Before we dive into the results, we'd like to thank the manufacturers for going to great lengths to get us the vehicles for this comparison test, as well as the folks at RaceLogic for our test equipment, and to our judges, video and photography crews who put in long hours as well as the people at Imperial Trailers who helped get us our Logan horse trailers.
We also recommend revisiting our 2013 Light-Duty Challenge to see how much progress has been made with new pickup trucks from Toyota and Ford, as well as significant powertrain upgrades from Chevrolet and GMC.
Here are all the numbers and final finishing orders for our five competitors.
No. 1: Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Z71 LTZ 6.2-liter, 1,554 points
Not a single one of our test drivers expressed the idea that the Chevy Silverado 1500 might be the favorite going into the 2015 Light-Duty V-8 Challenge. However, halfway through the week there was a groundswell of support. Although the Silverado did not collect the most points in our 11 empirical tests (the GMC won by just three points), the $54,310 Chevy won five tests outright and placed second in four others. As dominating as that might sound, it was the judges' scoring that separated the Silverado 1500 from its competitors. It scored in first or second place with four of the five judges.
The single area where the Chevy lost quantitative points was the payload category, because this vehicle was not equipped with GM's NHT max-tow package as the Sierra 1500 was. In our judges' scoring, the Chevy missed beating the Ford by a hair, largely due to the elevated quality and available options of the XLT interior. The Silverado 1500 felt like a solid all-around player that looks good working hard, but doesn't seem to stand out much or scream for attention; it did everything we asked of it and never seemed to be working too hard to get the job done. All of our judges mentioned the quietness of the interior and strength of the powertrain.
But this contest was not just about what our five judges thought or even how quickly the transmission slammed through the gears during wide-open throttle; this contest went to the pickup truck that performed the best in as many challenges as possible, and that's why the 2015 Light-Duty V-8 Challenge winner is the Chevy Silverado 1500 6.2-liter eight-speed, beating the GMC by just 11 points and the all-new Ford F-150 by 45 points.
No. 2: GMC Sierra 1500 SLT 6.2-liter, 1,543 points
There wasn't a lot mechanically different in the GMC Sierra 1500 we received for this test when comparing it to its Silverado 1500 sibling, but its unique qualities made all the difference in this closely contested comparison test. The standout features were clearly the big 6.2-liter V-8 and new eight-speed transmission. Of the 11 empirical tests we performed for this comparison, either the Chevy or the GMC won nine. The GMC Sierra 1500 included the NHT max-tow package, which gave the truck a stronger (and bigger ring-and-pinion) rear axle, stiffer suspension, a numerically higher gear set (3.42:1) and different tires. You wouldn't think that would make a big difference, but it was just enough to give it a little more launching power in some situations and a little less compliance in others.
Still, at the end of our 11 quantitative tests, the GMC finished in first place, just three points ahead of Chevy. In our qualitative judging, with the exception of one of our judges, the GMC Sierra 1500 did not garner enough points from our experts to finish better than fourth. Recognizable strengths included having the highest gross vehicle weight rating and resulting payload rating, but it did have some trouble with loaded braking. Our midlevel SLT trim package cost $54,655.
No. 3: Ford F-150 XLT 5.0-liter, 1,509 points
You would think the smallest engine in this test would be at a distinct disadvantage, but nothing was further from the truth. The new Ford F-150 is an impressive combination of engineering and smart integration, all wrapped in an aluminum shell. The result is probably the most confident feeling and strongest road cruiser of our test. The way the power gets to the wheels and the steering wheel connects to the suspension is simply impressive.
The truck Ford provided for this competition was the result of a lot of people breaking rules: All the F-150s available for testing were technically "pre-production," meaning Ford could only give us what was available, which is why we got a V-8 XLT with EcoBoost badging on the side of the truck. Still, this test truck won two of our 11 tests outright and finished second in two more; not bad for a little V-8 player.
Additionally, our judges, as a group, scored the F-150 in first place in our six qualitative categories. Who knows what could have happened if we had a Lariat or new King Ranch. At $47,845 our F-150 was the second least expensive pickup truck of our test (the least expensive was the Toyota Tundra), but it still offered a solid value. In the end, the top three finishers were separated by just 45 points.
