One of the perks of partnering with a publication like Popular Mechanics is having access to quality automotive experts who know their way around anything with an engine. It worked out pretty well for us that we had two truck critics from PM and two from PUTC during the qualitative portion of our judging. And when you consider how much driving experience this group has, you'd be hard-pressed to find as much expertise or depth of knowledge about pickup trucks anywhere in the automotive universe. The judges were:
Mark Williams, editor, PickupTrucks.com: Williams has been around the auto industry for 25 years writing for and editing various four-wheel-drive, pickup truck and car enthusiast magazines as well as working for quite a few popular and (automotively) important websites.
Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief, Cars.com/PickupTrucks.com: In his previous job, Bragman spent seven years as an auto industry analyst at IHS, where he covered everything from new-model releases to corporate strategy to sales trends. He also spent a good amount of time in various capacities with Bosch Braking and Nissan before that.
Mike Austin, senior editor, automotive, Popular Mechanics: With almost two years in his current position, Austin has worked for stalwart publications such as Car and Driver, Automobile and MPH magazines during the last decade. He also is a LeMons racer and owns a Buick Roadmaster with a Class III trailer hitch.
Ben Wojdyla, associate editor, automotive, Popular Mechanics: Wojdyla started his automotive career on the original equipment side, working for Ford, Visteon and DaimlerChrysler as a manufacturing engineer, and then moved to Jalopnik.com as its Detroit editor for several years until he jumped to PM two years ago.
As noted, we've broken our test into separate sections in order to give you both quantitative and qualitative looks at each pickup; the numbers side includes 13 scored events and accounts for about two-thirds of total points, and the impression side of our test was judged by our four experts and accounts for the remaining third of the score.
How the Qualitative Scoring Works
At the outset, each judge was given a scoring booklet where each was asked to make notes and score each pickup in the context of its competitors on a 1-10 scale (10 being best) in two separate areas. The first was interior scoring, which included quality, layout and features. The second was exterior scoring, which included quality, fit and finish, and features.
The final scored section allowed each judge to determine which pickup, in his opinion, provided the best overall value for its sub-$45,000 as-tested price. This score, judged on a 1-100 scale, shines the light on exactly how much truck you'll get for your money, or, if you will, bang for your buck. These three categories (interior, exterior and overall value) make up the judges' portion of our 2013 Light-Duty Challenge.
What We Think
2013 Nissan Titan Pro-4X | 459.5 points
There's no question the Nissan in our Challenge is at a real disadvantage in both interior and exterior judging because it is the oldest truck in the segment, with relatively few changes from its 2004-model-year introduction. With that said, most of our judges described and characterized the Titan as one of the more athletic trucks in the competition with its aggressive all-terrain tires, nothing-fancy interior theme and Pro-4X badging (inside and out). Our judges noted that the interior feels tighter than the other trucks in some ways with its wide-mouth center console and extra-firm seats and headrests. The gauge layout and center stack were also places where the Titan lost points, finishing fifth in total interior scoring. Our judges thought the look of the truck, although certainly unique, is in desperate need of updating. We note here that each of our judges still appreciated the Titan for being the first in the segment with a factory-offered spray-in bedliner, very cool adjustable cargo tie-down system and lockable rear-quarter-panel bin. Unfortunately, the Titan could not finish better than fifth in exterior scoring or sixth in value.
2013 Toyota Tundra SR5 | 461.5 points
Like the Titan, the Tundra is ready for its redesign and from what we saw at the 2013 Chicago Auto Show, the new interior and exterior for the 2014 Tundra looks to be a huge improvement. Unfortunately, we were not able to get that model for this test. As it was, Toyota was forced to pull a 2013 Tundra SR5 from its media fleet for our test. Our judges identified the standout feature of the Tundra CrewMax as the legroom that the sliding rear seat offers in almost any position. Unfortunately, the seat doesn't seem to do much else, as the seatbacks only flop down on top of the seat cushions, which doesn't provide much usable storage room in the cab. Likewise, our judges criticized the barrel gauge design and said the exterior and bed look were too bloated. As to the exterior design, our judges didn't like the bloated design and the bed that lacked any unique features. The Tundra scored in last place with our judges regarding the interior quality, layout and features, as well as last place in exterior scoring. Only in overall value did it just slip ahead of the Titan for a fifth-place finish.
2013 Ford F-150 XLT | 505 points
Much of the Ford's strength came from what our judges felt when they were behind the wheel, towing. The EcoBoost engine was a clear standout component for each driver. However, the Ford fell short in our interior categories because of the material choices and surface textures of the XLT trim; it seemed dated and well below most of the competition. Of course, Ford offers many other higher-trim packages (in fact, more than any other truck maker), but that's not what we got for this test and that's not what we judged. Some testers also had trouble with the Ford Sync voice commands and the ease-of-operation when connecting a smartphone or iPod. The exterior look and features were a mixed bag for our judges as well, as the quality and fit and finish of the spray-in bedliner and tailgate step did not impress everyone. At the end of our qualitative scoring, the F-150 scored a fourth-place finish in the interior and exterior judging, and a third-place finish in overall value, finishing just a nose behind the Chevy Silverado.
2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 LT Z71 | 524.75 points
To put it simply, each judge who got into the new Silverado was impressed. Comments about the vastly improved ride quality and remade 5.3-liter V-8 engine showed up in each notebook. As for the vastly improved and completely redesigned interior, the Chevy got solid marks for overall refinement and high praise for the simplified center-stack layout. High praise also went to the new MyLink system and easy-to-understand infotainment touch-screen; however, two judges noted that the steering wheel still doesn't seem lined up correctly with the center of the driver's seat — an issue some truck aficionados find uncomfortable. On the outside, only one judge seemed to appreciate that Chevy has chosen a relatively conservative exterior design strategy, doubling down on the squared-off fender wells. After totaling our judges' scores, the Silverado finished in the middle of the pack with a third-place finish in interior scoring and third place for exterior as well. For overall value, the Chevy finished fourth.
2014 GMC Sierra 1500 SLE Z71 | 544.25 points
If there was a truck that seemed to offer the proper blend of upscale refinement and functionality with our testers, this was it. Each noted the softer-touch materials, a slightly higher-quality look and feel, and the more pronounced use of accent stitching that seemed to go a long way in giving the interior a more premium feel. Outside, the detail differences between the Sierra and Silverado siblings are more obvious than most judges had anticipated. The wider, taller grille and chrome surround garnered the most comments, with the hood bulges and elegant headlight setup getting the highest praise. We assume it's no small feat to create enough differences between two identically platformed pickups (during our Michigan drives, the trucks had a stealth quality to them and did not get noticed by many other drivers), but our judges seemed to appreciate the efforts. Interior scoring had the 2014 Sierra finishing second, while it won the exterior section. And if it weren't for the Ram 1500 winning the overall value category (the Sierra finished second there too), the Sierra would have been even closer to winning the qualitative section.
2013 Ram 1500 SLT Big Horn | 559.5 points
As the only pickup in this test with an air-bag suspension, you can bet many of our mileage drive comments centered on the smooth and comfortable ride of the Ram 1500. And with the complete overhaul of the 2013 Ram 1500 gauge cluster, center console, center-stack Uconnect setup (complete with the largest touch-screen navigation screen around), not to mention the multilayered, multiscreen info screen between the speedometer and tachometer, you can bet our judges gave the new Ram high marks for interior features and layout. In fact, the Ram 1500 won the interior scoring handily, and was just beat by the Sierra 1500 in exterior scoring by two points. In the important overall value category, though, the Ram received a first- or second-place designation from each judge, due in large part to the interior features, the power and control of the Hemi and eight-speed ZF transmission, and the comfort of the air suspension. All totaled, the Ram was the top vote getter with our experts, giving it 15 points more than second place and 34 points more than third.
The qualitative section of our scoring is judged from a possible 640 points, with each of four judges responsible for 160 points in seven areas (interior quality, layout and features; exterior quality, fit and finish, and features; and overall value).
Interior scoring: Chevy in third, GMC in second and Ram 1500 on top by less than 10 points.
Exterior scoring: Chevy in third, Ram in second and GMC in first.
Overall value: Ford in third, GMC in second and Ram on top.
Added together (interior + exterior + overall value), the top two favorites turned out to be the Ram and the GMC, with Ram winning by just 15 points. Not bad when you consider the point spread between first and last place was 100 points. The 2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 took a solid third-place spot, while the Ford F-150 was behind Chevy by almost 20 points for fourth. And separated by just two points, the Toyota Tundra (fifth) and Nissan Titan (sixth) filled out the final two slots.
(To see how each judge scored each competitive vehicle in all the categories, see the appropriate scorecard for each pickup in the Results story.)Overview | Judges' Impressions | 0-60 Acceleration | 60-0 Braking | Mileage Drive | Hill Climb | Autocross | Payload and Towing | Results