It's been three years since our last heavy duty one-ton dualie pickup truck competition, and in that time it seems like the world has changed. Not only has the pickup segment shifted, becoming more efficient and proving to be a huge boon to the recovering auto industry, but the heavy-hauler competitors have significantly raised their games, loading both barrels in the ongoing truck wars.
We knew that if we were going to conduct a comparison like this again, we had to do it right. That's why we've made a few changes this time.
As part of our 2014 Ultimate Heavy-Duty Challenge, which tests both three-quarter-ton gasoline engine crew-cab short-bed pickups and one-ton turbo-diesel crew-cab long-bed players, we asked the manufacturers to give us their biggest and strongest competitors. Although value was a scored category (for our judges to decide), we put no price ceiling on the one-ton entrants. However, we did require the trucks to be 4x4 one-ton diesels with 3.73:1 gears equipped with all the towing options. We were clear: These trucks were going to tow, and tow a lot of weight.
Week 2 of our Ultimate One-Ton HD Challenge started in Las Vegas (A) where we took delivery of the exact same trucks we tested during Week 1 in Michigan. After the last truck was delivered, we headed to our hotel in Kingman, Ariz. (C); unfortunately, our F-350 Super Duty grabbed a nail off the freeway (B) and we had to call Ford's customer service center to get it repaired (at 12:30 a.m.). Our Davis Dam grade testing (D) started the next day and went smoothly; the next day we headed east on Interstate 40 to Flagstaff, Ariz. (E), and took the cutoff to Tuba City, Ariz. (F), to our hotel. Our highest mileage day had us driving through Moab, Utah (G), in order to jump onto Interstate 70 (H) through Colorado. After conquering Vail Pass (I), we made it to our next base camp in Dillon, Colo. (J), where we conducted our Eisenhower Pass hill climb testing at night. Once finished, all that was left was taking the vehicles and trailers to Denver (K).
Based on reader feedback from previous Challenges, we broke this Ultimate HD Challenge into two separate sets of tests, each taking a full week to execute. The first focused on closed-course track and fuel economy data, and the second centered on real-world towing up some of the toughest grades in the country. In order to participate in this Challenge, each manufacturer had to agree to provide the exact same trucks for each portion of the test. So the six trucks we tested in Michigan during Week 1 would have to be shipped two weeks later to Las Vegas for the towing portion of the Challenge. All agreed. Week 1 consisted of testing at Milan Dragway, GM's Milford Proving Grounds and fuel-economy loops near Detroit. Week 2 had us hitting the road for towing tests at Davis Dam in Arizona and the Eisenhower Pass in Colorado.
GM decided to split its competitors and offered us a 2015 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD with a 6.0-liter V-8 for our three-quarter-ton test and a 2015 GMC Sierra 3500 HD with the 6.6-liter Duramax/Allison setup for our one-ton competition. Additionally, for our first week of testing, we had three identically constructed and weighted gooseneck engineering testing trailers, each weighing just a hair less than 16,000 pounds. Since most of our driving and many of our tests were done on public roads, we thought we'd try to keep the total weight of each truck and trailer at just less than 24,000 pounds, the legal limit in many states for noncommercial towing. In the end, the one-ton pickups weighed within 300 pounds of each other and each truck and trailer combination weighed within 200 pounds of each other.
Second Round of Tests
When we moved our testing from Michigan to Nevada to start our towing drive, we employed the expert trailer services of Load Trail, which set us up with three identically equipped 30-foot double-axle gooseneck trailers for our one-ton max-hauling runs. These Load Max trailers allowed us to carry our Three-Quarter-Ton HD Challenge counterparts along with a 2,400-pound water tank in each pickup bed as well as one of those tanks strapped down at the front of each Load Max trailer. All trailers totaled just a nose more than 20,000 pounds — more than enough for the types of extreme hot and high-altitude hill climbs we wanted to do.
Our route took us from Las Vegas to Bullhead City, Ariz., for a full day and night of testing on the infamous Davis Dam grade, from the start line next to the Colorado River to the summit several thousand feet up. From there we headed north and east, to Dillon, Colo., where we set up base camp for several days of testing on the western side of the Eisenhower Pass grade, which also rises several thousand feet to its summit, starting at an elevation of 8,800 feet and finishing above 11,000 feet. We ended our test in Denver.
As mentioned earlier, quite a bit has changed in this heavy-hauling segment since we last tested them. Each pickup included either significant chassis and/or powertrain improvements for this model year. Both the Ford and GMC entries were 2015 models, while the Ram HD was a 2014. Here is a quick look at each contender.