No. 4: Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn 5.7-liter, 1,422 points
If there was a surprise in this test, it was how clearly targeted the Ram 1500 was by the all-new or significantly upgraded Ford and GM entries. As you may recall from our 2013 Light-Duty Challenge, the Ram 1500 lost the overall comparison test by a hair's breadth to the Ford. This time around, it looks like the level of the competition was raised considerably to meet Ram's challenge.
According to our judges, there is no denying the tremendous amount of value you get for the money with the Laramie Longhorn interior, but where the Ram lost most of its points was in its limited payload, braking numbers and the ride quality of the air suspension when towing or loaded. Although the Ram did not win a single test category, it scored well almost everywhere with the exception of braking and fuel economy, where it lost the largest percentage of points to the F-150. At $54,820, the Ram did the best job of packing in available options to stay under our $55,000 ceiling, but it wasn't enough.
No. 5: Toyota Tundra TRD Pro 5.7-liter, 1,295 points
The Tundra TRD Pro was an interesting choice for Toyota to send for this competition; it is its newest trim package for 2015, and at $45,045 it was the least expensive player in our competition. The big tires and wheels, softer suspension and durability-first interior definitely impressed some judges, but this combination was outmatched in all of our payload and towing exercises, showing various amounts of rear-end sag throughout. Additionally, although we loved the TRD exhaust note when watching it make wide-open-throttle runs down the track, when spending any amount of time behind the wheel, the droning of the exhaust note from inside the truck became almost unbearable.
There's no question there is plenty of value in this new off-road performance package, but as an all-around truck performer the TRD Pro came up short in every category of this test (with the exception of exterior design) — which is probably more about the new powertrain levels of the competition than it is specifically related to Tundra's new interior and exterior styling. If this test proved anything, it should be that Toyota needs to seriously consider revamping its powertrain lineup.
Notes About Scoring
Scoring for our 2015 Light-Duty V-8 Challenge was similar to past comparison tests. We awarded 100 points to the winning vehicle for each test category, with the remaining competitors receiving their calculated percentage. Our 11 empirical categories included acceleration, braking and vehicle capability comparisons, while the rest of our point totals (about 35 percent) consisted of expert judges scoring in six different areas. Our judges included freelance automotive journalist David Boldt, Cars.com Road Test Editor Joe Bruzek, HardWorkingTruck.com Editor Bruce Smith, MrTruck.com's Kent Sundling and PickupTrucks.com Editor Mark Williams.
The winner and subsequent rankings were determined by adding up the point totals from both quantitative and qualitative scoring. We use this format so you can see and adjust the scored categories any way you'd like, adjusting them to fit your own personal priorities. In effect, you can score your own test to call your own winner. As impressed as we were with the level of discussion and comments generated by our expert testers, we know that you're likely to have your own way of seeing things or judging the same categories.
To download an image with all the results of each event, their corresponding scores and our judges' totals, click here.
As noted in the overview, we did not have the Nissan Titan in this test and the F-150 Ford we had might not have been the best representative of a production truck that we could get, but this group of pickups did give us a chance to offer you the most up-to-date 2015 Light-Duty V-8 Challenge contenders we could assemble. Ford will be the first to note that the top-performing engine in this segment is not the V-8 but rather the carryover 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost engine. That, however, will have to be a test for another day — this one was just about V-8s.
What's Next? Our Annual Physical
We should note that we will post our Annual Physical soon. That report will include many of the same tests and types of data for several V-6 half-ton pickups with their own specific criteria to meet (less than $34,000, V-6 engines and 4x2 setups). That means we'll have comparative numbers for the Ford F-150 2.7-liter and 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost engines as well as the 4.3-liter V-6 Chevrolet Silverado 1500, the Ram 1500 3.6-liter Pentastar and Ram 1500 EcoDiesel. As you may recall, the whole reason we started our Annual Physical — like all of our comparison tests — is to collect and pass along to you as much data as possible. We'll continue to do that as long as you let us know that's what you want.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears