We've done our most comprehensive test of the midsize pickup truck class to date here, taking four competitors (the Honda Ridgeline does not offer a 2015 model) to the test track, to the streets, to the dyno shop and to their payload limits. Four pickups, six days and 21 scored tests, 14 of which were scored by empirical data and seven scored by our three expert judges.
Here's how they finished:
No. 1: 2015 GMC Canyon SLT 4x4, 1,808 points
Although we're usually pretty good about keeping an open mind, this winner was a bit of a surprise to most judges. While the GMC offers plenty of features and capability, it was the most expensive truck in our test but still left some options on the table. In fact, given that we did let each manufacturer know we'd be doing some off-roading, we were surprised GMC didn't send the All-Terrain Package. However, even in SLT trim (one of GMC's volume leaders), the four-wheel-drive system does offer all-wheel-drive capability (something nothing else in the class offers). Our Canyon also came with wide chrome side steps and street-biased tires but no Z71 suspension. However, readers familiar with our past comparison tests know there are many ways for pickups to rack up the points, and this Canyon scored well in many of our head-to-head tests. As a result, the GMC Canyon beat the Chevrolet Colorado Z71 by 33 points.
No matter how you look at this comparison test, the win by the GMC was impressive. Of the 14 empirical challenges we set up for these midsize trucks, the GMC came in first or second place in 11 of them. In the judges' scoring, the GMC was chosen as the outright winner by two of our three judges, and our consumer family scored the GMC in first place by a wide margin. Even though our Challenge was designed to have a more serious off-road slant, the GMC was quite capable: The suspension was softer than we'd like but not bad during any of our dirt maneuvers; the tires, although less aggressive, had plenty of grip; and the interior materials, feel and quality was far ahead of the Nissan and Toyota.
In the end, the Canyon scored well throughout our test, and offered a capable and luxurious ride and feel that clearly separated the GMC from the rest of the field. We were especially impressed with its road manners and performance with a full load in the bed, scoring a first- or second-place finish in all of our max-payload testing (which for this truck meant carrying a stunning 1,440 pounds).
No. 2: 2015 Chevrolet Colorado Z71, 1,775 points
Following close behind in total points, the Colorado performed quite well for our judges and test drivers. There isn't a lot different between the two trucks mechanically, but they do have very different styling and personality details. During our 14 empirical tests, the Colorado finished in first or second place in nine events, and garnered a winning nod from one of our three judges. Our consumer family scored the Colorado in a solid second place, noting they appreciated the sporty, more athletic feel of the interior.
During the off-road portion of our test, where judges had the chance to test each player on high- and low-speed dirt obstacles, the Z71 trim (suspension, tires, shocks and decals) was not up to the level of the Nissan Frontier PRO-4X and more specialized Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. On the positive side (and there is plenty to like about this Chevy), we appreciated how ready and able the transmission is to handle all the high-revving horsepower this engine has to offer; upshifts are quick and smooth when highway cruising, and downshifts are confident and forceful when sprinting around a dirt track or darting through traffic.
What impressed us most with both of the GM trucks is how much they can carry, and how comfortable and confident they are doing it. During brake testing and when carrying a max payload during our fuel-economy runs, brake control and chassis dynamics were smooth and predictable, comforting even. With all that said, the Chevy is packed with value and showed great composure in every situation.
No. 3: 2015 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X, 1,673 points
The Frontier is likely to be seen as the oldest player in this group because its interior (with the exception of a slightly larger navigation screen) has not been upgraded or updated since it debuted more than 10 years ago. You'd think that this alone would relegate the Frontier to the bottom of the segment, but it's a small pickup that sells well each month and has a loyal following. Much of the credit goes to the hard-hitting performance of the 4.0-liter 24-valve V-6. The overall numbers are clearly midpack, but the throttle feel off the line and at stop signs or even test tracks is impressive.
By the numbers, the Frontier did well during our acceleration and braking runs at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz.; however, much of that probably had to do with the fact the Nissan had the lowest max payload capability, so it always carried the smallest load of the group (just 1,000 pounds). Not surprisingly, it had the fastest zero-to-60 mph and quarter-mile times when loaded, and stopped from 60 mph in almost the exact same distance loaded as it did when empty.
The Nissan had an advantage on the dirt as well. We found out how subtle and capable the PRO-4X trim is, with its big tires, Bilstein shocks and a suspension that seems as confident on dirt as it is on pavement. If we had an "all-around" or "best of both worlds" award, the Frontier would have scored very high. Unfortunately, in the end, the dated interior, limited cargo storage and average fuel-economy numbers held it back from scoring more points.
No. 4: 2015 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, 1,634 points
We were glad to get the TRD Pro from Toyota because we wanted this test to include more off-road testing than we've done in the past, although the truth is it was the only vehicle Toyota could send us for this test. Still, the TRD Pro with its unique front springs, high-tech shock package, big wheels and tires, TRD exhaust, ultra-retro-styled grille and upgraded interior is like nothing else in the segment.
Although the judges liked the way the truck looked, the Tacoma TRD Pro was one of the most expensive players in the test, was usually the slowest in acceleration tests, got the worst fuel economy and stopped longer than anything we've tested in a long time (in fact, all Tacomas still use rear drum brakes).
In our off-road testing, our expert judges did select the TRD Pro as the winner of that particular challenge, garnering the most points of the test trucks. However, as much fun as it was to beat around a track, there was a lot of chassis and interior noise, far more than the other trucks. Much of that, we're sure, was due to the aftermarket-styled TRD exhaust, but much of it clearly needs to be addressed with new door seals and sound insulation on the all-new Tacoma coming later this year.
How We Conducted the Testing
This time we included some real-world buyers interested in purchasing a truck in this category — a first for any PickupTrucks.com comparison test (but a staple in our Cars.com Challenges). After an extensive search in the Phoenix area, we found a father and son, Bob and Matt Trink, who were able to spend a long day with us getting into each midsize pickup, driving them on the same local highway-and-city-street course, and giving us their opinions, much the way our expert judges scored each pickup. The only area in which our family drivers did not participate was the off-road aptitude category because they didn't have the chance to play in the dirt like our judges did.
We also took each truck to a local dyno shop to find out exactly how each V-6 engine performed where it counts — at the rear wheels. We did the same thing the last time we judged the midsize truck segment, but we had seven contenders then; now only four players are left. The current pickups still make good, usable power, but the way in which they make it are different.
Each pickup engine reflects how well manufacturers understand how buyers want to use their trucks. In some cases, like with the new Chevrolet and GMC entries, GM is banking that these buyers want the horsepower and fuel efficiency that a sophisticated direct-injection engine and smooth-cruising six-speed transmission can offer. In the Nissan and Toyota engines, the manufacturers have been content to allow their aging, yet sturdy, all-aluminum dual-overhead-cam V-6s and five-speed automatics do the work at satisfactory levels. Both strategies seem to make customers happy and offer some clear advantages, but when we put them all on the same DynoJet 248X chassis dyno — each on the same day, calculated with the same procedures and tested by the same operator — we saw some interesting differences on where and how each of these engines makes their power.
By the time we finished with our dyno runs, we also had a pretty clear understanding as to why these vehicle performed as well, or as poorly, as they did during our loaded and unloaded track tests. Here are the peak horsepower and torque numbers we collected.
One note: As we mentioned in our introduction, we decided to experiment with a new test that we want to make a part of our future comparison tests. Sound and interior quietness is becoming more important to buyers and truckmakers alike, so we've decided to start measuring interior noise at idle, at a normal road speeds and outside near the exhaust pipe as a regular part of our comparison test procedures. However, because this is new for us, we did not include the scores of these sound tests in this Challenge. We are simply delivering them to you for comparative information. You can find all of the results and procedures of that test in a separate story by clicking here, but briefly, here are the results:
The quietest truck of the test at idle was the GMC, at 41 decibels (Db-A weighting), with the Nissan and Chevy (42 and 43) close behind. The quietest vehicle at 60 mph (in top gear) was also the Canyon, at 63 decibels, with the Chevy and Nissan (64 and 65) close behind. Finally, holding the sound meter at the rear of the truck in an isolated and empty parking lot, the GMC again had the quietest sound level at 53 decibels; the Chevy was 54, the Nissan was 57, and the Toyota was 62.
As we've already seen, changes are coming in this category, but we won't know if those changes address current weaknesses until we drive the new trucks. There's no question in our minds that Toyota should carry over the TRD Pro trim for the next Tacoma, but it has to address the powertrain and chassis issues that have long been ignored. Now that most players in the segment have raised their game, Toyota can't afford to delay any longer.
It's worth mentioning that we've provided all the test results and the corresponding point values for you to see. By not weighting fuel economy, braking or acceleration more than any other test, we've essentially kept the results neutral, not valuing any one test over another. But you don't have to do that.
In fact, if off-roading or fuel efficiency is more important to you, feel free to rescore the test your own way to determine the best pickup for your needs. You might likely have a different winner than the one we've chosen (which happens to be the least 4x4 capable in this test). Of course, off-roading was just one of 21 different areas where we awarded points. Regardless of what you do, we hope this data helps you choose your next truck, new or used.
Any time we do a test like this, the number of people we need to tip our hat to is quite long. Although we do these Challenges for you, we wouldn't be able to put together tests like this if manufacturers didn't trust us and provide the proper test trucks in a timely fashion.
Likewise, the folks at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park bent over backward to help us get all our on- and off-road testing completed in a short amount of time.
Additionally, we have to give special thanks to our consumer family, Bob Trink and his son, Matt, for giving us a full day of their time and their full attention as we peppered them with a mountain of questions and details, all about what they liked and didn't like about each truck.
Moreover, for the help and service provided by Arizona Dyno Chip in testing each of the little pickup trucks on a professional chassis dyno, we say thank you for allowing us to generate one more piece of data to compare these midsize pickups.
Finally, we want you to tell us how we can make these tests better. What tests are we missing that you want to see when testing midsize and full-size pickups? What information is missing that would help you understand these trucks better? As always, we're open to any and all (well, almost all) suggestions. Let us know.
And finally, to finish this Challenge, we present all of our charts in one comprehensive package.
Click on the image above to see the full chart.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears