By G.R. Whale
For our 2015 4x4 Challenge, we wanted to test our two contenders in as many off-road environments as possible and not just drive on a few slow-go rock-crawling trails. That's why we have two sections and scoring strategies for off-pavement driving — going slow, or low-range driving, and going fast, or cross-country running. This piece focuses on how well these trucks handle loose traction surfaces at high speed and the issues surrounding faster trail running.
After weighing each pickup at local truck scales, we discovered the 2015 Ram 1500 Rebel was just 40 pounds heavier than the 2015 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro. However, based on our time behind the wheels, those were the heaviest 40 pounds we've felt outside of a weight room. Where the Rebel behaves like a golden retriever ready to play, the Tundra has the focus, energy and agility of a border collie. The faster we went and the farther we drove, the lighter and more fun the Tundra felt.
During our high-speed runs down dry river washes, we hit several washboard sections and dirt byways, and while both trucks had plenty of power, we found the Tundra's more accessible and responsive. We should note the Tundra has an aggressive — in other words, overly invasive and annoying — traction control; when the truck is in two-wheel drive it nearly stops the Tundra in its tracks. Thankfully, it can be disabled. Unfortunately, the Rebel's traction control system doesn't fully disengage and made it feel like it was us, not the computer's controls, minimizing the fun we could be having, making it difficult to build speed and harder to maintain wheel speed when playing in the sand.
On the other hand, our Tundra's willingness to be steered with our throttle foot (when sliding one way or the other) made it easier for us to guide the full-size pickup through some tight dry-wash runs. Both pickups were much easier to control at speed by quickly shifting in manual mode (and neither, as you might expect, has a rally-car-fast steering setup). However, the Tundra's center console shifter with its Sport mode and tap-up/tap-down capability was our preferred tool of choice for high-speed navigating compared to the Rebel's right-thumb-on-the-steering-wheel buttons. That was especially true in sportier driving, particularly when we had to crank the steering wheel to and fro.
Whoop-de-doos — the uniform wave-oriented humps that can appear in many off-road areas — frequently pushed both our 4x4 Challenge suspensions to their limits. The Tundra's wheelbase had better suspension travel and damping, enabling it to soak up those moguls. The Rebel had difficulty dealing with irregularities while in full Off-Road 2 mode, which gave us more front ground clearance. In that setting it seemed to have less suspension travel and a stiffer shock setting than when we put it in the Normal setting.
We were quite aware each time the Rebel ran out of shock absorber droop because it would make a light but pronounced thud. The best way out of the problem was to get off the pedals and let gravity and friction slow the big truck down. We should note we did get ourselves into situations where we ran out of shock absorber travel in the Tundra as well, but we were traveling at much higher speeds and were able to get the throttle to respond in such a way that we could just bounce across the tops of the moguls. Occasionally, in sand canyons and bowls, or on rocky crosscut ledges, the Tundra generally landed softer and responded with fewer uncomfortable impacts than the Rebel did. This reinforced the idea that a bigger Bilstein shock (one that offers a remote reservoir) is probably the best choice for off-roaders.
In the name of full disclosure, we set both trucks' tires at 25 pounds per square inch for a good amount of floatation. The Rebel's Toyo tires seemed to dig into the sand less than the Tundra's BF Goodrich KOs.
During the sand runs the Rebel's cabin was quite refined, even if the tires and suspension didn't help its performance in the open backcountry. Still, if we were towing all-terrain vehicles, a dune buggy, a pair of dirt bikes or snowmobiles, the Rebel would be a pretty nice way to get to a remote playground. But if you have to drive the same truck to the 4x4 park that you'll driving in the 4x4 park, fast or slow, we found the Tundra was the easiest and least stressful way to go.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears