We rented the asphalt
at Milan Dragway just outside Detroit to find out how fast and powerful
the latest half-ton trucks are. The track features an IHRA-sanctioned
quarter-mile dragstrip. It's perfect for determining performance over a
fixed distance, unloaded and loaded.
The tests we performed
represent a reasonable scenario for drivers interested in learning how
quickly they can accelerate up to 60 mph or more. These tests determine
how well a pickup can join the flow of traffic on the freeway without
holding up drivers behind them or causing an unsafe situation in a
slow-moving vehicle towing a trailer.
All the tests were
conducted in two-wheel-drive at wide-open throttle with traction and
stability control on. Tow-haul mode was engaged when towing and disabled
when not towing. A minimum of three runs were carried out in each
configuration tested. The average and fastest runs are presented in the
In the pictures that
accompany this story, you'll see the trucks racing each other. However,
Ricardo Inc. only collected metrics and data from one truck at a time,
using a $50,000 Oxford Technical Solutions RT3102 inertial and GPS
recorder. How the trucks performed head-to-head isn't necessarily
indicative of the final results you'll read about.
We’re not sure who was
more anxious, our team of journalists, starting the first set of tests
for our biggest comparison yet, or the manufacturers in attendance,
seeing all the 2009-model-year half-tons together for the first time.
year, the Toyota Tundra was the powerhouse half-ton. Its six-speed
transmission and 381-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8 made it extremely
difficult to beat in zero to 60 acceleration, challenged only by the
low-volume, all-wheel-drive GMC Sierra Denali. If there’s one thing
Toyota got right with the Tundra, it’s the truck’s excellent powertrain.
This year, the Tundra’s
power ratings were pushed to third place (ranked by automaker; fourth if
we rate by brand) behind GM’s 403-hp, 6.2-liter V-8 and Chrysler’s
390-hp, 5.7-liter V-8. Would the six-speed Silverado and Sierra be able
to lay down all that power to the rear wheels through the 3.42 ring and
pinion to beat the 4.30-equipped Tundra? Could the nine extra horses in
the Dodge and its five-speed transmission outperform the Toyota’s
six-speed shifting finesse using brute force?
Unloaded, the Silverado
was the fastest truck, beating the second-place Tundra by a scant .16
seconds and 1.5 mph. Two features gave the Chevy the edge: higher power
ratings and shift points set to deliver peak torque at 4,300 rpm, which
is 700 rpm higher than the Tundra. This proved critical in this test
because all the trucks revved high into the 5,000 to 5,500 rpm range
before upshifting and falling back to 4,400 to 4,700 rpm, which is near
the sweet spot for the 6.2-liter V-8. One factor that reinforced our
opinion of the Tundra’s unfriendly ride unloaded was a lot of noticeable
vibration felt through the steering column and noticed in the interior
plastic bits shaking as the Tundra raced down the track. The Tundra was
the highest-mileage truck of the rigs we tested, with 8,000 miles on its
odometer, versus approximately 1,000 miles for the rest of the test
fleet, so perhaps it was showing a bit of wear and tear? The Silverado
was very smooth the entire takeoff.
The Sierra took third
place, a razor-thin .04 seconds behind the Tundra, though 1.7 mph
faster. The Sierra had the extra power and strength at the end, but its
stiff offroad suspension likely contributed to its slower start versus
the Chevy and Toyota.
The Ram and Titan took
fourth and fifth, respectively. They were the only trucks with
five-speed transmissions. The Ram was quick off the line -- part of the
inherent capability of its new coil-spring rear suspension to transmit
power to the ground -- but the shift from first and second felt sluggish
and played a role in making the Ram slower than the Titan through the
first two-thirds of the quarter-mile. At the top of 2nd gear, entering
3rd, the Ram found its track legs and hammered home the final portion of
the quarter-mile to beat the Titan by .16 seconds and 2.8 mph.
We noticed some unusual
behavior in the last-place F-150. Launching the truck cleanly proved
difficult because we repeatedly encountered rear axle hop at wide-open
throttle. We encountered this condition in only two places: on the
sticky surface at Milan and again on an asphalt hill climb at GM’s
proving grounds. We were unable to re-create the condition on public
roads and highways. We believe it was due to axle wrap, possibly because
the 6-inch-longer leaf springs on the 2009 F-150 allowed too much
rebound. Once it was racing down the track, though, the F-150’s updated
5.4-liter engine and all-new transmission worked very well together. It
felt really good -- until we started racing against someone else, at
which point we quickly discovered how slow the truck was. Zero to 60
took almost 9 seconds, and it finished the quarter-mile a second later
than the fifth-place Titan and 9 mph slower than the first-place
Hooking up a
6,500-pound trailer changed things up for the trucks, especially the GM
trucks and the Tundra. With the extra weight on its tail, the Tundra
settled down into an excellent power puller. The shift points in the
transmission also changed, moving into the 3,400-3,700 rpm range at
wide-open throttle, down from the mid-4,000s. This was closer to the
Tundra’s low-3,600 rpm peak torque curve than the 4,300 rpm in the GM
pickups. The Tundra’s 4.30 rear axle and lower combined drive ratios
through all six gears helped the Tundra take off and keep its lead from
start to finish. Still, the gap between the fastest and slowest of the
Tundra and the GM trucks was only .36 seconds and .55 mph. We predict
the GM trucks will be faster in this test in mid-2009, when GM adds a
3.73 rear axle option for the 6.2-liter V-8. This should make wide-open
throttle launches easier for the GM pickups.
The Nissan Titan and
Dodge Ram paired up closely again, but the loaded Titan edged out the
Ram by .36 seconds and .6 mph. The Ram was never able to recover from
the steep 1st/2nd gear swap.
The Ford F-150 lost its
axle hop once the trailer was attached, but it also lost power. The
5.4-liter V-8 never broke the 70 mph barrier, like the other trucks did.
The time gap between the F-150 and the fastest truck remained virtually
the same during both runs, a constant 1.4 seconds slower than first
7.2 Percent Grade
flat asphalt at Milan Dragway was perfect for testing level
acceleration, but a pickup truly earns its keep climbing hills while
There were two ways we
could have performed our grade testing. The first was to find a
challenging real-world incline, like the Cajon and Grapevine passes near
Los Angeles, or the infamous 12-mile, 7 percent ascent to the Eisenhower
Tunnel in Colorado. The alternative was to run our tests on the much
shorter 7.2 percent hill climb at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds. Each
percent is the equivalent of climbing 1 foot in elevation over a
100-foot distance, so we climbed 7.2 feet in elevation for every 100
feet the trucks and trailers traveled.
chose to conduct our tests at GM’s proving grounds for several reasons.
First, we wanted controlled conditions under which we could run
repeatable and measurable standardized tests to compare the results of
each truck relative to itself and its competitors. Comparative testing
on public highways is a crapshoot; there was a high likelihood we’d get
stuck behind slower-moving traffic, and finding an exit to turn around
and repeat a test could require several miles and lots of time, which we
The 7.2 percent grade
test was 1,720 feet, or 525 meters, long. That's 400 feet more than a
quarter mile, which is 1,320 feet.
All trucks and trailers
were completely on the grade and stationary prior to the start of each
run. All the tests were performed “brake-to-accelerator,” meaning the
foot brake was fully depressed with the right foot, which then lifted
and fully depressed the accelerator pedal in one movement. Sufficient
distance was provided at the end to slow the rigs down to a safe speed
before reaching the top of the hill.
A minimum of three runs
were carried out in each truck, with the same driver at wide-open
throttle in two-wheel drive. We averaged the times from all of each
truck’s runs to determine the best performer.
The Silverado was the
fastest pickup up the hill, but only by the slimmest of margins. It was
tied with the Tundra through the first 430 feet; the trucks were so
closely matched we could have passed our BlackBerries back and forth
between them as we raced. The 3.42 ring-and-pinion Silverado finished
its run just .14 seconds faster than the Tundra. We chalked up the
razor-thin win to the Silverado’s 6.2-liter V-8’s extra displacement and
old-school pushrod muscle over the Tundra’s sophisticated overhead-cam
engine and 4.30 rear axle.
The Sierra finished .73
seconds off the Silverado and .59 seconds back from the Tundra. The
Tundra split the two GM trucks perhaps in part because of the Sierra’s
stiffer suspension, though it could also have been normal performance
variance between the two virtually identical GM pickups -- indicating
any truck we test could have just had a bad day.
The 3.92-equipped Dodge
Ram did well. It finished only 1.08 seconds behind the Sierra. In fact,
it was only a half-second behind the GM and Toyota pickups through the
first 430 feet lugging the 6,500-pound sled, but as soon as it shifted
into 2nd it lost momentum as the engine lugged against the relatively
tall gear. It did beat the Titan, however, which topped the Ram during
the level quarter-mile while pulling the trailer.
The biggest surprise
was the F-150. We suspected it might repeat its sixth-place finish from
the level-ground tests, but instead it earned the fifth spot by edging
out the Titan. The F-150’s traction control and tow/haul mode combined
to out-finesse and hold peak power longer than the Titan. The Titan’s
wheels had significant slip at launch, while the F-150’s had less than
the Titan’s. Some axle-wrap showed up again, like it did during the
level-ground unloaded testing, but it was a nuisance that disappeared
soon after the F-150 started climbing. Also surprising was that the
F-150 continued to coast up the hill -- not immediately lose power and
momentum -- after we let off the accelerator. It’s part of Ford’s new
torque converter lockup strategy that cuts off fuel but leaves the
torque converter engaged longer to improve fuel economy.
it’s easy to understand why we did quarter-mile and hill-climb
acceleration testing, some might wonder why we ran half-ton pickups
through an autocross course.
The answer is that we
needed to push these trucks to the extreme to test their ride, handling
and stability-control capabilities in slalom conditions, hard stops, 90-
and 180-degree turns, and rapid, tight maneuvers. This provided an idea
of how the trucks might react to emergency or adverse road conditions.
In a world where cars and crossovers are getting smaller, it’s best if
you can avoid these vehicles in critical situations, not run over them.
A minimum of three runs
were carried out in each truck, unloaded, by the same driver, in
two-wheel drive with traction control enabled. The quickest lap time
determined the best-performing truck.
The Silverado and F-150
tied for the best time and highest speed through the autocross, at 48.64
seconds and 30.21 mph. The Silverado’s handling was deemed excellent,
with only mild oversteer at the apex of turns under hard braking. There
was slight body roll in the corners, but less so than in most of the
other pickups. The Silverado’s braking was both very responsive and very
though the Silverado has a 93-horsepower advantage and weighs 280 pounds
less than the F-150, the F-150’s stability control system felt better
tuned and dialed-in at all times. The F-150 handled similarly to the
Silverado, but with less body roll and a stiffer ride. Braking was very
responsive and powerful, but with lots of travel in the brake pedal. The
F-150’s tires are slightly wider (275 mm versus 265 mm) than the
Silverado’s, potentially giving the F-150 better grip around turns.
We were surprised the
Titan was only the third-fastest in the autocross, at 48.81 seconds and
30.11 mph. The chatter from almost every tester who flogged the Titan
was that this truck felt the most confident of all the half-tons. Its
seating position, ride height, visibility, power and braking made the
Titan fun to drive around the cones. Handling was very good, with only
mild understeer. In corners, the truck’s open rear differential
(electronic locking) left one rear wheel spinning through tight turns,
while acceleration coming out was nearly perfect. The brakes were very
responsive and brought the Titan to a stop promptly.
Some of us had very
high expectations for the new Dodge Ram’s coil-spring rear running gear.
The multilink suspension handles vertical and lateral forces with better
control and less friction than the traditional leaf-spring rear ends the
other pickups had. It turned out to be the fourth-fastest truck, at
48.94 seconds and 30.03 mph. The Ram handled similarly to the F-150 and
Silverado, but with the most oversteer of the three. The front
suspension dived noticeably entering the hardest curves. Surprisingly,
it was a challenge on some of the corners to keep on the accelerator
without the back end breaking loose. Braking felt similar to the F-150
and Silverado, and the steering felt remarkably close to the Silverado.
Tundra finished fifth, at 49.12 seconds and 29.92 mph. The two most
critical comments were about the overly intrusive traction-control
alarms in the cabin and large amounts of understeer and body roll in
turns. Acceleration was also challenging because the stability-control
system kept cutting throttle in its attempts to recover the truck on
behalf of the driver.
Most surprising of all
was the GMC Sierra, which finished last. We thought its stiffer offroad
shocks might give it an edge over the Silverado, but it turned out to be
2.2 seconds and 1.3 mph slower. Acceleration out of corners seemed
delayed and sluggish at times. Braking was comparable to the F-150,
Silverado and Ram.
brake test was the simplest test we performed. We accelerated each truck
to 60 mph then fully applied the brakes to find out which truck would
stop in the shortest distance. We ran each truck a minimum of three
times, unloaded, in two-wheel drive with traction and stability control
enabled. The best stopping distance determined the winner.
It’s not surprising
that the Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan had the best braking scores.
They have the largest brakes available in the segment, though the Tundra
really stood out from all the other trucks; it stopped 7 feet shorter
than the Titan.
we saw a dramatic difference in how the Silverado and Sierra performed
relative to each other. The Sierra had the longest braking distance of
all the trucks tested, 15.4 feet longer than the third-place Silverado.
We don’t think the Sierra’s more aggressive rear shocks were the only
reason for this gap, but we’re at a loss to figure out where the rest of
the difference came from, given the wheels, tires and powertrains were
identical, and we only measured a 40-pound curb-weight difference
between the trucks.
The stopping distances
of the second- and fifth-place trucks were only about 8 feet apart –
incredibly close – versus a nearly 24-foot difference between the first-
and sixth-place trucks.