In judging these V-6 midsize pickup trucks, we wanted to give the manufacturers a chance to show off how well they understand (or don't) what a good, capable four-wheel-drive system can be. We know most people don't need rock-climbing traction or a rut-pounding suspension, but as a versatile "just-in-case" feature it helps buyers see how multifunctional and adaptable a truck can be in changing terrain and/or weather.
For this Challenge, we added an off-road aptitude category for our judges, allowing them to experience each of the trucks on a closed dirt racetrack (the Lucas Oil track at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz.) with all sorts of uneven mounds and ruts in the infield, and then let them rate each competitor against the group. The judges rotated from one truck to the other and back again to calibrate their assessments.
But before we explain how each performed and how our judges ranked this midsize class, here's what each of the 4x4 packages offered:
What They Have
2015 Chevrolet Colorado Z71
Chevy has a long history with the Z71 name, but in the last several decades it has languished and never quite lived up to its potential. The Z71 trim offers uniquely tuned front and rear springs, specially tuned shocks, unique wheels and tires, and some extra skid plating. But the suspension is at stock height. The package does offer GM's G80 rear limited-slip differential that can fully lock (after a good amount of spin) in certain low-traction situations. GM also included a hill descent control feature, but that's only offered with the four-wheel-drive version (the Z71 trim can be ordered on two-wheel-drive Colorados). The low-range gear is 2.72:1, and the crawl ratio (multiply 1st gear by ring-and-pinion gear by low-range gear) is 37.8:1.
2015 GMC Canyon SLT
GMC chose not to send its best off-road package, the All-Terrain (which includes the same Z71 package offered on our test Colorado), but instead sent its volume player: the Canyon SLT 4x4. As a result, our 4x4 test Canyon came with the softer springs and shocks, and a pair of chrome tubular side steps. Additionally, the Canyon did not have the G80 locking rear differential or the hill descent control. The GMC pickup does offer an exclusive transfer case that is the only one in the segment with all-wheel-drive capability in the form of a separate "Auto" detent. The four-wheel-drive low-range ratio is 2.72:1, and the Canyon has a crawl ratio of 37.8:1.
2015 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X
We've always like the PRO-4X trim because Nissan engineers have wrapped all the right parts and pieces together without going too wild or making it too expensive. The Frontier is a little smaller than the other players, which makes it feel more nimble and maneuverable — a good quality to have when navigating difficult terrain or negotiating trail ledges. To its credit, the V-6 engine feels peppy and responsive. Add to that a relatively aggressive off-road tire, Bilstein monotube shocks, extra skid plating and an electronically activated locking rear differential, and you can see why this trail machine (the least expensive our test trucks) was a nice surprise and hidden treasure for our judges. The low-range ratio is 2.63:1, and the crawl ratio is 33.9:1.
2015 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro
New for the 2015 model year, this trim package is Toyota's attempt to inject one last syringe of adrenaline into the aging Tacoma. Underneath, the TRD Pro includes longer and stronger front coil springs to give the suspension 2 extra inches of compression travel, while the rear springs are relatively unchanged. Custom, remote-reservoir Bilstein shocks allow the TRD Pro to run at racing speeds through the desert without overheating. Likewise, the setup includes aggressively treaded and large all-terrain tires with stylish bead-lock-like wheels. The TRD Pro also offers a push-button locking rear differential, hill descent and sophisticated traction control mapping (called A-TRAC) to help the vehicle get all the traction it can handle at high or low speeds. The low-range ratio is 2.57:1, and the crawl ratio is 33.7:1.
What the Judges Thought
Our judges beat up each of the competitors and found both of the GM vehicles wanting, yet came away quite impressed with the imports. In alphabetical order:
Chevrolet Verdict: Almost, but Not There
The Chevy's Z71 trim seemed to offer the bare minimum of off-road capability and left us wanting more. The fact it has a locking differential and more aggressive tires did not make it feel much more confident than its non-off-road packaged sibling: "This package seems to be more of an all-around pavement package rather than dirt dedicated … we'll keep hoping the ZR2 is on its way," said Mark Williams.
GMC Verdict: Soft and Cushy to a Fault
The GMC Canyon SLT was clearly the least prepared of our group to play seriously in the dirt. We liked that it has a transfer case with capabilities similar to what's found in the half-ton GM trucks, but it still smacks of an "all-weather" package rather than an all-terrain alternative: "I found the Canyon suspension allowed more jarring hits to the undercarriage and even felt unnerving vibrations through the steering wheel, and the tires often lost their grip," Aaron Bragman said.
Nissan Verdict: The Little Package That Could
The Nissan Frontier PRO-4X was probably the biggest surprise of the group, delivering on the promise its wheels, tires and decals make. The bigger BF Goodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires and lively throttle response had us smiling all the way around the track, especially when taking all four wheels off the ground: "While the Toyota may not look like a mini-Ford Raptor, it's the Nissan that plays in the dirt like a mini-Raptor, and the off-road ability doesn't seem to come with an on-road penalty," Bragman said.
Toyota Verdict: Catches Air Like a Pro
Although the Toyota Tacoma is adequate on pavement, the TRD Pro is engineered and designed for the nastiest dirt destinations. The Tacoma TRD Pro swallowed every bump and jump like a champion without any nose dives or smashing bump stops. Unfortunately, the engine is just too weak to keep up with the suspension, and the TRD exhaust tries to make spectators think you're going faster than you really are: "Washes, gullies and uneven terrain are no match for this truck, but the aging chassis and interior noise is a problem … proof positive that solid off-road prowess comes at a cost — you just have to be willing to pay for it," Joe Bruzek said.
To see how the judges scored the off-road test, click here to go to the results story where you'll find the judges' scoring charts at the very end.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears