were a good balance for what we’re looking for in a 4x4 champion. And as you’ve seen, almost half of our events were biased toward off-road prowess, with the remaining categories aimed at overall truck performance.
Here’s how we scored our 2012 Ultimate 4x4 Shootout:
No. 4: 2012 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X V-6 | 777 points
The Frontier earned first or second place in three of 10 categories, offering the least expensive as-tested price of the group. Also, it had the best stopping distance from 60 mph (which surprised more than a few of us), as well as scoring well in fuel economy. Still, as an off-road package, the PRO-4X was outclassed and outperformed by the other trucks. Although it was able to keep up, the lack of ground clearance, the tire choice and the suspension limitations were too much to overcome. But if you’re looking for a strong value in a little pickup truck, we were impressed with how well the Frontier kept up with the other, more athletic competitors. Although it's the last-place finisher, this truck deserves credit for doing as well as it did and facing this level of competition. Yes, the Frontier kept getting knocked down event after event, but it always got back up, ready for the next punishing challenge.
No. 3: Ram Power Wagon ST V-8 | 814 points
For some, the Power Wagon is a name without peer and was likely the favorite coming into the Shootout. On paper, it’s an amazing wish list of heavy-duty four-wheeling parts that no other pickup truck can match: front and rear lockers, swaybar disconnect, monster ground clearance, 33-inch tires, a factory winch and more. In the tests where it did well, it did quite well, coming in first or second in four of 10 events. Naturally, it performed well in the most extreme of the off-road events, and with its 2500 chassis, it literally sat high above the other trucks with almost 2,000 pounds of payload. Unfortunately, in those events where it didn’t do well, it didn’t do well at all, landing in last place (by a good margin) in fuel economy and on our sand hill climb. The end result was a performance with an even mix of highs and lows — that’s not how you win this type of endurance Shootout.
No 2: Toyota Tacoma TRD Baja V-6 | 830 points
If there was one player in our Ultimate 4x4 Shootout that embodied the all-around spirit of an Olympic decathlete, it was the Tacoma Baja. Winning only one event (fuel economy) by the slimmest of margins, the Baja placed second in more than half of the other events. Clearly not the most powerful of the group or most extreme-terrain capable, the Baja does offer a good balance of targeted technological upgrades (select suspension and shock parts) along with a reasonable price point. Unfortunately, those strengths have their liabilities. On certain terrain and at certain speeds, the money saved in suspension tuning and capability is quite apparent, almost punishing the driver with shock stiffness at slower speeds. That’s probably fine if you spend most of your time desert-running above 50 mph, but not too practical in the real world. Still, mechanically speaking, there’s much to like here, and it’s a good first step for a truck maker that really should be coming to market with its Stage II and Stage III performance trucks as soon as possible.
No. 1: Ford SVT Raptor V-8 | 861 points
Not since the Toyota Tacoma in our 2012 Midsize Shootout earlier this year has a single vehicle so dominated a contest. In fact, the Tacoma won only four of 10 events in that Shootout, whereas the SVT Raptor won five of 10 in this one and finishing a close second in the most brutal of our 4x4 challenges. Clearly, there is a lot to like about this truck, especially as it relates to being tested and driven as an all-around four-wheeler. The Raptor does both high- and low-speed four-wheel drive quite well, and it gives the driver many different types of traction and gearing changes that should give any backcountry explorer plenty of choices to suit a wide variety of obstacles. From the judges’ point of view, the list of 4x4-prioritized technology is definitely impressive, yet the most amazing thing about this truck, especially when pushed into some serious terrain challenges, is how well the electronics (transmission, traction control, gearing, etc.) integrate with the mechanicals. Whether locking the differential in high or low range (not something many competitors can do) or switching on and off the Off-Road mode to better accommodate separate sandy hill climbs that quickly transition to steep descents, the electronic integration of all these technologies — whether for on-road or off-road use — is impressive. And until somebody makes something better (and good luck with that), we crown the Ford SVT Raptor the champion of our 2012 Ultimate 4x4 Shootout.
For the full performance results from each event, click here. And for the scored totals from each category, see below.
Ultimate 4x4 Shootout