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By Mike Levine, (PickupTrucks.com) and H. Kent Sundling (MrTruck.com)

Introduction

We take truck-testing very seriously at PickupTrucks.com because most people, when theyíre looking to buy, canít try out a truck in exactly the way they intend to use it.

Good luck finding a dealer who will let you drive a new pickup with a trailer behind it, let you take it off-road, or provide similarly configured competitive trucks to drive back-to-back with it. An empty 10-minute surface-street and mile-long highway drive are the best youíre likely to do before making this expensive purchase.

 Thatís where we come in. In our shootouts, we select the trucks and truck segment with the most change, then test those trucks head-to-head in exercises that reflect how theyíll be used.

Last year we examined the latest crop of heavy-duty diesel pickups, all with new engines and emissions systems built to meet tough new federal emissions standards. We tested those plus Fordís new Super Duty pickups.

This year, we focused on the latest batch of half-ton trucks. The field is a big one: there are two new entries from Ford and Dodge that could make or break those companies; Toyotaís recently revised Tundra; GMís updated trucks with new six-speed transmissions and the most powerful V-8s in the segment; and Nissanís five-year-old Titan Ė the oldest truck in the group.

Specs560_3

How We Test

Hereís how we tested this yearís trucks: We asked each manufacturer to supply us with 2009 model year four-wheel-drive crew cab trucks equipped with the largest V-8 engine available. Which trim level to send was their decision, but as the specs for each truck came in (including trim and rear axle ratio), we shared the configurations we were receiving with the other manufacturers so each knew what the others were bringing to the test.

The Toyota Tundra was the only 2008 model year truck in the group. We debated whether or not to keep it in the Shootout, since all the other trucks were 2009s. Since production hadnít started at the time of our test and there are no significant powertrain or mechanical changes for the 2009 Tundra, compared to the 2008 pickup, we it in the comparison.

We know how important rear axle size is to full-size-truck performance testing, but it wasnít possible to get trucks equipped with identical final drive ratios. Different manufacturers donít build the same numerical ring and pinion gears in the crew cab, four-wheel-drive, V-8 configurations we tested. The Toyota Tundra only comes with a 4.30, the Dodge Ram 1500 only gets a 3.92 or 3.55 rear axle, the Titan only comes with a 3.36, and GM trucks only come with a 3.42 rear axle. The F-150 had a 3.73 rear axle, the numerically highest F-150 gearset offered.

We tested the trucks in three locations: Quarter-mile level-ground testing happened at Milan Dragway in Michigan; our fuel economy tests and general driving impressions came on public roads and highways; and we used GMís Milford Proving Grounds for hard-core trailer-towing grade tests, as well as offroad, auto-cross, traction control and brake tests.

Using proving grounds is important because they provide a location where we can repeat each test under identical, controlled conditions. Special thanks to GM for the use of its proving grounds -- as well as three identically loaded 6,500-pound trailers for testing -- and to all the OEMs for coming through with the trucks youíll read about here.

Some may question why we didnít set each trailer up to a uniform proportion of each truckís towing capacity. Thatís because whether youíre towing horses, a boat or a camper, when you buy your next truck itís got to tow the same load your old truck pulled.

Testing was split up into two components: empirical data collection (How fast did each truck go?) and subjective analysis (How did the trucks feel?).

Instrument1560_3To eliminate the possibility of bias or error in our empirical data collection, we again hired Ricardo Inc. to instrument each of the vehicles and ensure each test was standardized and executed identically. Ricardo is a globally recognized automotive engineering and consulting company. In the pictures accompanying this Shootout, youíll see the vehicles running side-by-side in drag contests for subjective comparison, but Ricardo collected data one truck at a time. Ricardo was responsible for measuring the results of the trailer-towing grade test, auto-cross, 60 to zero braking distance and wheel-travel measurement. Each test was repeated by the same driver at least three times.

To share our experience testing these trucks, we invited other media to participate with us. MrTruck.com, Truck Trend, MotorWeek Television, the Detroit News and Jalopnik all had journalists on hand. Kent Sundling, from MrTruck.com cowrote this story with us.

We donít call it the 2008 PickupTrucks.com Half-Ton Shootout for nothing. At the end of this, only one truck will be left standing as the Best Overall Half-Ton.

The Trucks

2009 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Crew Cab Z71 4x4

Silverado1560The Chevrolet Silverado and its twin, the GMC Sierra, debuted as all-new trucks just two years ago to rave reviews about their updated engineering, capability and refinement. One important change, however, was postponed at launch: The addition of a six-speed automatic transmission. The 2007 and 2008 Silverado could only be purchased with GMís legacy four-speed automatic. As youíll see in our testing, no mechanical change has been more important to these trucks than the introduction of a six-speed gearbox. It helps improve fuel economy by offering an extra overdrive gear, and it helps towing by adding an extra-low 1st gear to help get big loads moving fast.

Silverado4560Our Silverado tester came equipped with GMís 6.2-liter V-8 and the newly available six-speed transmission. Before, the only GM half-ton with this powerful combo was the luxurious GMC Sierra Denali. The 6.2-liter V-8 is rated at 403 horsepower and 417 pounds-feet of torque, making it the most powerful powertrain in the trucks we tested. However, it also required premium, 93-octane unleaded gasoline to hit those numbers.

Silverado3560_3The Silverado offers two distinct interior treatments: traditional work-truck style ĎPure Pickupí or a luxury-inspired premium layout. Our truck came with the premium cabin, highlighted by rich amber wood accents and cream-colored leather seats. The instruments were laid out intuitively, but the buttons were a bit small. We also found the climate controls confusing. Both the driver and passenger can control the temperature in their seating zone, but the controls for fan speed and airflow are both placed next to the passenger temperature controls, leaving the driver to reach over to redirect airflow from the floor to the dash vents.

Silverado2560_2GM and Ford are the only manufacturers that offer integrated trailer brake controllers, which are used to link a truckís antilock braking system with a trailerís electric brakes for improved safety. The feature was quietly introduced on the 2008 Silverado half-ton after debuting in GMís heavy-duty pickups. We think this option is extremely valuable in todayís half-ton pickups. What we didnít like about the Silveradoís brake controller was its location. Itís situated on the lower left-hand side of the driver, which isnít an intuitive location; most aftermarket brake controllers tend to be installed on the bottom right of the dash for easy access to manually increase gain when necessary for extra braking or to brake the trailer manually, independent of the truckís brakes.

The Silveradoís ride quality was very good. On good, bad and very bad roads around Detroit, the truck always rode cleanly. It didnít bounce or side-step unless cracks or potholes were very prominent. We attribute part of the Silveradoís rough-road dampening capabilities to its new-for-2009 standard hydraulic body mounts. Theyíre available on every model.

Power from the 6.2-liter V-8 was always more than needed on public roads, even with the truckís fuel-efficient 3.42 final drive ratio. We did notice a difference in ride quality between the Chevy and GMC Sierra; the softer shocks on the Silverado created a more compliant ride. Steering-wheel input from road surfaces was minimal and turning effort was low.

Ride quality improved with the 6,500-pound trailer behind the truck, but the margin of improvement wasnít as noticeable as the high level of power the V-8 continued to provide. Towing acceleration was superb on public roads.

2009 Dodge Ram 1500 Crew Cab Laramie 4x4

Ram1560We really like the all-new 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup and the innovations it brings to the half-ton segment. Dodge clearly delineated the latest Ram 1500ís capabilities from those of its heavy-duty big brothers, keeping towing and payload ratings at the same levels as the truck it replaced rather than pushing into three-quarter-ton territory, and focusing on smart features like a coil spring rear suspension and lots of built-in storage.

Ram4560The Ram we tested came with Dodgeís renewed 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, rated at 390 hp and 407 pounds-feet of torque. While new engine technology -- like variable cam timing, more-efficient active cylinder shutoff and an active intake manifold -- help improve the Hemiís power, emissions and fuel economy, the Ram was still paired with Chryslerís legacy 545RFE five-speed transmission. The transmission ratios are identical to the old Ramís gearbox.

Ram3560The Laramie Ramís near-luxury interior was well-executed, with materials that felt and looked good, and above-average ergonomics. Its interior layout, along with the Ford-150ís, was better than every other truck in the competition. Material quality was almost as good as the GM and Ford pickups, and it was ahead of the Nissan and Toyota trucks. The Ramís bucket seats were also excellent.  They were supportive and comfortable for long and short trips. The seats were also appreciated during towing, as the Ram was challenged by the weight we had on the truck and we didnít have to worry about the distraction of an uncomfortable seat. Every truck should have a dash-mounted trip computer as easy to read as the Ramís, but the separate 6.5-inch navigation and infotainment display in the center stack was too small for a vehicle this large. We liked the Ramís gated shifter in the center console, but not as much as we liked the Titanís.

Dodge doesnít offer an integrated trailer brake controller option on the Ram, so we purchased and installed an aftermarket controller to ensure we had maximum control over our 6,500-pound trailer, whose weight was 90 percent of the maximum towing rating for our truckís configuration.

Ram2560In a case of function following form, the Ramís dual exhaust pipes that are attractively scalloped into each side of the rear bumper were annoyingly warm during our frequent trailer swaps. In two-person teams of a driver (to back the truck up) and a trailer attacher, the person who hooked the trailer up worked in hot air and had to breathe fumes unless we let the truck sit for a few minutes.  Hot exhaust aside, the Ramís electrical trailer connections were well-placed in the top of the rear bumper, separated by the license plate holder and integrated step from road grime and mud, in a similar manner as the GM trucksí bumpers.

The Ram and F-150 were the only trucks with trailer-sway control for additional towing safety, though the Ramís variable front-wheel ABS application for sway mitigation wasnít as sophisticated as the F-150ís strategy, which uses the truckís ABS system and trailer brakes to halt dangerous trailer yaw.

The Ram had the best unloaded driving feel and stability of all the trucks we tested. That wasnít surprising considering that its multi-link coil spring setup seemed to easily control even the harshest vertical and lateral motion from rough road input. Some who drove the Ram reported slight porpoising on the freeway without the trailer, but the truck always continued in a straight line. Empty acceleration was very good. The steering feel was remarkably similar to the GM pickups, but road input felt more numb.

The Ram still handled well when loaded with a trailer, but we all agreed it felt like its handling was right at the edge of its maximum capability. We wouldnít have felt comfortable towing more with this configuration Ė especially if we hadnít installed the aftermarket trailer brake controller to help stop the burdened Ram.

2009 Ford F-150 Super Crew Lariat 4x4

F1501560Looking at the specs, the new Ford F-150 is a bit of a puzzle. Ford rates the F-150 to tow the most in the segment (up to 11,300 pounds, depending on configuration), but its 5.4-liter V-8 has the smallest displacement and lowest power rating of the trucks we tested. The flex-fuel 5.4-liter is rated at 320 hp and 390 pounds-feet of torque when running on E85, but we used regular unleaded fuel for our tests, which meant the truck ran at 310 hp and 365 pounds-feet of torque.

Fordís all-new six-speed automatic transmission helped compensate for the V-8 engineís shortcomings. We found it to be the smoothest, smartest shifter of the trucks we tested.

F1504560The F-150 Lariatís interior split the difference between a work truck and a luxury cruiser. Textures and materials were very well-executed, and we liked the silver-brushed-looking plastic that broke up the tan surfaces and framed the driver, center stack and passenger zones. We did not, however, like the faux-wood appliquť around the instrument panelís 55 climate, radio and information buttons and knobs. That was a lot of buttons, used to control a lot of features, like heated and cooled seats, entertainment, and to set up Fordís hands-free entertainment and communications system, Sync, which was available even though the F-150 lacked a navigation system.

An interior feature we appreciated was the placement of the F-150ís optional integrated trailer brake controller. Ford placed it in the optimal position for frequent towers Ė on the driverís lower right side, beneath the transfer case control. 

F1503560Itís ironic Ford could do so well at setting up the trailer brake controllerís ergonomics, yet make it annoying to hook up a trailer. The F-150ís factory receiver was positioned the farthest back under the rear bumper of the trucks we tested, making it an
ďon-one-kneeĒ operation to connect the trailerís safety chains and wiring harness to the pickup. Adding to the annoyance factor were electrical hookups mounted 90 degrees off the trailer plugís natural down position.

F1502560_2The F-150 was well-mannered on the road without a trailer, though it felt slightly more jittery than the Silverado and Sierra, and it was a long way from the Ram. We noticed more skittishness on interstates, but the F-150ís well-dampened, steady steering kept driver confidence high.

The F-150ís ride quality found its zone with a trailer attached. It was well-planted at all times. Again, the heavier steering -- especially compared to the GM twins and Dodge Ram -- contributed to a high sense of control over and confidence about the 6,500 pounds pulling behind us.

2009 GMC Sierra Crew Cab SLT Z71 All-Terrain 4x4

Sierra1560Sierra4560The Sierra was a virtual twin to the Silverado we tested, but outfitted with GMCís All-Terrain package, which upgraded the high-end SLT trim and Z71 base offroad hardware with a handsome two-tone black and gray leather interior, Rancho shocks, 18-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels and body-colored body-side moldings. It was also optioned with a navigation system. We felt GMís navigation system was better than the Ramís or Tundraís. The Silverado, F-150 and Titan didnít have navigation systems.

Sierra3560Sierra2560We thought the Sierraís wheels and tasteful chrome accents made it among the most attractive trucks in the group, though the big rectangular All-Terrain badging was a bit much.

Unloaded and loaded ride and handling were similar to the Silveradoís, though noticeably stiffer in back thanks to the more aggressive offroad shocks. Trailer-towing ride and feel was virtually indistinguishable from the Chevyís. Interestingly, our GMC tester didnít come with more aggressive offroad tires, but rather had tires that were identical to the Silveradoís.

2009 Nissan Titan Crew Cab PRO-4X 4x4

Titan1560The Nissan Titan had the most aggressive four-wheel-drive setup of the trucks we tested. The PRO-4X package was introduced last year, slotted between the mid-tier SE and the high-level LE. It adds body-colored front and rear bumpers, white-faced gauges and PRO-4X themed seats to the Titanís optional offroad package, which includes GKNís electronic-locking rear differential (thatís the same company that supplies an e-locker to Ford for the 2009 F-150 FX4 and the 2010 F-150 SVT Raptor), Rancho shocks, 18-inch tires and BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires, plus two extra skid plates.

Titan4560Titan3560The Titan has just one engine option: a 5.6-liter Endurance V-8 rated at 317 hp and 385 pounds-feet of torque. Itís paired with a five-speed automatic transmission.

 

Although Nissan updated the Titanís interior layout and materials for the 2008 model year, our Titan was challenged with fit-and-finish issues around the glove box and somber black and gray colors across the dashboard. The white gauges and orange needles looked sporty, though. We really appreciated the Titanís transfer case and gated shifter placement, which we felt allowed the driver to adjust its offroad switchgear the quickest of any of the trucks we drove. We also felt the gated shifter had the best layout.

Powertrain feel in the Titan was excellent during acceleration, always providing lots of power and early torque both around town and on the freeway.

Titan2560Nissan doesnít offer an integrated trailer brake controller option for the Titan and, unfortunately for our hands, it was the hardest pickup to connect an aftermarket trailer brake controller to. It was plagued with very-sharp plastic near the wire pigtails that the controller plugged into.

 Similar to the F-150, hooking up trailer safety chains was difficult. At least the trailer connector sockets were right-side up.

Unloaded, the Titan allowed high levels of road noise to make their way into the truck. Each bump the truck hit transmitted sounds right through the wheel wells. As anticipated due to its offroad-centric hardware setup, the ride was harsh when the truck was unloaded. This isnít a truck weíd drive empty across the country.

What we did like was the feel of the Titanís powertrain. Its five-speed automatic transmission seemed better matched to its engine than did the Ramís similar setup.

Towing a trailer improved the Titanís road manners considerably, but, similar to the Ram, we felt like we were towing close to the truckís maximum capability.

2008 Toyota Tundra CrewMax SR5 4x4

Tundra1560Tundra4560The Toyota Tundra has had a rough go of it since its introduction in 2007. The powertrain is awesome, and the Tundra was the first full-size truck to give owners a six-speed automatic. Some of us felt it was nearly as good as the F-150 when towing a trailer. But the Tundra lacked in other areas, like interior friendliness and unloaded and offroad ride quality.

The Tundraís 5.7-liter V-8 is rated at 380 hp and 401 pounds-feet of torque. Last year, that was stunning. This year, for our Shootout, it was enough to make it just the fourth most powerful truck, behind the Chevy, GMC and Dodge. Unlike the GM trucks, which consume premium unleaded gasoline, the Tundra only requires regular octane fuel to hit its full power ratings.

Tundra3560The Tundraís interior was filled with hard plastic, which greatly cheapened the perceived value of the $41,000 pickup. Ergonomics were poor, too. Almost all the drivers said they had a hard time seeing all the dash gauges at once, as theyíre seated at the bottom of tubes in the instrument panel. The climate-control buttons in the center stack seemed to be big just for the sake of being big. The cloth seats were middling in terms of comfort, not providing enough lumbar support. We also had to add an aftermarket trailer brake controller to the Tundra.

Tundra2560Though we all really liked the Tundraís tremendous acceleration feel, the Tundra had the poorest unloaded ride quality of the group. We felt road vibrations through the steering wheel on the interstate, and when the truck hit potholes on surface streets it had a tendency to skip sideways. It was so rough we thought we might need to seat-belt our coffee in place. If we owned a Tundra, weíd keep a load in the bed to calm the truck down.

Loaded ride quality was the polar opposite of unloaded. The Tundra really seemed to come into its own in that situation. If its steering feel had been slightly more solid, with less corrective effort required from the driver, the Tundra would have tied or beaten the F-150 in driver towing confidence. We felt like we werenít even close to its towing maximum, and the trailer didnít sway at all.

Compared to the less powerful F-150, the Tundra was a screamer, especially in traffic situations that called for acceleration to change lanes or maneuver. The Tundraís six-speed transmission, however, wasnít as smooth or as smart as the F-150ís.

Compared to the F-150, which felt great towing, the Tundra felt like a rocket ship.

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