We know fuel economy is just one of several factors many buyers use when purchasing a new pickup truck, but as fuel prices fluctuate and we get closer to higher federally mandated mpg targets, fuel efficiency will become even more important for the pickup truck segment.
Interestingly, in the half-ton segment, Ford is using a twin-turbo gas-engine strategy to get more power and mpgs with a pair of EcoBoost engines, while GM has gone to a pair of new midsize pickups, and Ram is doing everything it can to sell its EcoDiesel V-6 (which has the highest highway fuel economy of any half-ton sold).
To let you see how each truck did during a variety of driving situations when empty and while pulling a fully loaded Logan double-axle horse trailer (which totaled 6,700 pounds), we spent a full day on a 200-mile Arizona drive route. We did one trip empty and one with the trailer in tow to see how each engine compared.
Surprisingly, the biggest engines of our group (the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra 1500) gave us the best empty fuel mileage at 19.8 and 19.6 mpg, respectively, thanks in large part to their all-new 8L90 transmissions. Of course, their high (numerically low) axle gears didn't hurt; those were 3.23:1 and 3.42:1, respectively.
The Ford F-150's 5.0-liter V-8 (the smallest engine of the group) and newly modified six-speed transmission came in third place with 17.3 mpg, with the Ram and Toyota finishing at 16.4, and 14.4, respectively.
When towing our trailer, the Ford had the best mpg number at 11.0, the Silverado 1500 averaged 10.2 mpg, the Sierra 1500 got 10.0 and the Ram and Tundra recorded 9.7 and 9.1 mpg, respectively.
How We Conducted the Testing
We made sure our route had a good mix of city driving, freeway sections, winding mountain hill climbs and gentle two-lane highway cruises. We started and ended each route run near the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park at the same gas station, using the same pump for each of our fill-ups. For those trucks that recommended premium fuel (Chevy, GMC and Ram), we obliged.
Our drive route was composed of six legs with six trucks (three with trailers, three without — the sixth truck was not included in this test) so each driver could rotate into the next truck at each stop; this mitigated weight and driving-style differences. We used a sixth truck in this test because we originally planned to compare six trucks. One dropped out after we ordered the trailers, so rather than change the mileage drive route we used one of the extra pickups we had and put it into the rotation for this test. This allowed each of our drivers to drive all the trucks in a variety of terrains with and without a trailer.
We ran from Chandler, through Gilbert, up into Apache Junction and then made our turnaround at Canyon Lake at the Acacia Picnic Site at Canyon Lake (near the start of the Apache Trail). Once we made it back to our starting point, ending our first loop, we swapped the trailers and headed out to finish another identical loop.
The total drive time for our two-loop day was supposed to take eight hours, but due to some electrical issues in the F-150's trailer hitch wiring we had to troubleshoot we finished our day well into the evening.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears and Bruce Smith