Pay Dirt. Kicking dust and taking names: Gunning for the top truck. BY PATRICK BEDARD, PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEFFREY G. RUSSELL What’s happening with trucks? Four doors, that’s what. The four-door share of light-duty-pickup sales has zoomed from zero in 1999 to half of all light-duties sold today. These trucks, also called “half-tons,” are full-sizers meant for ordinary use, everything from delivering refrigerators and towing bass boats to standing tall on Saturday night in the honky-tonk parking lot. Half-tons are as American as Levi’s and John Deeres. For model year 2007, we have two all-new players. After an eight-year run on the previous version, Chevy’s new Silverado arrived last autumn just in time to host late-season tailgate parties. And the long-awaited full-size Tundra should be in Toyota dealerships near you as you read this. Ford has been the perennial top-seller in this class. Its current F-150 was all-new in 2004, and it earned a place in our 5Best Trucks pantheon in ’04, ’05, and ’06. The full-dress FX4 SuperCrew for this test weighs in at $40,650 with leather and the largest-available, 300-hp V-8. Pickups may be as American as Sam Colt’s six-shooter, but it was Japan’s Nissan Titan that grabbed the top prize in our last comparison of this class in February 2004. Japan’s pickup? The Titan is built only in Canton, Mississippi, making it about as American as fried catfish. The defending Titan SE reporting in for this test, at $39,005, is the only truck of the group to duck under 40 grand as tested. From Dodge we have a Ram, as red as a fire truck — would you believe Flame Red? — packing a Hemi V-8, of course. Like the F-150 and the Titan, the Ram carries over into 2007 with few changes from last year. The new Silverado offers two different interiors, what Chevy calls the “pure pickup” layout, with a 40/20/40 split-bench front seat, or the luxurious LTZ bucket-seat package shared with the Tahoe SUV. The test LTZ has leather, a sunroof, and power-sliding rear glass along with 20-inch alloy wheels, wearing 275/55 Goodyear Eagles, and a 367-hp Vortec V-8. We tested these trucks about four months before the Tundra’s debut. Our leather-lined preproduction truck was powered by the larger of two V-8s, the 381-hp 5.7-liter, backed by a six-speed automatic. Let’s just say this about the scrappy all-aluminum four-cammer: Toyota didn’t bring a knife to the gunfight. The Tundra, like all the other trucks here, is a four-by-four with trailer-towing equipment. In search of expert insights about trucks, we brought in a blue-ribbon panel. Building contractors famously wear pickups like UPS drivers wear brown. So we recruited a pair of high-mileage builders from the scenic town of Sedona, Arizona. Marvin James hung up his hammer last summer after 46 years of pickups dating back to a three-quarter-ton Studebaker. Ethan Foster’s conservationist sensitivities show in the weathered, early-’80s paint of the signs that mark his jobs. Both of these men work out of heavy-duty diesel four-by-fours. The half-tonners assembled here are designed for lighter loads, but our expectations — and those of our panel — were no less demanding. Fifth Place: 2007 Ford F-150 FX4 4x4 Supercrew There’s a handsome, Steve Canyon look about the F-150, a chiseled shape that promises trusty American virtues. It drives all grown up and sensible, too, a diplomatic way of saying it never smiles. Ford penciled out the F-150 so that it is, by a fraction, the shortest truck here, 6.1 inches shorter than the longest, the Silverado. That shortness is further divided into a relatively long cab and a shorty bed, only 67.0 inches long. Nissan has made the same trade. As a result, the F-150 and the Titan are roomy in the passenger compartment, with real stretch-out space in back. The Ford’s rear seat, and the posture it encourages, is easily the best of the group. When you fold up the seat cushion to maximize cargo space, you see what looks like a toolbox already bolted to the floor. It’s the optional subwoofer, a bad idea for a work truck. Up front, you sit tall above the dashboard looking down on the hood. On the doors, the window sills are cut low in front, opening a big view toward the mirrors. The front buckets are wide and fairly flat, hospitable to Dickies of every waist size. This truck feels heavy. The scale groans to 5761 pounds, heaviest of the bunch, although only 5.3 percent above the lightest, the Nissan. Ford’s 300 horses are weak ones, too, making the F-150 the hindmost in acceleration — 0 to 60 takes 8.8 seconds. On rough roads, the structure flexes noticeably more than the newly engineered Chevy and Toyota. Both contractors confirmed our last-place ranking. They rated the cab’s storage bins as so-so. The F-150 has exceptionally high bed sides; depending on what you haul, that could be good, but the wide flange at the top makes reaching over the side impossible for average guys. And they both dismiss the 67.0-inch bed — it’s too short. Not enough hauler, this Ford. Highs: Limo space back in the crew department, plush interior details, throne-like front buckets. Lows: Shaky steering column, weak engine, torpid handling, heavy understeer when the going gets brisk. The Verdict: Plush inside, not much load space behind: think passenger truck. Fourth Place: 2007 Dodge Ram 1500 Sport 4x4 Quad Cab We weren’t smitten by the Ram. Its body is jiggly over the rough, the steering is slack on center, the interior is Kmart shiny plastic, and climbing up to the lofty cab is work. Hemi power keeps acceleration in the hunt, 7.9 seconds to 60 mph, far ahead of the Ford, but the others outmuscle this Dodge. Cornering ranks in the class’s bottom half, braking is average. These are car-guy measures, but they count. The contractors care about power; they drive turbo-diesels for a reason. But they see the Ram’s relatively long bed, 76.3 inches, nearly 10 more than the shorty Ford and Nissan. And they see the clever storage details of the cab. Game over. The Ram wins. If hauling is your top priority and you need a traveling office besides, the Ram is your truck. The Dodge factory bedliner is superb; it doesn’t hide the tie-downs deep in hard-to-reach recesses. The cleats are proud of the walls, low and fully exposed. Cleats are better than the loops of all the other trucks, says contractor James; you can loop or hook to them. The cab, too, is a masterpiece of stowage versatility. The center console is a two-story affair. Its upper compartment, pivoting on hinges, tilts up for access to the lower bin. Brilliant. The hinges for the upper tier, and for the armrest/lid, are satisfyingly rigid. Three cup holders and numerous trays complete the setup. The Ram and the Tundra have similarly large door bins. “I keep 10 pounds of tools in there,” says contractor Foster. Both men agree that in the trade-off between a long bed and spacious rear-seat area, they’ll take the latter. They rarely have second-row passengers, but the weatherproof, lockable space it provides is essential. And the Ram does that space best, with its fold-flat cargo floor and secure tool compartments below. Clearly, this is the trucker’s truck. Highs: Control-tower view from the seat, quick-reflex engine, clever paraphernalia places in the cab. Lows: Need an elevator for boarding, quivery structure, Kmart-cheap interior plastic. The Verdict: Excellent storage and tie-down details make this a trucker's truck. Third Place: 2007 Toyota Tundra 4x4 Double Cab Think muscle and sinew. This new Tundra, packing 401 pound-feet of torque and the TRD off-road suspension, is really in a class of its own when you want to hustle, on any kind of road. Acceleration is exhilarating: 0 to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds and the only one of the group to top 90 mph in the quarter-mile (14.9 seconds at 94 mph). Against a curb weight of 5680, that’s a feat. The lusty 5.7-liter V-8 redlines at 5900 rpm and teams with a quick-thinking six-speed automatic for right-now response when you push go. The TRD chassis muscles are instantly apparent. The on-road ride is firmer than that of the others, seriously firm. You feel every impact, but you don’t hear them, such is the sophistication of this chassis. And it pays off in the outback: This Tundra dances over the chucks and humps with excellent control and no sense that it’s being abused. The Tundra’s bed measures 78.7 inches, longest of the bunch, earning nods of approval from the contractors. Only the F-150 has taller bed sides. The counterbalanced locking tailgate is a slick detail. From the muscular bulges of the fenders to the swooping contours of the dash, caution has been pushed into Tundra history. The column tilts and telescopes, a Toyota exclusive in this group. The instruments have brightly backlit markings on a black background. The test truck’s wide front seats, in Buster Brown brown leather, have power-adjustable thigh support. Both contractors ranked them highest for comfort. Rear passengers will enjoy the plush feel of the chair-height cushions. Under-seat storage is limited — the tire-changing tools got there first. The roomy center console measures nearly as wide as the Ram’s. The large compartment under the armrest has a separate bin for small stuff, easily removable if you prefer. An overhead console has four drop-down bins. Finally, a Toyota truck with no excuses. And it sure won’t need any. Highs: Major horsepower, supportive front buckets, slick slide-out mirrors, off-road chassis muscles. Lows: Front tow loops down in the mud, intrusive stability control, major understeer when you push. The Verdict: The muscle truck — no bully will kick sand in this Tundra's face. Second Place: 2007 Nissan Titan SE 4x4 Crew Cab If you want to delight a pair of high-desert pickup guys with pleasure beyond their imaginings, back the Titan up to the job site and invite them to drop the tailgate. Once unlatched, it goes weightless, tilting slowly toward horizontal with a perfectly damped sigh. Aaaah! This is a truck of delights, most of them sensual. It has an eager, sporty, frisky feel that’s backed up by commendable numbers at the test track. It’s quick to the throttle, hitting 60 mph in seven seconds flat, grooving around the skidpad at 0.72 g, tied at the top of the skidpad class with the Silverado. The Titan’s tail swings out easily, playfully, controllably, a big happy puppy. The steering is quick and effortless, as if to deny the 5470-pound curb weight. That’s light for a full-size four-by-four truck, best of the group. Like the F-150, this is a long-cab, short-bed interpretation. The rear doors open a wide space for easy entry, best of the group. Both the Nissan and the Chevy have assist handles at the front of the door openings and above. Rear passengers have nearly as much leg-stretching room as in the Ford. The Titan’s rear bench is unique — it can fold up or down to accommodate different cargo shapes. The 28-inch-wide glass slider at the rear powers down, widest of the group. The center console has a good arrangement of trays and bins, second to the Ram in versatility, with more compartments waiting up in the overhead console. The Titan ranks just behind the Silverado in ride smoothness. Exhaust rumble is a constant accompaniment, more prominent than wind roar even at freeway speeds. Off-road, the gloss drops away fast. The cab gets flexy-squeaky when pounded by bumps. After the leather of the Chevy, Ford, and Toyota, the Titan’s gray-fabric interior has an Avis-rental mood about it. This is a fun truck, made even more appealing by the lowest price of the group. Highs: Snorty engine, quick steering, neutral balance in the twisties, perfectly damped tailgate hinges. Lows: Squeaky-flexy over the rough stuff, exhaust roar never stops, jumpy throttle, short cargo bed. The Verdict: A lovable puppy of a truck, fun despite its imperfections. First Place: 2007 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LTZ 4x4 Crew Cab Looking for a Saturday-night truck? This Silverado was equipped just right for cruising, with the 6.0-liter V-8 and low-profile, 20-inch Goodyear Eagle LS-2 tires. Add the high-style LTZ trim, and you’re dressed for Gilley’s. Chevy did an excellent job on the basics. The body structure feels as rigid as a supreme-court decision, so squeaks and groans are rare. The ride is smooth, the steering is crisp, the brakes respond without slack. Even on rough dirt roads, the ride remained smoother than in the others. In our dry-pavement handling evaluations, the Silverado inspired the most driver confidence. The Goodyears’ brawny tread shoulder blocks grip decisively, predictably, earning top marks in braking and cornering. Acceleration was about average within this exceptionally powerful group. Fuel mileage on our 500-mile test trip was 12 mpg, 1 mpg behind the best. Out back, the bed is just over two inches longer than the Ford and Nissan shorties, far shorter than the Toyota and Dodge. Chevy, like Nissan, offers a rail system around the top of the bed; it serves as a track for movable tie-downs. The Silverado’s anodized-aluminum sliders are beautifully finished. This seems a great idea, but the contractors weren’t impressed. First, the tracks intrude into the load space; second, they’re positioned too high for loads that don’t rise above the bed. Other disappointments: No factory bedliner. Chevy lets its dealers pick this plum and pocket the profits. In the cab, headroom is tight; contractor Foster, at six feet six, had to duck his head even with the seat powered full down. Too little imagination was given to storage space. The door pockets are smallest of all. The compartment under the center armrest is devoid of pockets, clips, or dividers to organize the space: “The small stuff will fall to the bottom and never be seen again.” Let’s just agree that a perfect truck is hard to find, and we’ll drive the Silverado till we find it. Highs: Tightly responsive steering and brakes, rigid body structure, American-luxo interior styling, plush ride Lows: Cheesy mirrors, low and vulnerable plastic spoiler, wind noise, cockpit storage bins lack imagination. The Verdict: A sweet-driving pickup that's big on action, light on serious-hauler details.