$30,000 Pickup Truck Shootout: Introduction


Words by Mark Williams, Photos by Ian Merritt

Warning: This is not the usual PickupTrucks.com comparison test.

You know the drill. We work for months with manufacturers, asking for specific, equally matched and equally equipped vehicles to bring you a true apples-to-apples comparison test. You don’t have to be a genius to know that just a few key mechanical differences from one truck to another can be enough to make some results questionable. But this is a different test.

We went to the half-ton manufacturers and forced each one to answer the question: What’s your best truck for $30,000? We allowed them to equip the pickups any way they wanted, knowing that PickupTrucks.com values function over form and steak over sizzle. (The $30,000 figure does not include destination charges.)

Maybe not so surprisingly, most of the five trucks in this test were similarly equipped, just like you’d expect in one of the most competitive automotive segments. Here are the competitors and you can download the specs as tested here:

  • 2011 Chevy Silverado 1500 Extended Cab
  • 2011 Ford F-150 Regular Cab
  • 2011 Nissan Titan King Cab
  • 2011 Ram 1500 Quad Cab
  • 2011 Toyota Tundra Double Cab

Our four days of testing were done in and around Detroit in the first week of August, with temperatures never exceeding 80 degrees. In a word, the truck-testing weather was perfect.

We started our five-truck test with walk-arounds, spec analysis and short-course back-to-back driving. Day two was at Milan Dragway, south of Ann Arbor, for quarter-mile testing. Day three had us running a diverse 169-mile fuel economy route. And we finished with a very long day at Ford’s Michigan Proving Ground near Romeo.

As we’ve said, this test is a little different because these vehicles have significant differences among them. Regardless, our objective remains the same: find the truck that offers the most value for your dollar, just as if you or I walked in to a dealer with a firm $30,000 budget.

No doubt, this test will spark debates and maybe even offer a few surprises. No matter what, we think this is the perfect time to shine a spotlight on a road-test comparison that finds the best-bang-for-your-buck pickup. So here we go.

The Players

2011 Chevy Silverado 1500 Extended Cab  [Download Monroney]
Chevy sent us a two-wheel-drive Silverado extended cab half-ton with a base price of $25,395. The Silverado was the most “bare bones” model of our competition but did provide seating for six.

It’s worth noting the rear reverse-swing-out doors pivot almost 180 degrees for easy rear access. Also, our Chevy was the only vehicle with rubber floormats, crank windows, manual door locks and side mirrors, and without a key fob.

The $495 LS package comes standard with 3.42:1 gears, but a few cosmetic extras gave us chrome wheel caps, grille surrounds and front bumper accents. The most expensive option, at $1,745, was the Vortec LMG 5.3-liter V-8 (with Active Fuel Management cylinder shutoff for improved steady-state driving fuel economy) and six-speed transmission. Other options included 17-inch all-terrain tires, XM radio, an upgraded stereo with six months of OnStar and the heavy-duty tow package. The final tally was $29,320.

2011 Ford F-150 Regular Cab [Download Monroney]
Our two-wheel-drive Ford truck came to us fairly well dressed with the midrange XLT trim package — Ford’s sales volume leader — which meant its standard vehicle price was $27,250. If the Silverado was the most stripped truck of the competition, our F-150 regular cab had the most creature comforts, but it had only two doors — two fewer than every other truck we tested.

The most expensive option was the $1,000 5.0-liter V-8 engine option and six-speed automatic transmission. The XLT Plus and Convenience packages gave us adjustable pedals, Ford’s Sync multimedia system, power heated mirrors, a sliding rear window and a reverse sensing system, all for $1,249. Other options included the Trailer Tow Package, tailgate step, integrated trailer-brake controller, 3.55:1 gears, rearview camera and six months of XM satellite radio. Also, helping with the bottom line, Ford happened to be running two big XLT discount promotions for an extra savings of $1,500, giving the big blue oval a grand total of $29,920.

2011 Nissan Titan King Cab [Download Monroney]
Nissan’s King Cab just squeaked into our competition by offering a well-equipped two-wheel-drive Galaxy Black SV with the standard 5.6-liter V-8 engine — the only engine available for the Titan — for $29,410.

As many might recall, Nissan was the first in the segment to offer the fully extending, wide-open rear set of doors that give easy entry to the second row for passengers and easy access to cargo in its extended-cab model.

Our test unit came fairly well equipped with the SV trim package, which included power windows and door locks, six-speaker stereo, seven-gauge instrument panel and key fob. The other options on our test unit included splash guards ($120), floormats ($150) and the tow package ($290). However, while all the other trucks had satellite radio, the Titan only offered an AM/FM head unit. Total price: $29,970.

2011 Ram 1500 Quad Cab [Download Monroney]
Our Ram Quad Cab — with smallish, conventional rear doors — came to us with a two-wheel-drive powertrain and a base ST trim package, priced at $25,240.

The most expensive option on this truck was, as you might imagine, the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 engine upgrade from the base 3.7-liter V-6. It’s an extra $2,295 and includes a heavy-duty oil cooler and radiator to help with towing. Options included the $770 ST Popular Equipment Group that adds Sirius satellite radio, a 40/20/40-split front seat, cruise control and front and rear floormats, and the $495 chrome package gave us shiny rims and accents on the front and rear bumpers. Add to that the $450 factory spray-in bedliner and the $335 receiver hitch, and the final price came in at $29,660.

2011 Toyota Tundra Double Cab [Download Monroney]
Toyota sent us the two-wheel-drive Double Cab that offers (like the Ram) conventional-opening rear doors and a powerful 5.7-liter V-8, for a base price of $27,665.

Additional options included an upgraded stereo with an iPod USB port, XM satellite radio and Bluetooth capability for $510, the $160 Cold Weather Package that gave us a bigger battery and starter, and mudflaps. Finally, Toyota ordered a pretty serious Tow Package for $660 that includes a brake-controller prewire, 4.30:1 gears, a transmission cooler and gauge, 7-pin connector and heavy-duty alternator. Other assorted extras — like heated mirrors, 18-inch wheels, daytime running lights, floormats and a drop-in bedliner — round out our test unit to a total of $29,698.

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I think you have an error on the test spec sheet. Look at the ratios for the titan's transmission. It has 2nd as 1.54:1 and third at 1.52:1. Seems might close if you ask me.

Good catch. The Titan's 2nd gear ratio should be listed as 2.37:1; 3rd gear 1.52:1. We'll try to get the spec sheet changes asap.

on the tundra the radio was reading "Made In America" by Toby. That is the awesome truth.

Ford wins 6 of the 8 tests and they come in 3rd?

Ram wins 1 test and comes in 1st?

Mike, I know you are no longer here but you were in charge of this test and I think you could have done better.

I also thought the constant comments about the F-150 being lighter was a bit snarky. The comment about the tailgate set and ITBC of which I both love was also snarky.

Where were the comments about the other trucks being lighter when GM and the others were lighter in the other tests????

I recall that you loved the Ram tradesman when it came out. That is only in regular cab.

I think you should have called this test "most back seat room for under $30k" or made it known what cab configuration you wanted because the results clearly were not based on performance but on back seat room. Performance wise and overall, the F-150 was clearly the best.

@Tim, did you see that the F-150 had the smallest/narrowest tire.
The reduced aerodynamic drag of a narrow/small tire + the lightest weight is what gave the F-150 the win in mileage.

It was that same undersized tire which provided the win in the unloaded handling coarse, and when the weight was added overwhelmed the tire-leading to last place in the loaded handling.
That small tire gave the F-150 the shortest overall gearing, hence the fastest acceleration performance.

If the RAM really is the best truck for $30K, and people accept this as fact, then the new number-one best-selling truck in America will be the Dodge RAM instead of the F-series truck from Ford.

I will miss hearing that anthem: "This is Mike Levine from Pickuptucks.com"

If you believe that the "best" truck, or any vehicle, is the one that sells the most you have more faith in the general public's ability to choose what best for me than I do. I don't follow sales numbers. If truck "A" sells 5 out of every truck made and truck "B" sells 3 or 4 out of 10 is that compelling enough to buy truck "A" for no other reason? Besides that, how boring is the thought that their is a "best" truck here for everyone?

@George- I think you meant reduced rolling resistance of the tires, not aerodynamic resistance. I dont think tires catch enough wind resistance in the first place for more narrow tires to really make a difference.

Rick, that is exactly the reason I drive a 2009 Tundra 4dr 4X4 5.7L Limited. That's the best truck for me but it also costs half again as much as a $30K truck.

No, a narrow tire does have less drag.
The smaller tire brings the body of the truck closer to the ground, and by being an inch narrow, the outside edge is further tucked in, out of the airstream.

@George- The wind resistance between 2 sets of tires with only one inch width difference would be insignificant. Rolling resistance would be a bigger factor.

tell me how can you buy 2wd truck? where can you use it? well 30000$ cant buy 4wd a proper truck real truck 2wd sucks

@ zenek I use a 2wd truck every day. Commuting to work and back, hualing my atv, towing my holiday trailer, trips to the dump and hardware store. Put on a decent set of tires for the winter and your good to go.

I am for the 2011 Ford F-150. The two-door feature makes it look sexier. I would like to get one, but not in this current gas prices.

This comparison is certainly neck and neck as you guys have included all the trucks that are competing against one another
in the market. I have the Ford F-150 model. There are a few drawbacks but overall, I am quite pleased about what this truck has to offer.

Allowing Ford to pretend that a ecoboost SuperCab was not available is lame.

They brought a truck that you NEVER see on the street, their short bed Reg Cab work truck pickup but equipped with a turbo six. A total unicorn. I've seen the V8 long bed Reg Cab, and I've seen the ecoboost crew cab quite a bit, but the Reg Cab short bed trucks you see on the street have a NA Six.

They should have required the testers to load sandbags into the Ford to equal the curb weight of the other vehicles.

Only fair, right?

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