On paper, GM's EcoTec3 powertrain strategy was pretty simple: offer the most modern and up-to-date technology made from the lightest materials and provide as much power and fuel efficiency as possible. And do that with a new block, traditional overhead valves, direct fuel injection and cylinder deactivation. Sure, all the boxes are checked, but how does it perform in the real world?
As soon as we heard GM was going to use the same size engine for its base V-6 in both its Chevrolet and GMC 1500 pickups, we knew we had to get a closer look at how well the engine works on the open highway when towing a heavy load. And to do that we knew exactly where to go. We'd been there before.
We've run this same test and collected data about other pickups in previous years. We wanted to give you a chance to see how the new GM engine compares, both when loaded and unloaded, with the Ram Pentastar V-6 as well as with Ford's twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6. We'll be comparing some tests numbers with the Ram 1500 V-6 we tested on the same course last year, but we'll also look at Ford's EcoBoost numbers for comparisons as well.
Unlike the two Ram 1500s in our "Rampage! The Test at Davis Dam" (those trucks were similar, not identical), this time we were able to convince Chevy to order us two identically equipped half-ton V-6 trucks. Both were two-wheel-drive double cabs with GM's newly redesigned conventional-swinging rear doors, a 143.5-inch wheelbase and 6-foot 6-inch pickup box. Each of our Victory Red pickups came equipped with the all-aluminum EcoTec3 V-6 mated to the 6L80 six-speed transmission. All V-6-equipped pickups have one ring-and-pinion choice, the 3.23:1, which gave us a maximum towing capacity of 6,000 pounds and an EPA fuel economy rating of 18 city and 24 highway (the four-wheel-drive model is 17/22 city/highway).
The base price of our LT pickups came to $34,880 (including destination), and the trucks came with the LT Plus Package ($535), which gave us rear park assist, power adjustable pedals and a universal home remote. Additionally, the All Star Edition Package ($2,640) gave us more popular options: 18-inch aluminum wheels, an auto-locking rear differential, power adjustable seats, fog lamps, remote start, MyLink audio with an 8-inch display screen, backup camera and a 110-volt plug. Finally, we opted for the 6-inch side steps ($750), trailer brake controller ($230), upgraded all-terrain tires ($200), extra bed lighting ($60) and four upper cargo box tie-downs ($60).
With the $1,095 destination charge and $750 All Star Edition discount, each of our test trucks cost $38,605. And to further verify these were identical pickups (although their VINs were separated by 325 build units), we weighed both trucks at the local CAT Scale, where they both came in (with no passengers or gear and a full tank of fuel) at 5,120 pounds. The gross vehicle weight rating is 6,900 pounds.
To see the pricing sheet for our 2014 two-wheel-drive Silverado LT that towed our loaded horse trailer, click here. To see the pricing sheet for our 2014 two-wheel-drive Silverado LT that ran our route and tests empty, click here.
Our Drive Route
Those familiar with last year's test will recognize we've duplicated the route and fueling spots as closely as possible. We started our drive near Pasadena, Calif., heading east. We had made the trek to Norco, Calif., the day before to meet our friends at Rarin' To Go trailer rentals, where we set up a double-axle horse trailer with about 2,500 pounds worth of rubber stable mats strapped to the floor of the trailer. Although not identical to the one we used with the Rams, the trailer's weight was within 200 pounds when empty; it took about 25 of the 100-pound mats to get the trailer weight to 5,500 pounds.
Although both Silverados were equipped with tow packages and trailer brakes, our trailer was equipped with hydraulic brakes (meaning the truck's inertial force determines the level of brake activation on the trailer), so we didn't need to worry about gain settings. We used a 2 5/16-inch tow ball and a Class III hitch. The Ram we towed with last year was equipped with the four-corner, load-leveling suspension, but we didn't have that luxury (or even the option) with our Chevys. Instead, we made sure to adjust our ball height to keep the tongue weight within spec (about 500 pounds) and our trailer angle level.
Our two Silverados easily left the Los Angeles basin, climbing up through the Cajon Pass just north of San Bernardino. The route runs up and down a few ridge climbs for about 10 miles and summits below 4,000 feet, and then gradually rolls down to the high desert before heading to Las Vegas. We stopped in Barstow, Calif., to verify our trailer and truck weights. The total of our V-6 Silverado LT two-wheel drive and horse trailer was 10,620 pounds. Our gross combined weight rating for the Silverado with 3.23:1 gearing and V-6 was 11,000 pounds, compared to the Ram we towed with last year, which had a GCWR of 11,200 pounds; however, you should remember that the gearing for the Ram V-6 was 3.55:1 (the empty blue Ram from last year came with 3.21:1 gearing).
Our drive route started in Los Angeles (A) and headed north through the Cajon Pass to Barstow (B), where we weighed our truck/trailer combination. We continued through the high desert up the punishing Baker grade (C) and finally turned off Interstate 15 near Henderson, Nev. (D). After we passed the Hoover Dam (E), we headed to Kingman, Ariz. (F), where we turned onto state Route 68 to the Davis Dam grade (G) for our acceleration testing. The following day we conducted our level ground testing outside Ludlow, Calif. (H), ending our trip in Norco (I) where we dropped off our trailer at Rarin' To Go.
From Barstow, we headed to Henderson, Nev., bypassing the congestion of Las Vegas, and then we headed east toward Kingman, Ariz., on U.S. Route 93. Once we reached the infamous state Route 68, we headed down into the river gorge where Davis Dam and Laughlin, Nev., are. After some aggressive testing runs up the Davis Dam grade (identical to the testing we did earlier), we headed away from the river valley and back to Interstate 40, which took us to Los Angeles. On the way, however, we stopped near the desert mining town of Ludlow, Calif., where we did more acceleration testing, this time on level ground.
In total, our drive route was a few hundred miles shorter than our trip last year with the Rams because we did not make additional trips up U.S. Route 95 in Nevada on the west side of the Colorado River; as a consequence, we had four complete fill-up events with the Silverados where we had five with the Rams. The fuel station stops and truck mileage readouts are almost identical to our Rampage test, so the numbers are comparable for our purposes.
On the Road
During each fill-up, we used 87-octane fuel and used the same pump method for each truck (and used the same pump as well); we allowed the automatic shutoff at the pump to click off the first time, then let the tank settle for approximately 30 seconds, then slowly added more fuel until the pump clicked off again before we closed the fuel cap.
Most of our driving along the route was within the legal towing speeds, which typically meant between 65 and 70 mph, but in some cases in California we were going as slow as 55 mph. Winds in the deserts were relatively low but there were points when we could feel the trailer behind our towing Silverado wag a bit. We especially felt the push of wind when passed by the occasional high-flying big rig.
Both of our pickups had the MyLink system with the 8-inch touch-screen, which meant we had access to Sirius XM radio (just about the most important option you can have for a long road test), but they did not offer a normal navigation system. The GM strategy here is a little misleading, in that there is a navigation button in the touch-screen, but all it does is connect you with an OnStar operator who can answer any questions or deliver turn-by-turn directions to your vehicle's playback system. As nice as it would have been to have the actual navigation system, we found the MyLink system easy to use, and the operator patient and helpful.
The Chevys had information screens displayed in the gauge cluster between the speedometer and tachometer. We found ourselves toggling between the real-time fuel economy readout and the tire pressure screen. While watching the mpgs, drivers can see when the engine goes into and out of V-4 mode — and we can tell you it happens quite a bit even when towing near max trailer capacity. By watching the tire pressure, we could check on any rear-wheel tire pressure issues we might have with the added tongue loads. Although temperatures were moderate for our entire trip, the level of relief it gave us to occasionally check tire pressure was hugely comforting.
Testing: Davis Dam
We replicated the performance testing we've done with just about every important head-to-head comparison test we've ever done, running the trucks through our normal Davis Dam hill-climb testing. For those who don't know, we use a portion of state Route 68 as it climbs out of the Bullhead City, Ariz., basin, reaching more than 3,000 feet in elevation over an 11.8-mile stretch of road. That translates into several 7 percent grade sections, with a few less inclined sections as well. We chose a particular section of Route 68 where the average grade incline is between 5 and 6 percent, which gives us plenty of up-and-down visibility that usually allows us to get clean quarter-mile runs at wide-open throttle.
We tested both Chevys over the same stretches of road, with a full tank of fuel, and within about an hour or so of each other. On this particular evening, temperatures where right around 67 degrees and there was no perceptible wind.
The first vehicle on the course was the Silverado/trailer combination, and it ran the measured distance (thank you Racelogic VBOX; we used model VB2SX10) up the hill at 24.57 seconds at 54.3 mph. We made four runs, with all results within a half second of each other. For comparison to the Ram 1500 Pentastar, these numbers are almost right on top of the 3.55:1-geared truck we tested that did 24.35 seconds at 55.5 mph.
Quarter-Mile Davis Dam Performance
Our measured zero-to-60-mph times (in this case going well past the quarter-mile marker) took much longer. Our Chevy with trailer made the run up Route 68 from the same quarter-mile start line to 60 in 34.09 seconds, which is more than two seconds slower than the Ram-trailer combination. It's worth noting here that although our Chevys do have more Society of Automotive Engineers-rated torque than the 3.6-liter Pentastar (305 to 269 pounds-feet, respectively), the Ram did have a lower first gear (4.71:1 versus 4.03:1) and lower axle gears (3.55:1 versus 3.23:1).
During our "empty" runs (which included only one driver and our test equipment), our 240-pound-lighter Chevy with the bigger V-6 (42 cubic inches bigger; 4.3 liters versus 3.6 liters) ran the quarter-mile on Davis Dam with a best run of 17.95 seconds at 75.4 mph, where the similarly geared (3.21:1 versus 3.23:1) Ram made its run of 17.57 seconds at 79.4 mph. In zero-to-60 testing, the Chevy struggled (possibly because of fewer gears than the Ram) taking 10.44 seconds; the Ram did the run in 9.71 seconds. It's worth noting the Chevy did pull quite hard off the line (in fact, beating the Ram at the 10-, 20- and 30-mph marks) but it fell down after the 2nd-to-3rd gear shift.
All of our data presented here is from the best runs out of multiple runs (sometimes three, sometimes four). We ran both trucks with the air conditioning off, windows rolled up and left the transmission in Drive — no manual shifting. As for the Silverado with the trailer, we kept the Tow/Haul switch engaged.
Testing: Level Ground
This testing was done the morning after our night runs at Davis Dam, outside of Ludlow, Calif., giving us a chance to warm up the pair of Silverados with an additional 115 highway miles. At our designated test location, we allowed the trucks to cool down for an hour.
Again, our Chevy truck/trailer combination ran first and delivered a strong, computer-controlled launch off the line, with a best run of 21.14 seconds at 65.1 mph. The Ram with trailer performed a similar quarter-mile run at 21.11 seconds at 66.5 mph. Our zero-to-60 measurements, which usually hit about five seconds before we reached the quarter-mile marker, had the Chevy with trailer clocking 17.15 seconds at 60 mph, while the Ram and trailer combination took 16.77 seconds.
Quarter-Mile Level Ground Performance
With our identically equipped empty Silverado, our best recorded quarter-mile time was 17.11 seconds at 85.4 mph, while the best run with our empty blue Ram last year over the same stretch of road was 16.09 seconds at 88.4 mph, quicker than the Chevy by more than a second and faster by 3 mph. The zero-to-60 mph empty times were similar, as well, with the Chevy coming in just behind the Ram by about a second and recording an 8.90 time, and the Ram getting to the same speed in 7.83 seconds.
Conditions were warmer for our level test area than at Davis Dam, with temperatures hovering around 77; there was a slight headwind from the west. On level ground, both Chevys seemed to run just a touch slower than the Rams we tested last year.
During our time with the 2014 Silverados, we found the 4.3-liter V-6 a strong puller around town, providing some surprising pep when merging into traffic or passing a distracted driver. This is more impressive when you consider that all of Chevy's V-6s are equipped with rather tall (meaning smaller numerically) 3.23:1 gear ratios.
We especially liked how well-matched and suited the familiar-feeling 6L80 six-speed transmission feels, and we've always been a fan of the thick column shifter that allows for easy manual shifting when dropped into M. Our only gripe was not being able to see what gear the transmission was in during shifts. On the other hand, we also liked how well the transmission reads and adjusts to the trailer load during both hard accelerations and steeper downhill grades; we believe the integration engineers deserve a big thank you for making the Tow/Haul mode almost feel like an exhaust brake. The grade-braking capability was able to sense when we crested a summit, determining that holding or downshifting was the best way to keep our speed under control. And when another downshift was needed, the engine did not mind revving into the 5,000 rpm range to bring the speed down.
During Davis Dam acceleration runs, we were able to test and play with the grade braking function (which works whether the Tow/Haul setting is engaged or not), and we particularly liked how quickly the transmission downshifts and how easily a short tap on the brake pushed the setup down another gear.
Although it's probably more a testament to how well we had the trailer tongue weight dialed in, we found the 5,500 pounds pushing behind us (basically the weight of another full-size pickup truck) on those long downgrades was relatively invisible to us from the driver's seat. Our only other gripe about towing was not having adequate towing mirrors (meaning that they would be extendable in some way) as part of the tow package. The height and width of our trailer meant that anyone closer 12 to 15 car lengths behind us was invisible to us, hidden behind the trailer.
As for fuel economy, our tow vehicle with trailer (remember, with a combined weight of 10,620 pounds) averaged 11.4 mpg over the 1,000 miles we traveled. Our best recorded mileage number at fill-up came from our trip across the high desert on the way back from level-ground testing as we dropped into the Los Angeles basin. Over that 250-mile stretch, we averaged 13.4 mpg, with a good portion in V-4 mode, while our worst tank average was 9.8 mpg.
Our best and worst fuel economy averages in our empty Silverado were 23.7 and 19.0 mpg, respectively. We kept meticulous fuel economy notes and data, logging the exact miles driven along with the precise amounts of fuel each truck consumed. We should also note that in almost every instance, the onboard computer calculated a slightly more optimistic mpg number than we did doing the math, in some cases awarding a full mpg over our number. Still, we were amazed the computer did as well as it did given that we've seen some fuel economy computers miss the proper calculations by several mpg.
The overall fuel economy for our test with our Silverado/trailer combination was a solid 11.4 mpg, which includes all the wide-open throttle testing portions of the test. This compares well with our Ram and trailer combination (which has a smaller engine but higher 3.55:1 gears) at 10.7 mpg. When comparing our empty pickups, the Chevy Silverado averaged 21.7 mpg, while the empty Ram with 3.21:1 gears averaged a little more than 4 percent better at 22.7 mpg.
As we did last year, we made a stop at the K&N Engineering in Riverside, Calif., to measure engine output via its chassis dyno. PUTC readers with good memories will recall the Ram's Pentastar V-6 pulled 257 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 220 pounds-feet of torque at 5,900 rpm. By comparison, our Silverado 4.3-liter EcoTec3 V-6 pulled 243 hp at 5,250 rpm and 256 pounds-feet of torque at 4,550 rpm. To put that in simple terms, the Pentastar makes about 5 percent more horsepower and the EcoTec3 makes about 16 percent better torque, but in both cases, peak power is quite a bit lower in the rpm range for the Chevy.
The new entry-level V-6 in the Chevy half-ton pickups, to put it simply, is impressive, but it does not beat the Ram's 24-valve DOHC Pentastar in many categories. We like the way the transmission handles and distributes power, and the throttle feel is controlled and strong. The smaller EcoTec3 engine does a great job of balancing power output with the increasingly important issue of getting great fuel economy.
We've seen impressive numbers from this lineup of engines, especially with the popular 5.3-liter V-8 engine, but just as impressive is that the Chevy Silverado V-6 fuel economy ratings are about as real-world as you can get, including extensive amounts of highway cruising, city driving, loaded and unloaded, and even some mash-the-pedal track testing.
GM tells us that sales of the new all-aluminum V-6 in the new 2014 Chevy Silverado is crushing the previous V-6 take-rate numbers, closing in on 20 percent of all sales; the number used to be just more than 5 percent. Maybe this shouldn't surprise anyone now that all the big pickup truckmakers have made significant investments in their V-6 lines.
When combining the EcoBoost and existing naturally aspirated V-6 offered in Ford's F-150, well more than half of Ford's most popular truck come equipped with a V-6 engine. Likewise, Ram is seeing increased interest in its V-6/eight-speed transmission combination; in fact, now choosing to offer the "entry-level" engine in their more expensive Laramie trim package.
Although $40,000 is a lot of money, we found that our Victory Red double-cab, two-wheel-drive LT pickups offer quite a bit of value. We found the LT interior, with the 40/20/40 front bucket bench seat comfortable and adequate for long hauls. The interior is a huge improvement from earlier generations (especially the easy-to-read gauge and information center), and the touch-screen, with its big icons, was simple and easy to use.
We have no doubt, as efficient and capable as the trucks are, that GM could make them even better. As for fuel economy, there is still plenty of room for more technology like stop-start or spark ignition or even overhead cam valvetrains that could raise fuel economy to new levels. And GM hasn't denied the possibility of bringing back some sort of hybrid.
As for payload abilities, our pickups offered close to 1,800 pounds; that's impressive capability for a V-6 engine in a half-ton truck. The Ram we tested last year had more than 1,300 pounds of payload capacity.
For now, it's clear that with all this effort and technology going into what used to be the ugly stepchild of the powertrain families, we're going to need to do another V-6 work truck comparison or maybe something more heart-of-the-market as these often-ignored and quite potent engines work their way into more fully loaded trim packages and into the hands of more practically minded buyers.
Cars.com photos by Mark Williams