2009 Midsize Pickup Truck Off-Road Comparison Test: Hummer H3T Alpha v. Nissan Frontier PRO-4X v. Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road
Words by: Dan Sanchez, Photos by: Brian Williams
You’ve seen the decals on the sides of 4x4 pickups that say FX4, ZR2, PRO-4X, Z71, TRD and more. These designate an off-road package, with the series of letters and numbers typically referring to the manufacturer’s regular production order build codes. A decal or badge doesn’t make a vehicle more capable; in fact, it doesn’t mean anything unless you know how the truck is different from standard models. If you look carefully at manufacturer’s build sheets, you’ll find that some “off-road equipment” includes lights on the bumper or a different set of shocks. Over time, consumer demands for real off-road accessories has led some OEMs to rethink how they should equip their trucks, and to consider off-road capability a priority over simple appearance items.
Manufacturers who have taken off-road packages seriously have included components that were typically only available as aftermarket upgrades. Items such as locking differentials, larger-diameter all-terrain tires, Bilstein performance shocks, progressive rate off-road-tuned springs, skid plates and increased ground clearance are some examples of what’s available in the better off-road packages out there. Trucks equipped with these components have the ability to take on moderate to extreme off-road trails, which gives new meaning to having a true dual-purpose pickup.
But can a few pieces of equipment make a big difference over standard four-wheel-drive models? Can they go anywhere a Jeep can? If so, are there any negative effects on normal street driving? These were the questions that urged us to put some of the best off-road packages to the test. Our criteria was to find midsize 4x4 trucks whose factory off-road options included more than simple appearance items and larger tires. We selected only trucks that came equipped with a rear locking differential. This option separates the boys from the men, allowing the vehicle to handle a higher technical level of off-road terrain, which greatly distinguishes its capabilities over standard 4x4 pickups in the same class.
Our test of these midsize 4x4 pickups put their suspension and rear locking differentials to the test.
Why is a locking differential important? Its reason for living -- and the origin of its name -- is to transfer power and torque from the engine to the wheels, while at the same time allowing the wheels to turn at different speeds. The wheels have to be able to rotate at different speeds especially when turning, because as you round a corner the inner wheel travels less distance than the outer wheel. If they didn't turn at different rates you would do a lot of damage to your tires, and turning your vehicle would be a whole lot harder. Something similar can be felt if you try to turn your steering wheel in a part-time four-wheel-drive pickup, but this “scrubbing” is actually caused by locking the front and rear axles together.
There are three types of differentials, and each is meant to help improve traction and driving control.
The simplest and most common is an open differential. Using a set of gears to direct torque, an open differential allows a spinning wheel to continue spinning, even when the opposite wheel on an axle won't spin at all. There is a drawback, however: An open differential always sends power to the wheel with the least traction. Traction is dependent on many factors, including the tires, contact surface and weather conditions. If maximum traction is your goal, consider anything but an open differential.
An alternative is a limited-slip differential. A limited-slip diff allows some slippage to occur up to a certain point between the spin rates of the two wheels before it attempts to direct torque to the wheel with the greater traction. It does that by limiting slip on the wheel with the least traction. This solution gives the driver better control of the truck, especially through quick turns. Limited-slip diffs may use only gears to handle torque transfer or, more commonly, a set of clutch and friction plates. Another solution is a ”virtual” limited-slip differential, which uses the trucks’ antilock braking system to brake slipping wheels.
A cutaway diagram of the electric locking rear differential in the Hummer H3T
The last type is the locking differential. Locking diffs act like a solid link between the two wheels. It typically requires manual input by means of a dash mounted switch that actuates an electronic mechanism or air pressure activated mechanism, locking the gears together. This ensures power is sent equally to both wheels at all times. Unless the axle itself starts to slip and you don't have a center differential between the front and rear axles, locking differentials can get you out of most sticky off-road situations.
Three 2009 pickup trucks impressed us with their off-road equipment, meeting our criteria of incorporating a locking rear differential while adding other impressive upgrades. These were the Nissan Frontier PRO-4X, Toyota Tacoma TRD-Off Road, and the Hummer H3T Alpha with the Off Road Adventure Package. While these are all midsize trucks, we realize there are some apples and oranges in the mix. The Nissan and Toyota are about equal in size, towing capacity and V-6 engine performance, and they have comparable off-road packages. The Hummer H3T Alpha, however, is a bit more truck than the imports. It’s based on GM’s midsize truck platform, with similar towing capacity to the Nissan and Toyota trucks, but it has more off-road features and it was the only vehicle in our test equipped with a V-8. Nevertheless, it fit our test criteria and we included it anyway. While we weren’t trying to find a winner, we were anxious to see how well these trucks perform over difficult terrain, and to test the performance levels of the options offered. Keep in mind that these vehicles are also pricier than the standard 4x4 models due to the extra options added in their respective off-road packages. Nonetheless, we discovered some good values within the mix.
Nissan Frontier PRO-4X
Ground clearance was important to get over some of the small ledges we maneuvered the trucks over. The Nissan had the lowest ground clearance but managed to perform admirably.
This truck and its sister, the new 2009 Suzuki Equator RMZ-4, share the exact same platform, which has already won acclaim from our colleagues. It’s easy to see why, as the Nissan Frontier PRO-4X was the only truck in our test whose off-road package included leather seating with an eight-way-adjustable power driver seat and a four-way power passenger seat. The truck utilizes a coil spring, independent, double-wishbone front suspension and a solid axle rear with multi-leaf springs and Bilstein high-pressure mono-tube shocks. The package sounds very capable and helps give the vehicle 8.9 inches of ground clearance.
The Frontier is powered by a 261-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6 with 281pounds-feet of torque. That’s plenty of power that can be applied to the five-speed automatic transmission, which drives 265/75R16 BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires. The PRO-4X package also features skid plates to protect the oil pan, transfer case and fuel tank. In addition, this Frontier incorporates an optional Traction Package that includes Hill Start Assist, which allows the driver to move his foot from the brake to the accelerator on a steep hill without the vehicle rolling back. The package also includes Descent Assist, which allows the vehicle to descend slowly down a steep hill without constantly having to depress the brake. But that’s not all: The PRO-4X includes an abundance of comfort and convenience items like XM Satellite Radio, a Rockford Fosgate stereo, integrated Bluetooth hands-free cell phone controls in the steering wheel, dual subwoofers and more. With all this, it comes in at $33,765, as-tested. It’s a lot of truck for a moderate bit of cash.
Toyota Tacoma TRD Off Road
The Toyota Tacoma also handled climbing up and over ledges well.
At $31,904 (as-tested), the Tacoma was the least expensive truck in our comparison. Its lower price however, doesn’t mean it’s any less off-road-capable. Utilizing an independent double wishbone front suspension and a solid axle, multi-leaf rear, the TRD package, which stands for Toyota Racing Development, includes a set of Bilstein shocks and 16-inch rims with 265/70R16 BFGoodrich tires. All Tacoma 4x4 models have excellent ground clearance of 9.3 inches, which more than makes up for their Spartan silver and black interior. The cloth seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel weren’t added to impress, but our test model did come with some nice optional features that we didn’t expect. These included XM Satellite Radio, a JBL stereo system with a six-disc CD changer, integrated Bluetooth and a backup camera that displays in the rearview mirror. Nice!
Also equipped with a 4.0-liter V-6 engine, the Tacoma puts out 236 hp and 266 pounds-feet of torque. Despite having less power than the Nissan and the Hummer, the Tacoma did have a class IV hitch, skid plates, Downhill Assist Control and Hill Start Assist, making the TRD Off Road Package an excellent value that concentrates on performance rather than appearance. Yet the Tacoma is still a good-looking truck, with its body-colored bumpers and chromed grille surround in front, which gives the Tacoma a sporty appearance on and off the highway. Our test truck was also equipped with an optional Tow Package that added supplemental oil and transmission coolers and a seven-pin trailer connector.
Hummer H3T Alpha w/Off Road Adventure Package
The H3T, on the other hand, simply scoffed at each challenge we put it through, taking everything with ease.
It’s hard to compare the Hummer H3T with other midsize trucks, but this vehicle definitely earned its way into our test with its off-road ability. Standard H3Ts come with a 3.7-liter inline-five-cylinder engine, but the Alpha comes with a 5.3-liter V-8 that’s rated at 300 hp and 320 pounds-feet of torque. While the H3T is a very capable off-road truck, our test model came with an optional Off Road Adventure Package. It features rear and front locking differentials and larger 33-inch 285/75R16 Bridgestone tires mounted on aluminum alloy wheels.
The H3T utilizes GM’s tried and true short long arm front suspension with torsion bars, along with a solid rear axle suspended by multi-leaf springs at the rear. Furthermore, it sports a set of GM mono-tube, gas-filled shocks that are specifically tuned for off-road performance and help give the vehicle a total of 10.2 inches of ground clearance.
Our H3T came with a leather interior, a sunroof and Alpha badges on the dash and upholstery. We’d have preferred more refinement in the instrument panel and door surfaces; the plastic bits seemed a bit cheaper than the other trucks. Another nice feature on the H3T was that it came with front and rear D-rings, allowing owners to attach tow straps or any other off-road assist device to the frame with ease. While the vehicle has many nicer amenities and off-road accessories to boast about, the price as-tested came in at a pricey $43,220, making us more anxious to find out if the Adventure Package is real and not hype.
The Berdoo Canyon trail is a deeply carved-out river wash that has plenty of eroded steep hills, rocky ledges and a combination of sandy and hard-packed surfaces.
Despite some differences in ride, articulation, traction and access to controls, each vehicle performed at a level that impressed us in various situations during our test. We started out with a one-and-a-half-hour highway jaunt that took us from Los Angeles to the northeastern outskirts of Palm Springs. An inconspicuous road right off the interstate would lead us to the trailhead of Berdoo Canyon. As you enter the area from the paved road, it’s littered with empty shotgun shells and brass from locals who head there for shooting practice. A large drop-off acts like a cattle-grate, though, keeping passenger cars from entering and allowing only trucks to continue onward. Once the road turns from packed dirt to river rock, you need to switch to 4-High in order to maneuver around larger obstacles and soft dirt patches that might hinder two-wheel-drive vehicles.
Along the way, the canyon gave us areas where we could ascend steep rain- and off-highway-vehicle-eroded hills that required good traction and a slow, steady pace to avoid slipping backward. Steep descents not only tested the vehicle’s Descent Assist systems, but because of several deep, eroded pockets along the path, they also fully articulated the trucks’ suspensions. This gave us a good indication of frame stiffness, as well as a visual indication of the vehicle’s total wheel travel. It’s also a good way to test the locking rear differential, because we were able to exercise all the trucks’ maximum wheel travel, or the point where one wheel lost contact with the ground.
Further north on the Berdoo Canyon trail, there’s a series of narrow, boulder-laden paths and ledges that required us to shift the trucks into 4-Low and engage the rear locking differentials to climb over them. While the rocks weren’t large enough to scrape the trucks’ undersides, you could get high-centered if you weren’t on the right approach angle. The final gauntlet along our path was a short series of rocky ledges that definitely had to be done in low-range. But with rear locking differentials, we expected to go over this mild-sized rock quarry with ease and find out how much easier it is to maneuver with the vehicles’ off-road gear.
Once we passed this last test, the trail led down into an open valley that allowed us to travel at higher speeds across a hard-packed, washboard dirt road that ultimately rewarded us with a panoramic view of the valley below. Further down, large boulders reflected the sunset and the Joshua trees along the way seemed to welcome us with open arms. It was here that we entered Joshua Tree National Park and got back on the pavement, ultimately to head through the park and get back onto the interstate to end our day.
Just because a 4x4 truck is outfitted with a special off-road package, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it sacrifices highway and towing capabilities. It’s a false assumption to think that high-pressure, mono-tube shocks make the ride stiffer. On the other hand, it improves handling, and both the Frontier and Toyota rode smoothly on the interstate. Of the three, the Tacoma had the least noticeable freeway hop, while it was a little more pronounced in the Frontier. Nonetheless, they were both more comfortable in this situation than the H3T Alpha. Its longer wheelbase significantly amplified freeway oscillations when traveling over Los Angeles’ notorious roadway expansion joints, making it borderline uncomfortable in some situations. Once we reached less battered areas of highway, the H3T rode smoothly and handled corners well. In fact, despite the larger tires used on all the trucks, they all remained flat during high-speed cornering, with minimal body roll and tire deflection.
Although our trucks were outfitted with the manufacturers' off-road packages, that didn't seem to affect their highway ride too harshly. Some freeway hop and beaming occurred, and it was felt most strongly in the H3T Alpha due to its longer wheelbase.
Once on the trail, we switched the vehicles from two-wheel drive to 4-High. Making the transition is very easy, as all are capable of doing so on the fly. The H3T does it automatically, while the Frontier and Tacoma require the turn of a dash-mounted switch. In 4-High range, all the vehicles were easy to steer, but precision maneuvers varied from vehicle to vehicle, depending on cab design. The H3T, although one of the most capable of the bunch, was harder to position, as the gun-slit windows, door pillar and seat position block your view in critical areas. The Frontier was easier to view forward and out the door for precise wheel placement, but the Tacoma had the best view, as you sit closer to the door, allowing you to easily look out and place the front tires wherever you need them.
Once we got into the more challenging areas, the H3T easily soaked up everything the canyon had to offer. During a steep downhill descent, the H3T’s stiff chassis lifted the rear passenger tire off the ground when the front left tire plopped into a deeply eroded pocket. While the teetering may have felt uncomfortable in some trucks, we felt totally confident in the H3T, and it proceeded to head down the slope at a slow, steady pace. Both the Tacoma and Frontier got to use their Hill Descent Assist, making it easy to coast down as automatic application of the brakes controlled the speed and gave the driver complete confidence in the truck’s agility.
Sporting a little more ground clearance than the Frontier, the Tacoma managed to get up this hill with good articulation at a steady pace, thanks to Hill Ascent Assist.
Heading back up the hill was another matter. While the H3T scoffed at the challenge, the Tacoma found it a little difficult. Nevertheless, it made it up at a slow, steady pace, partly due to the good ground clearance, articulation and Hill Assist system. The Frontier, on the other hand, didn’t have enough ride height or articulation to make it through the pit halfway up the hill, where it began to spin its wheels. We had to intervene and place a rock in the center of the pit, allowing the Frontier’s right rear tire enough traction to make it back up.
At the most difficult part of the trail, we locked the rear differentials on all the vehicles and crawled up the small rock ledge one at a time. We were impressed that all the trucks made it up the trail slow and easy, but while the H3T remained solid and straight, the Tacoma had a tendency to pitch and yaw over the rocks. The Frontier also had good control over the rocks, and its stiff frame kept the vehicle straight and agile through this final obstacle.
While these suspensions are tuned for off-road performance, you can often find some minor sacrifices in other areas. For example, the washboard road leading into Joshua Tree National Park provided plenty of high oscillations that let the H3T drift across some of the turns a little too easily, even at 20-30 mph. At one point, we thought one of our drivers was doing this on purpose, but we came to find out that the vehicle’s rear let loose several times. In the meantime, the Tacoma held its ground well and found itself loose in only a couple of tight corners, but never enough to require steering correction from the driver. The Frontier also felt smooth and stable over the hard-packed washboard road. Despite speeds in excess of 30 mph, this truck was the only one that remained steady and sure-footed, never causing any concern for the driver.
Some higher speeds on washboard-rutted roads offered surprising results. Both the H3T Alpha and the Tacoma had problems maintaining traction during the corners at 20-30 mph. More weight in the rear, or the shocks improving their rebound, could prevent the rear axle from wanting to swing out.
The H3T is by far one of the most impressive off-road vehicles we tested. It feels like a heavy truck because it’s so solid, but it’s agile enough to take on just about anything. We loved the Alpha model’s stance, great looks, utilitarian features, multiple amenities and comfort, but the high you get from the excellent features and V-8 power comes to a sobering halt once you get to the pump. On our test, the H3T Alpha averaged 14.5 mpg, but we wouldn’t buy the truck for its gas mileage. We hope that a five- or six-speed automatic would improve fuel economy a bit, and we do have to say that the truck we used in our test was brand-spankin’-new. We put the first 200-plus miles on it, so without a good engine break-in it’s tough to judge the truck’s fuel economy too harshly.
The H3T’s bed is also large enough to accommodate people who might need a bigger truck. The bed rails are much higher than those on the imports, though, making access to the cargo box a little more difficult. The interior is like that of a sports car, with comfortable seating and a high-end feel to it. Although we would have liked a little more room between our knees and the bottom of the steering wheel, the H3T is a pretty cool midsize truck that’s a cross between a Jeep JK Wrangler Rubicon and a Silverado half-ton pickup.
The most impressive truck we tested for the money had to be the Nissan Frontier PRO-4X. With all the amenities -- leather interior, stereo and more -- we really liked the fact that you can get a lot for under $34,000. We also liked the fact that all the off-road switches are in one place, near the shifter. This may not sound like a big deal, but once you’re on the trail you don’t want to spend time taking your hands off the wheel to search for that rear locking differential button. Furthermore, the Bluetooth functions are also on the steering wheel, making for a safe and easy way to talk while driving. The Frontier also offered excellent fuel economy, averaging 17.3 mpg during our test, and provided excellent power from its V-6 engine. While it felt sturdier and firmer on the trail than the Tacoma, it did lack a little in ride height and articulation. That’s something a 2-inch body lift could easily fix, getting you into some more rugged terrain that the Frontier could handle with ease. In addition, the Frontier’s legroom was surprisingly roomy. The floor is missing a transmission hump in the rear cab, which is great for the person sitting in the middle of the backseat.
We also got to test the vehicles' Hill Descent systems, which allow the trucks to descend steep grades slowly, automatically applying the brakes when necessary for a steady ride down.
Even though the Toyota Tacoma TRD Off Road had fewer amenities and less flash, it’s a solid truck that gives surprising performance. While the interior is simple, it’s more than adequate for “truck guys.” Some of our drivers liked the gated shifter, while others thought it was too cumbersome trying to shift it into the first-gear position for slow ascents. In addition, we didn’t like the fact that the 4-High, 4-Low and traction control switches were all over the dash, but the cool backup camera made up for it. Using this feature not only allows you to keep from backing into obstacles, it also makes it easy to hitch up a trailer by yourself if needed. Like the Frontier, the Tacoma also had steering-wheel-mounted Bluetooth controls, but the volume for the interior speaker is incredibly loud, and we struggled to find out how to tone it down a bit.
On the trail, the Tacoma had better articulation and ground clearance than the Frontier, making it a little more capable. It also felt more nimble and lighter, which can give you more confidence if you’re not distracted by the extra side-to-side motion. Although the Tacoma’s mud flaps are great for protecting the paint from rock chips and flying mud, they are a hindrance on the trail. We kept scraping them over moderately sized rocks, and even though they’re flexible enough to bend back and avoid breaking, it sounds like you’re grinding the rocker panels to shreds. Fortunately, it looks as though they could be easily removed for trail use and replaced for weekly commutes.
Despite having 25 fewer hp than the Frontier, the Tacoma still has good passing power, as it’s coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission. During our test, it averaged 17.5 mpg in both highway and off-road driving, making it the most economical of our vehicles. For a sticker price under $32,000, it’s a great truck that performs well and looks great. If you have the money, you can also get additional TRD options including a supercharger, headers and a host of other performance and appearance accessories.
Even if our test could have been much tougher, we were still impressed at the capability each of these vehicles’ off-road packages delivered. We’re happy to see that when a manufacturer adds a locking rear differential to a truck, the rest of the vehicle’s suspension, drivetrain, chassis and interior are good enough to make excellent use of it.
One of the last challenges in the canyon was a rocky ledge that was easily conquered thanks to the added off-road accessories offered by these manufacturers.