2015 Ford F-350 King Ranch Crew Cab 4x4 with the 6.7-liter V-8 Power Stroke
Ford has made several cosmetic and interior design upgrades to the Super Duty during the last few years, but for this year the biggest news (announced at the 2013 State Fair of Texas) was the introduction of a new-and-improved 6.7-liter Power Stroke engine with vastly improved breathing, cooling and turbocharging, capable of giving the engine class-leading power, with ratings of 440 horsepower and 860 pounds-feet of torque.
Ford engineers also took the opportunity to make some structural improvements, beefing up the frame and front suspension on certain models. As a consequence, the maximum conventional and fifth-wheel towing numbers are hugely improved, by several thousand pounds for both the 350/450. Additionally, this is the first time Ford has included a separate, dedicated exhaust brake button for its Power Stroke (something we've noted that it desperately needed), opting to upgrade the integrated setup it had before.
Our Blue Jeans Metallic F-350 came in Lariat trim with the new King Ranch interior option package, and with the exception of the Power Stroke engine option ($8,715) there were relatively few other options. We did get the fifth-wheel hitch, dual alternators and some extra skid plates, but the truck came pretty well equipped at this trim level. All totaled, our F-350 cost $67,885 (including destination).
2015 GMC Sierra 3500 HD SLT Crew Cab with the 6.6-liter V-8 Duramax
Our GMC entry benefited from several big changes for 2015, although powertrain improvements are not among them. The Duramax is basically untouched for this midmodel refresh, even though its competitors make significantly more power and offer larger gross vehicle weight and gross combined weight ratings and payload numbers. Still, the 2015 GM pickups get some good exterior styling improvements, giving both the three-quarter-ton Chevrolet and one-ton GMC models a bigger, bolder look.
The biggest news is how much improvement has been made inside the truck, essentially changing the size of all the cab doors and where the front and backseats are positioned. The result is more room for driver and passengers, and much better visibility. Additionally, the entire dash, center console and instrument panel have been reorganized to look more in line with the lighter-duty Sierra 1500. Add to that a new multimedia and navigation setup, and the new Sierra 3500 HD is headed in the right direction.
Even though there was no price limit for this test, GMC sent us a sensible Iridium Metallic SLT trim that was the least expensive truck by more than $2,000. With the turbo-diesel option of the Duramax and heavy-duty Allison 1000 transmission ($7,195 and $1,200, respectively), our test truck included all of GMC's segment-exclusive safety technology (lane departure, Safety Alert Seat, forward collision alert, and front and rear park assist), heated and cooled seats, Bose audio system and more. All totaled, our GMC Sierra 3500 tipped the scales at $65,520 (including destination).
2014 Ram 3500 HD Laramie Limited Crew Cab 4x4 with a 6.7-liter inline-six Cummins
Since our last big HD truck shootout, the Ram HDs have gone through a couple of significant midcycle improvements. In 2013 both the front and rear suspensions were redesigned, and the frames were built with high-strength steel. The results were class-leading maximum GCWR in excess of 37,000 pounds and fifth-wheel towing of 30,000 pounds. But Ram didn't stop there. The next year it had Cummins make a few more improvements to its inline-six B-motor, which gave Ram three new power ratings, the top of which gave the truckmaker (at least for a short time) the most torque in its class. As it sits now, the 6.7-liter Cummins is rated at 385 hp and 850 pounds-feet of torque.
Among the more interesting changes was the addition of a smart exhaust, which offered three separate settings: Off, Full and Auto. In each setting, with the exhaust brake integrated into the diesel turbocharger, it uses a software algorithm to make the interaction of engine backpressure more or less aggressive, depending on several sensors. Essentially, what the Ram HD Cummins has that no one else in the segment has is more choices for different types of towing and hauling.
Our Deep Cherry Red Crystal Pearl Ram 3500 came to us with the Laramie Limited trim package, which gave us just about everything Ram has to offer, including leather-trimmed bucket seats, the full Uconnect navigation/satellite radio system, and heated-and-cooled 10-way power driver seat and six-way power passenger seat. We did get the Customer Preferred Package 28M ($2,295), which gave us heated rear seats, 20-inch wheels and tires, extra Ram 3500 badging and more. The biggest additions to our test truck pricing were the Cummins engine ($7,995), the Aisin transmission ($2,895) and our dual rear wheels ($1,200). Totaled, our test Ram 3500 rang up the highest at $69,870 (including destination).
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears