Determining how to calculate our winner is never easy with a gigantic test like this. Combining all of our test data with the diverse opinions we gather from our judges makes putting it together almost a no-win situation. If we bias toward the empirical tests, then real-world characteristics like livability, comfort and interior design get shortchanged, and if we let subjective opinions rule the day, we miss the value of engine and chassis performance, and leave ourselves open to criticism.
That's why we've tried to offer both in this Challenge, in as transparent a format as possible, so that you can see how we collected the data, scored the events and weighted the head-to-head competitions. It was our hope that, by doing so, no matter which truck we crowned the winner, you got a chance to look at all the categories, see which ones are important to you and recalculate your own weighting of the events so that you can crown your own winner (if need be). We hope it's understood that the reason we do this type of testing is to equip you with as much information as possible so you can make the best choice when purchasing your next pickup truck. And if we have to suffer long days, coordinate truck and trailer schedules, and tow several thousand miles through some of the most beautiful country in the U.S. to bring you the results of these Challenges, so be it.
How We Did It
Of the 19 empirical tests that we conducted — which included everything from quarter-mile times at a drag strip to how much each one-ton squatted with its gooseneck weight — eight of them were won by the 2015 GMC Sierra 3500 HD and seven were won by the 2015 Ford F-350. In fact, when looking at the point totals for the quantitative section, the Ford and GMC were virtually tied, with a statistical difference between them of 0.3 percent. The 2014 Ram 3500 HD won just four events because we did several tests that rewarded off-the-line speed and quickness, something the Ram Cummins has always struggled with.
In the qualitative scoring section from our judges, the Ram had the most points, finishing in first or second place with each expert and winning the section by 40 points over the GMC. However, in the end, the GMC is our winner with the highest combined point total in one of our most comprehensive competitions to date, beating both of its competitors by a solid margin.
First Place: 2015 GMC Sierra 3500 HD Duramax
The 2015 GMC Sierra 3500 HD pickup equipped with the turbo-diesel engine won our 2014 Ultimate One-Ton HD Challenge.
The GMC, although the least expensive truck in our test, offered the smoothest and most comfortable ride over many uncomfortable road surfaces. The Duramax turbo-diesel and Allison 1000 transmission deliver power fast off the line, providing monster amounts of torque to the rear wheels quickly and forcefully.
Although much of our time was spent towing, one of the Sierra 3500's greatest strengths is how well it performs when empty; in fact, it won both empty tests we ran at the Milan Dragway (the zero-to-60-mph and quarter-mile tests), as well as stopping the fastest when empty during our brake test at GM's Milford Proving Ground. Interestingly, the GMC was the our mileage champ when towing our heavy loads, winning the fuel economy test (with a 16,000-pound trailer in tow) in Michigan; we should also note that during our unofficial mpg calculation running from Las Vegas to Denver, the GMC (towing a 20,000-pound trailer) averaged about 10 mpg while the Ford and Ram hovered around 7 and 8 mpg, respectively.
Our judges hugely appreciated the all-new interior and multimedia interface and 8-inch navigation screen, as well as the all-new (identical to the light duty) scrolling information screen. Although it took some getting used to, the trailer brake controller (mounted high on the dash on the left side of the steering wheel) works quite well. We also appreciated how well the upgraded exhaust brake performs, making it easier for those who might have little towing experience to tow heavier loads. The new, smarter and more sophisticated system will make towing near the limits a much easier chore for customers. There will be plenty of fifth-wheel and gooseneck haulers who will tow safer with the "set-it-and-forget-it" feature.
In the end, the GMC was the best all-around player of our competitors, scoring well in just about every category, racking up the points by the competition's finish.
Second Place: 2014 Ram 3500 HD Cummins
The Ram 3500 was the most expensive of our test vehicles, tipping the scales at just less than $70,000, coming to us in full Laramie Limited dress with rich leather and stunning dash, gauge and console accents. The Ram won four of our competitive events, but those did not include any best acceleration times. A surprise to us, the Ram won the empty fuel economy testing we conducted in Michigan with a winning around-town average of 16.31 mpg. The other three events it won were all brake tests; two with the trailer, stopping from 60 mph (one with trailer brakes, one without) and the downhill exhaust brake testing we did at Davis Dam.
At the end of our empirical tests, the Ram HD was within 100 points of the GMC; however, after our experts weighed in with their favorite features and pickup characteristics, the Ram was even closer. One of the most polarizing aspects of the Ram is its Cummins engine and all-new Aisin transmission in that it shifts, sounds and distributes power like its big-rig cousins. In fact, it seems as though Ram engineers have made sure the software programs don't allow too much of the B-motor's torque to get to the rear axle too fast. But once it got moving, it was never far behind the Ford or GMC, as evidenced by the Davis Dam and Eisenhower wide-open-throttle grade runs.
As to features that our judges liked, the interior ranks right at the top as one of the best-looking cabs we've ever seen. Also, the dual-setting Smart Brake and dedicated diesel exhaust fluid gauge were hugely appreciated throughout our run through the Rockies. However, we noted during a summer downpour that the windshield wipers were not fast enough to give us clear vision and as near as we could tell, the Ram's DEF usage was about two or three times worse than the others (counting our fill-ups, the GMC used 2 gallons, the Ford 3 gallons and the Ram 6.5 gallons.). Our final quibble with the Ram HD had to do with how much noise the engine, electric fans and even the exhaust brake make. We appreciate a solid big-rig sound as much as anyone, but over our long haul we eventually got tired of it.
Third Place: 2015 Ford F-350 Power Stroke
It's difficult not to be impressed with the changes Ford has made to the 2015 Ford Power Stroke engine. The new turbo adds cooling, a bigger torque converter, software remapping and unique injectors, which combine to give this truck impressive off-the-line and midrange towing power without sacrificing overall fuel economy. Having the biggest torque and horsepower numbers clearly is important in this category, and Ford made the investment to get the king-of-the-hill 440 horsepower and 860 pounds-feet of torque. And it paid off in several of our tests. The Power Stroke dominated our acceleration and hill-climb tests, winning just about every zero-to-60-mph and quarter-mile run we set up. It even did incredibly well in our biggest exhaust brake tests, scoring light-years ahead of where they were the last time we tested a one-ton Ford Super Duty turbo-diesel.
Most of the issues we had with this 2015 Super Duty had to do with ride quality and interior design. Sure, you can discount the latter to individual taste, but our test vehicle struggled in places the other two did not, suffering from "the jitters" over expansion joints or small potholes in uncomfortable ways (particularly on the bad highways north of Flagstaff, Ariz.). We'd also like to see the F-350 do less squatting and less "butt-dragging" when loaded or towing. It's a characteristic that exists across the entire lineup. Additionally, the interior is not aging well, especially when compared to the levels both GM and Ram HD are playing at nowadays.
Finally, we should note, that even though the F-350 came in third (and we're not apologizing for Ford here), the difference between first and third place, out of more than 3,000 points, was less than 100 points. Not matter what their final finishing order, we'd like to say congratulations to all the one-ton competitors in our 2014 Ultimate Heavy-Duty Challenge.
How We Scored
To find our winner, we broke down our heavy-duty torture test into two separate weeks, creating 19 different scored events that made up our numbers-heavy quantitative section. That amounted to almost 2,000 available points, with the winner of each event being awarded 100 points. The second- and third-place finishers received whatever percentage their finishing time, distance or speed justified (i.e., if the winner stopped in 125 feet, it got 100 points; a second place of 150 feet would generate 83 points and a last place of 175 feet would get 71 points).
To the scores from those 19 events we added our judges' qualitative scores. The judges were Aaron Bragman, Cars.com Detroit bureau chief; Kent Sundling, operator of MrTruck.com; and Mark Williams, PickupTrucks.com editor. These three drivers, because of their experience and certification, were the only drivers of the one-ton truck-and-trailer combinations. Each judge rated these pickups in six categories: performance, comfort and ergonomics, tech and entertainment, ride quality, overall visibility and value. Each judge determined how many points to award each truck on a 100-point scale. In the end, the empirical tests (19) accounted for about two-thirds of the total, with our experts' qualitative scoring accounting for the remaining one-third (for a total of 25 separate test categories).
Editor's note: We'd like to thank RaceLogic for collecting much of our test data, to GM for the use of its proving grounds, to Roush and Load Trail for the use of its heavy-duty trailers and to the editors at Cars.com who helped and supported PickupTrucks.com in putting together this monster comparison test.
To download an image with all the results of each event, their corresponding scores and our judges' totals, click here.
Cars.com image by Evan Sears