2012 Midsize Shootout: Fuel Economy


By Trevor Reed; photos by Joe Bruzek

Midsize pickups go through the EPA’s fuel economy cycle that results in city, highway and combined miles-per-gallon ratings you see on window stickers. But that’s not good enough for us.

The EPA’s fuel economy cycle is pretty good at predicting what mileage to expect from a new pickup in those three specific situations, but no two drivers are alike. That’s why we rotated seven drivers through each truck during our 203-mile fuel economy test. The route had us climb from 850 feet above sea level to more than 4,600 feet in the surrounding mountains. The route also dropped us back into some of the worst stop-and-go traffic in the Los Angeles area during the peak of rush hour.

Each pickup was fueled at the start and the end of our Southern California loop. Each truck was filled at the same pump by the same person until the pump automatically stopped, and then the same person would pull the handle until a second auto-stop occurred to assure each truck was equally full.


All the pickups were equipped with five-speed automatic transmissions except for the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, which relied on an older four-speed automatic. The Nissan Frontier and its Suzuki Equator sibling came equipped with 3.36:1 axle ratios, while the Ford Ranger, Colorado, Canyon and Toyota Tacoma had 3.73:1 axle ratios. Finally, the Honda Ridgeline used a deep 4.53:1 ring-and-pinion.

The first stage of the test began at an intersection of a gas station and a short, almost 90-degree twisting freeway on-ramp that required heavy throttle to merge into traffic packed with full-speed semi trucks – in other words, a typical L.A. merge scenario. Much of the driving here was on the freeway, which was moving quickly but was pretty full. We needed to make plenty of lane changes and downshifts to keep the pack of trucks relatively close together.

After exchanging keys and rotating vehicles at the next stop, our convoy left the freeways for a more rural setting. With two lanes on each side of the road, 1,500 feet of elevation to climb and slower-paced country drivers all around us, the pickups faced lots of fuel economy challenges. This put the transmissions to work and highlighted their willingness to cruise or quickly downshift. It’s worth noting we did encounter some strong winds on this stretch.

At the next stop, we swapped keys again and climbed in elevation by almost 1,300 feet. The pickups were allowed free rein for the most part, and they were able to cruise while climbing a moderate grade, heading to the base of the San Bernardino Mountains. Some slower commercial rigs needed to be passed, but there was no need to jockey around multiple lanes, and this route provided one of the best unimpeded highway stretches along the route.


With more than 3,300 feet of elevation to overcome on switchback mountain roads, this leg would push the smaller engines. The most powerful trucks in the test ate up the road, while the Ranger lagged behind. The Ridgeline had the easiest time with the mountain roads, carving corners like it was a large sedan thanks mostly to the independent rear suspension. The Ridgeline was also aided by having full-time all-wheel drive.

The rest of the trucks seemed to have no problem climbing through the twisties. The drive through the mountain town of Crestline, Calif., at almost 5,000 feet in elevation, included tight neighborhood roads winding through hills and around pine trees — all very picturesque, with the dividing mountain range between the Los Angeles basin to the south and the Mojave Desert to the north.

After an exciting trip up the mountain and spending a couple of minutes to look at the giant pine trees, we swapped keys again and headed back down to the city. Unfortunately, this section of the test meant more braking than anything else. A short, twisty section allowed us to get a good impression of the vehicles’ handling dynamics, but much of our driving was done in heavier freeway commuter traffic.

Mountain fun time was over when the group reached the outskirts of Fontana and the drivers swapped trucks for the sixth time. Soon we were back on the freeway, using visors to block the setting sun and driving smoothly in the opposite direction of the horrible rush-hour traffic. But that would change.

By the time we switched vehicles and re-entered the same freeway (now going with traffic), the sun was gone, and the traffic was much worse than it had looked from the other side of the road. Just merging onto the freeway was a stop-and-go, gas-then-brake, nerve-racking experience. Once again, drivers were thrown into a mix of semis, underpowered commuter compacts, luxury cars with annoying high-intensity-discharge headlamps and full-size lifted trucks. There was plenty of 25-mph-to-zero-to-25-mph driving, which undoubtedly hurt fuel economy, just like it would if this were your daily nightmarish commute. Hours later, we were at our final fuel stop.

Real-world mileage

While the results weren’t shocking, it was interesting to see how close this pack of pickups performed. Most trucks managed to get close to their EPA highway ratings, even with steep hill climbs and hellish traffic along the 203-mile course.

The Ridgeline finished in first place (20.9 mpg) despite having the heaviest curb weight, and the mileage masters at Honda apparently have found a happy medium between ample performance and decent fuel economy. The front-wheel-drive-biased setup and carlike suspension probably didn’t hurt, either.

The trucks in second through fifth place could almost be considered a tie, as the difference among them was less than 0.5 mpg. The V-8 Colorado (17.3 mpg), to no one’s surprise, was pretty thirsty. Still, even with the extra cylinders and just a four-speed automatic, the Chevy’s mileage ended up higher than the EPA combined rating of 16 mpg.

The Ranger came in last (15.7 mpg), and it was the only pickup to score lower than its EPA-estimated combined rating (16 mpg). It’s easy to beat up on the Ranger since its design is by far the oldest — with roots that reach back to the late ‘80s — but even with a five-speed automatic to help with fuel economy, the gas pedal was under constant attack to keep up with the other pickups in the Shootout. We know the Ranger was just finishing up its life in the U.S., but the mileage numbers don’t lie.

To compare the EPA-estimated gas mileages of the Ridgeline, Equator, Tacoma and Frontier, click here. To compare the EPA-estimated mileages of the Canyon, Colorado and Ranger, click here.

To see the complete driving route on Google Maps, click here.

2012 Midsize Shootout

Track Day
Dyno Day
Off-Road Day
Judgment Day


Stop. Just Stop. The Honda does NOT have fulltime AWD. They would like you to believe that but its not true. The AWD shuts off at 19mph and you then you get a front wheel drive truck.


The all-wheel drive system operates in front-wheel drive mode under normal conditions and automatically transfers power to either rear wheel via a locking differential when it senses a loss of traction in the front. The VTM-4 system can be locked in first, second or reverse gears at speeds under 18 mph (29 km/h).

The VTM-4 lock (rear diff lock) works in full rear power mode up until 6 mph (9.7 km/h) then it gradually transitions to power to the front and releases the VTM-4 lock at 18 mph (29 km/h)[1] .[2]

I think your fuel economy methodology is flawed. To be consistant you would have to have each driver drive the same course in each vehicle.

The fact that the lightest truck, with the same number of gears as any in the test, used more fuel than the hot-rod V8 of the bunch, all while returning the slowst times, is just sad. certainly with a powertrain refresh, the Ranger could soldier on, but as it stands, its time has just come (and gone at this point).
@Mark- breathe in..... breathe out.... Now, the artice actually calles the Honda FWD basd. where is your aggrivation coming from? As for it being AWD, it does in fact have a drive system which allows you to simply drive in all conditions, while giving you the traction needed. The other trucks don't do that.

Sore issue with me, because I had Honda dealers telling me that it was true AWD and it turns off above 18mph.

Here's where it was in the article:
With more than 3,300 feet of elevation to overcome on switchback mountain roads, this leg would push the smaller engines. The most powerful trucks in the test ate up the road, while the Ranger lagged behind. The Ridgeline had the easiest time with the mountain roads, carving corners like it was a large sedan thanks mostly to the independent rear suspension. The Ridgeline was also aided by having full-time all-wheel drive.

It wouldn't be aided because I would expect that a) they were going above 20mph, and b) that the tires weren't losing traction

Even though the Ranger has a V6 that traces its roots to 1968, I would have expected it to fare better in the fuel economy portion. After all, like Mrknowitall said above, it was the lightest truck in the test and has a modern(ish) 5-speed automatic. I get 18-19 MPG from my '02 Ranger manual, albiet in mostly highway driving. This just goes to show how much driving style impacts fuel efficiency.

Mark, just stop right there.
There is no such thing as 'AWD'. Honda Ridgeline is a front wheel drive PTO system.
In acceleration mode, it does work above 18mph.

The Ford Ranger has a 3 speed automatic + overdrive. The total ratio spread is only 3.3:1. This '5th' gear is overdrive on 1st gear. Doesn't really help smoothness or acceleration.
Even GM's wide ratio 4 speed automatic has 4.4:1

I wish I could get over 19 mpg with my Tacoma! The best I've been able to get was just over 17 mpg when I had an almost entirely highway trip once. I average 15.5 to 16 mpg in on-road mixed driving in flat central Ohio. I have a 2011 4x4 Tacoma with the TRD Offroad package, V6, AT. It was not the package I planned to get when I bought the truck six months ago but the dealer made me an offer I could not refuse. The gas mileage is the only thing I don't like about the Tacoma. I added a bed cover thinking it might make a slight difference but it didn't.

and let us not forget one NEEDS to get better mileage in the Honda Ridgeline, so you can save up for the expense of a timing belt change. (and valve clearance check/adjust)

This whole segment is sad interms of "fuel efficency" . 19mpg Out of mid-size trucks is pathetic. If Ford would have ever updated the Ranger and offered something like the 3.5 EcoBoost or even the 2.0L EcoBoost and gave this thing 24-25mpg on the HWY in 4x4 Supercab trim, I would have bought one instead of my oversized F-150. I mean I get the same 15mpg out of my 2008 fullsize as I could of to buy a Ranger. I would could have lived with the fact that the Ranger is a little small if there was a fuel economy tradeoff. I would love to get a mid-size as my F-150 is really too big for my needs, but until they can achive mid-size economy and not full size economy, I'll keep it.

@bigearl- Agreed. Just a 3.7 v6 and 6 spd auto (tho id prefer a manual) would do wonders.

does peeps not read the course taken to get these mpg b4 spewing nonsense. take ur truck thru this n i bet it wouldnt fair any better.

@ George I seriously doubt that the Ridgeline will ever require a valve lash adjustment. Your telling me it's got solid lifters in it?

No automatic valve clearance adjustment, Honda is a big fan of screw/nut adjusters. They think their engineering is so good... well they think that the most of the 24 valves will not need adjusting after clearance is checked.
They just expect you to forgive the extra noise upon cold start, the valves will expand in a minute or two.
But they do have roller followers, for reduced drag/friction.

Regarding Ford Ranger, if they would have only modified the ratios slightly, like they did with the Lincoln LS some 10 years ago.
Shorten 1st gear, make overdrive taller. That spaces the ratios much better.

why did they test top of line. what about the bottom of line ones

I wouldn't mind getting a midsized truck like this when my current truck kicks the curb, but something in my really wants to get the biggest one I can. I want something that has an 18 speed transmission and as much power as I can handle. Can you install an 18 speed transmission on any of these trucks? I just might consider it if I could.

these trucks are nice for small trucks but full size is the way to go not much worse mpgs and not much more cost if any...

In regards to the gas mileage. I own a ranger 4x4 extended cab with a 4.0L with 174,000 miles on it. I typically get 18.2 to 19.8 MPG. Worst fuel mileage I ever got was when the parking brake got stuck on and that was 17 mpg. Towing I get 17 to 18. Empty 19 to 20 mpg but I drive gently and only 5 over speed limit. ,Ayre that ranger was brand new and the motor wasn't broken in yet.... would explain the low dyno and MPG numbers

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