Buying a truck can be a lesson on the paradox of choice, which says that happiness is inversely proportional to the number of options available. Fewer options = more blissful shopping, basically. Now, consider the the Ford F-150, which offers six different engines, seven trim levels, three different cabs and three bed configurations. And will that be two-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive? That's some heavy-duty decision making. Well, we're here to help. We won't parse every option package on every truck, but we've driven them all and these are the best versions—trim levels, engine, important options—for six of the most popular pickups you can buy right now.
How We Test
Our editorial team drives everything, putting trucks to work hauling, towing and off-roading. And, of course, we evaluate them in the context in which trucks are found, most of the time—as a rugged stand-in for a car or crossover, schlepping to the grocery store or school drop-off line with nary a 15-ton trailer in tow.
Usually, we try to drive a truck the way it was designed to be: rock-crawling with a Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, flying off Baja-style berms in the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, towing with the top down in a Jeep Gladiator. We also like to push the limits. A Ram Rebel isn't really made to catch air, but its four-corner air suspension handled an unscheduled trip skyward without complaint. And the pallet of sod we hauled in an F-150 probably would have been better suited to an F-250, but we wanted to see what happens when you challenge the payload rating on a half-ton truck. (The steering gets a little bit light, but otherwise all is well.)
Instead of naming the best truck in specific segments, like horsepower, we chose our favorite truck from each manufacturer, across entire lineups. That's because there's such a huge spread of variety in the truck world and segments are so ferociously benchmarked from company to company that one truck might have five more horsepower than another—till next week, when the volley goes back the other way. Put another way, the Nissan Titan wouldn't win a half-ton truck comparison test, but there are nevertheless good reasons to buy a Nissan Titan. And those reasons might be relevant to you, so we're going to explain them.
Some of you might be wondering why, if we're picking a truck from each company, there is no GMC. Well, that's because Chevy and GMC are effectively the same company, with minor variations in their trucks. (Whether you prefer a Silverado Trail Boss or a Sierra AT4 is a matter of taste rather than function.) And, on the Honda Ridgeline: If you want a Honda Ridgeline, you're going to get one. If you don't want a Honda Ridgeline, we're not going to talk you into it.
This roster is also a living thing, to be updated as new models bump out older ones, and entirely new companies (Rivian, Bollinger) join the market. The truck market used to be largely static, with individual models unchanged for decade-long runs. That's no longer the case, and new trucks keep pushing past the old strictures that said truck buyers are strictly traditionalist. Ford's got an aluminum body and turbocharged sixes. Ram's got air suspension and a mild hybrid system. Chevy has a suspension design shared with championship-winning Red Bull Racing Formula One cars. And the next revolution, electrification, is on the way. But for now, here are our six picks from across the current truck market.
Ram 1500 3.6 eTorque
Base Price: $33,590 | Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 305 hp, 269 lb-ft of torque | Belt starter-generator: 12 hp, 90 lb-ft of torque | Transmission: 8-speed automatic
The Ram 1500's standard engine isn’t an afterthought, but an advanced setup it its own right. The Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 makes 305 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque, the same as it did in the previous-generation truck (which is still in production under the name Ram Classic). But now it's paired with a 48-volt mild hybrid system that uses a lithium battery and a beefy starter-generator to ladle on 90 lb-ft of torque off the line. The system can also recapture energy during braking and contributes to an EPA combined fuel economy rating as high as 23 mpg for the HFE trim (the same rating earned by the prior model's diesel model). And that engine is paired to the ZF8 transmission, a box o'gears that's used in everything from Range Rovers to Rolls-Royces. Not bad for a base powertrain.
Since, sensibly, Ram understands that many buyers won't feel the need to upgrade to the Hemi V8 or the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel, the Pentastar is available with most all of the goodies as the other engines. Which means you can get heated and cooled front and rear seats, a 12-inch touchscreen, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, and height-adjustable air suspension without opting for a different engine. Truck buyers are supposed to be traditionalists, ornery about change, but the Ram's polish and sophistication are winning it new fans: Through the first nine months of the year, the Ram moved into position as second highest-selling vehicle in the U.S., behind the Ford F150.
Ford F150 3.5 EcoBoost
Base price: $37,415 | Engine: 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged V6, 375 hp, 470 lb-ft of torque | Transmission: 10-speed automatic | Max tow rating: 13,200 pounds
The F150 is available with six different engines, ranging from a base 3.3-liter V6 to a 450-horsepower turbocharged 3.5-liter monster. The standard 3.5-liter EcoBoost, though, is what you want. With 375 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque running through a 10-speed transmission, a 3.5 EcoBoost F150 is an astoundingly quick truck. It's also the towing champ of the lineup, maxing at more than 13,000 pounds. While the uprated 450-horsepower 3.5-liter is only available on the Raptor and the super-luxe Limited, the standard-issue engine can be specified on a work-spec XL trim, a sub-$38,000 truck that would be a tire-smoking riot. The only real demerit to the 3.5 is Ford's questionable decision to pipe in synthetic engine noises through the truck's sound system—when you get on the throttle, you hear fake V8 rumble blasting out the speakers. Listen, Ford, if we wanted the V8 we would have ordered it.
Aside from the beefy power, the F150 is otherwise a solid truck. Its aluminum body is still an exclusive and it offers all the doodads and frippery the modern pickup driver demands. But if you want to balance your need for creature comforts with your need to retire someday, the Lariat model gives you access to the prime goodies (adaptive cruise, heated steering wheel, Bang & Olufsen sound) without straying too far into F250 price territory.
Chevy Colorado ZR2 3.6
Base price: $44,490 | Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 308 hp, 275 lb-ft of torque | Transmission: 8-speed automatic | Suspension: Multimatic DSSV
Until Ford brings us the Ranger Raptor (or is it the Raptor Ranger?), the ZR2 has a monopoly on desert-ready midsize trucks. If you need one off-roader to do it all, this is the truck. Its suspension is from Multimatic, a race shop best known for exotic track-ready systems. Or, that's what it was known for, before GM began enlisting Multimatic to build incredibly dialed-in DSSV (Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve) suspensions for flagship models like the Camaro Z28 and the Colorado ZR2. Compared to the standard Colorado, the ZR2 gets a two-inch suspension lift and a 3.5-inch wider track. The underbody is protected by skid plates and there are rock rails under the doors. You can also get a Bison version with even heavier bumpers from American Expedition Vehicles, but why add weight when you’re already armored like an MRAP?
The Multimatic suspension doesn’t feature the lavish travel of, say, the Raptor’s Fox setup, but it doesn't need it. You can pound a ZR2 over rhythmic bumps that send the front end off the ground and it'll somehow soak it all up with grace. But the really killer app is the ZR2's front and rear locking differentials, which mean that the truck can also handle the kind of technical, demanding trails that were heretofore the exclusive domain of the Wrangler Rubicon. But you wouldn’t want to fly a Rubicon. The ZR2 does it all.
The ZR2 is available with either a 3.6-liter V6 or a four-cylinder diesel that offers 369 lb-ft of torque. The latter choice sounds impossibly badass, and it would be—for specific missions, like rock-crawling or overlanding. Problem is, the diesel is slow. Like, really slow. We once took one down a drag strip for a quarter-mile pass and we're surprised we’re not still there. There's just no getting around the fact that the diesel is down 127 horsepower compared to the standard 308-hp V6, which is also $3,500 less expensive and has two extra gears in its transmission. If you want a desert racer, it may as well be fast. Stick with the V6.
-BEST LONG-TERM BUY-
Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro
Base price: $45,020 | Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 278 hp, 265 lb-ft of torque | Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic
Why would we recommend the most expensive version of a truck? Because this is a Tacoma, and the up-front price isn’t as relevant as it would be for almost any other vehicle. That's because Tacomas enjoy ridiculously high resale value, retaining about 70 percent of their original value after three years. So, as opposed to the catch-a-falling-knife depreciation schedule of most vehicles, you can live large in a Tacoma without worrying that you’re feeding cash into the office shredder. Therefore, may as well have some fun, right? And on that front, the TRD Pro rules the Tacoma lineup, with throaty cat-back exhaust, Fox internal-bypass shocks, a one-inch suspension lift and Kevlar-reinforced Goodyear off-road tires. And you can hit the trail without a spotter, since the truck includes an array of cameras that can show you exactly where that rock is in relation to your left front tire.
The Tacoma got a refresh for 2020, bringing a restyled front end and some minor yet worthwhile tweaks—for instance, the TRD Pro's 16-inch wheels are each about four pounds lighter than the 2019 model's, and taking weight out of the wheels should make a noticeable change in the truck's responsiveness. And the Tacoma is one of the few trucks that still offers a six-speed manual transmission, which is standard on the TRD Pro.
Jeep Gladiator Sport S Max Tow Soft Top
Base price: $35,040 (Gladiator Sport) | Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 285 hp, 260 lb-ft of torque | Transmission: 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic
The Gladiator is so damn cool that we forgive its Wrangler-related crudities—slow steering, solid front axle, noise—because its Wrangler qualities also make it wonderful. Hey, if you want a better four-door convertible pickup truck, go find another one. The Gladiator also features easily removable doors and a windshield that folds down. It's a rare combination of whimsical fun and everyday usefulness, a workhorse that doubles as a weekend toy. Like the Wrangler, there are roughly five million ways you can configure a Gladiator, so allow us to opine on the hot setup.
First of all, manual or automatic? If you want your Gladiator to tow as much as possible, that's a foregone conclusion, since the Max Tow package is only available with the ZF eight-speed transmission. Normally, forsaking a manual is a capitulation, but the ZF is so good we'd probably recommend it anyway (despite the $2,000 price for that option).
For the top, you’ll want the premium soft top. As with the Wrangler, there will no doubt be a lot of Gladiators running around with hard tops. Which, yes, will provide a quieter cabin. But the whole point of a Gladiator is to enjoy its open-air capabilities, and you just won’t be able to do that with the hard top. Where are you going to store it? Who’s going to help? Forget about that. Pop two latches on the windshield, stand on the running board and fold the soft-top back past the rear seats. It takes five seconds. You'll do it all the time.
Now, about that Max Tow package. A manual-transmission Gladiator maxes out at 4,000 pounds. An Overland tops out at 6,000 pounds. The Rubicon can tow 7,000 pounds. But the hottest setup is the Sport S Max Tow, which uses the Rubicon's heavy-duty axles and 4.10 final-drive ratio, minus the locking differentials, to arrive at a 7,650-pound tow rating. Like the Rubicon, the Max Tow is a little bit wider than other Gladiators, with the fenders extended to over the extra track. That alone is good reason to go for the Max Tow—the widebody look, even if it's subtle, is a worthy aspiration. And unless you're actually driving across the Rubicon trail, you're better off not daily-driving a Rubicon, with its super-aggressive tires and expensive diffs and disconnectable front sway bar.
There you go. Top-down trailering: this is how you do it.
2020 Nissan Titan Pro-4X
Base price: $48,505 (Pro-4X) | Engine: 5.6-liter V8, 400 hp, 413 lb-ft of torque | Transmission: 9-speed automatic | Warranty: 5 years/100,000 miles
The semi-heavy-duty Titan xD gets all the attention, since it's an object of debate—what, exactly, differentiates a half-ton from a three-quarter-ton truck? But unless you regularly tow a trailer that weighs around 10,000 pounds, you can ignore that question and zero in on the straight-up regular-duty Titan. Nissan only offers one engine, but it's a seriously good one, a 5.6-liter V8 that's upgraded for 2020, now cranking out 400 horsepower and 413 lb-ft of torque. That stout V8 runs through a transmission with two extra gears, for a total of nine, and the new engine/transmission combo knocks a second off the truck's 50-to-70 mph time. And maybe most important, from a sales standpoint, the Titan got a much-needed front-end restyle. There are also three different grille designs between different trim levels, so choose your own adventure there.
The Pro-4X gives you an electronic locking rear differential, Bilstein off-road shocks, a skid plate and all-terrain tires. It's not an all-out off-road machine, but it's not priced like it, either. (The 2019 model cost $48,505.) That's the Titan’s strong point: value across the line. Do a quick search, and you see that advertised prices for Titans start in the mid-$20,000s—and that's for a V8-powered truck, since it's the only engine they build. Nissan also offers a five-year, 100,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, making the Titan particularly appealing if you log a lot of miles.
Since the introduction of the first-gen Titan, it's been an esoteric choice compared to the Big Three and the Toyota Tundra. But essentially, they pay you to make that choice, offering a big warranty and lots of horsepower for the money. It’s a question of whether you take them up on it.
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