By Patrick Olsen, Cars.com
For our 2015 Midsize Challenge, we had five judges:
- Mark Williams, PickupTrucks.com editor
- Aaron Bragman, Cars.com Detroit bureau chief
- Joe Bruzek, Cars.com road test editor
- Bob and Matt Trink, a father and son who live in the Phoenix area. Bob is a retired high school teacher, while Matt is a financial planner. Bob owns a 2007 Nissan Frontier, and Matt owns a Chevrolet Tahoe.
We asked the judges to evaluate these trucks in several categories, and to tell us what they liked and didn't like about each. Here are their comments.
2015 Chevrolet Colorado Z71
What they liked: The Colorado's solid feel won over a few judges. "This feels very solid," Matt Trink said. "I've been listening over bumps for rattles, and the truck is airtight." Williams pointed out how quiet the interior of the Colorado is, and Bob Trink said that it rode "very smooth and carlike." Williams called out its impressive payload numbers, which challenge full-size trucks. Being the newest truck in this fight (along with the GMC), the Chevy received plenty of points for appearance, up-to-date features and room. "I think this is the cleanest dashboard execution," Matt said. "I can read the Colorado's large touch-screen from the backseat." "There's plenty of room to spread out," Bragman said, something he found lacking in at least one competitor. And finally, several judges were impressed by the features for the money. "It's a lot of truck for the money," Bruzek said; that sentiment was echoed by the Trinks and Williams.
What they didn't: While several judges liked the look of the Z71 trim, some were less than impressed by its off-road chops. "It's a weak off-road package," Williams said, while Bruzek noted that its "off-road performance was not as dedicated as the Nissan and Toyota." And although that might have been the case, the Colorado also rode rougher on regular roads. "The drive experience is slightly less controlled with the Z71 suspension and tires," Bruzek said. Bragman found the seats "hard to get comfortable," saying he "didn't like the adjustment options." In addition, he found that the "Chevy MyLink still has a slow processor — voice commands and even changing music tracks takes measurable seconds." Matt said, "The more I drive it, the more sluggish the shifting feels. It felt great on the highway, but the transmission is sluggish while passing." Other judges agreed on the ambivalent transmission.
The verdict: "The Colorado is a solid and balanced decathlete," Williams said, "nothing superior in any of the events, but good all around."
2015 GMC Canyon SLT
What they liked: "The clear winner in the Saturday Evening Date Night competition," Williams said, and all the judges agreed: The Canyon was the looker in this group. "It looks like the luxury truck it is," Bragman said, "especially in black." He also called out the interior because it "feels expensive," and Matt said he "really liked the look of the GMC dashboard. I'm not a fan of the Chevrolet's blue and orange colors." Williams concurred, calling the interior quality "stunning." He also voiced appreciation that GM went to great lengths to differentiate the GMC from the Chevy, which hasn't always been true in the past. Bruzek also praised its "crossover, SUV-like ride quality, which was nearly silent to wind and road noise." That sense of quiet surprised Matt: "I didn't feel like I was going 81 mph." "This is solid," Bob said, "much more solid and quiet than the others. It's just a rich, solid feel. After testing all the other trucks, this is like stepping into a Rolls-Royce."
What they didn't: Given that this was a contest among V-6 off-road packages, the fact that this wasn't the All-Terrain Package put the Canyon at a disadvantage off-road. "The suspension is too soft and cushy for me," Williams said. "It needs a Sport setting." "It has minimal off-road chops," Bruzek said. "Remember that the 4x4 system is more for slippery situations and bumpy dirt tracks," Bragman said, "not serious off-roading, which this Canyon doesn't do well at." Like the Chevy, Bragman said, the Canyon's "transmission hunts a lot in normal driving," and he found that "the black paint is already showing scratches with just 1,800 miles on the odometer." Finally, despite its cushy features (or perhaps because of them), the Canyon was also the priciest of this group.
The verdict: "The Canyon dominated in on-road driving as the only truck without a ride-quality-destroying off-road package," Bruzek said. "But the GMC is a complete mess on a big off-road track like Wild Horse Pass with enough jarring hits to knock the steering wheel around and send every bump violently through the cabin."
2015 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X
What they liked: They liked that it goes. "Throttle response is exciting," Williams said, "and that's not something often said about this segment." "It feels super strong," Bragman added. All of the judges concurred on that point. In addition, many liked that it performed well off-road ("it has a strong look and capability," Williams said), but didn't punish them on-road. "It has evenly split on- and off-road capabilities," Bruzek said. Bragman called it "nimble," and pointed out that it also has "excellent visibility thanks to its low beltline." Finally, Bruzek called out its Rockford Fosgate audio system for its clear, crisp sound.
What they didn't: Man, the Frontier feels old. "Mine is 8 years old," Bob said, "and I feel like I'm driving the same truck." But more important than its age were its brakes. Nearly every judge called them out. "The Frontier has a horribly mushy brake pedal," Bruzek said, while Williams said "the brake pedal feel is sometimes frightening." Being a smaller truck, Bragman found the cabin "cramped, front and rear," and Matt disliked the seats: "They have a very basic shape, and I feel like I'm going to fall out of them."
The verdict: "The Nissan Frontier was the surprise of the test for me," Bragman said. "It's incredibly fun to drive, tuned toward quick and powerful acceleration, with nimble handling and off-road prowess that astonished me. Still, the cabin materials and electronics are dated, and the brakes are absolutely terrible — soft, squishy and utterly devoid of confident stopping power."
2015 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro
What they liked: Talk about your purpose-built truck. "The suspension mods and off-road package are impressive," Williams said. "Takes off-road jumps like a Baja race truck," Bragman said. The judges loved it on the dirt. And that look? "It has fantastic Tonka-truck looks," Bragman said. "Its appearance is worthy of a man-cave poster," Bruzek added. "The factory TRD Pro trim is much less expensive than building it yourself," Williams said, and he noted that it's the "only truck anywhere to offer a 120-volt bed plug."
What they didn't: "The engine is all sound, no fury," Bragman said, and Williams agreed. "The engine and outdated transmission are its weakest links," he said. "I don't think the accelerator is responsive enough," Bob said. "I don't like it; when I'm moving and try to hit it, it just doesn't have the response." Bruzek disliked that "a leap is needed to get in without assist steps" as well as the Tacoma's "sloppy on-road handling." The "noise and vibration inside are just too much," Williams said, and several judges agreed. Bragman found the "brakes are terribly grabby when unladen, and it was impossible to stop smoothly." "For the Toyota's money," Matt said, "I'd be all over the Chevy."
The verdict: "By far the most advanced and well-integrated suspension package any pickup has seen since the Ford Raptor," Williams said. "This is not a Raptor fighter, but neither does it cost anywhere near Raptor money. Still, plenty of dated feel to this one — brakes are horrible, steering vibrates like crazy, and throttle response and mpg is deplorable. It's the very definition of a compromise machine."
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears