We like that more truckmakers are getting serious about offering stronger and more capable off-road packages. Certainly Ford has received notoriety for its well-executed Raptor, and if you've ever driven a Ram Power Wagon, you know it climbs a mountain trail like a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
But what about worthy 4x4s that can't compete at those highest levels?
That's where this comparison test was hatched; we wanted to take as many "tier two" off-roaders as possible and put them in a head-to-head Thunderdome match. Unfortunately, as we sifted through all the half-ton packages, we could only come up with two qualified players: the 2015 Ram Rebel and 2015 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro.
As with some of our other tests, we chose not to weight any of the scored categories so that if you want to recalculate our test, you can add weight to categories that are important to you. We encourage you to do so to find the winner that matches your particular tastes.
We had 15 empirical tests, some of which focused on off-road capability, while others emphasized more traditional pickup truck strengths, including overall value. The largest single portion of the results, effectively a quarter of the total, was determined by voting from our three expert judges, who spent the week living and breathing these pickups, with much of each day spent suffering under triple-digit temperatures.
Of course, we could have included more tests or been more meticulous about keeping the scored results aimed only at 4x4 function, but in the final analysis we know that even if a new-truck buyer is purchasing a vehicle for its superior off-road prowess, it's more than likely it will still have to carry family members, haul some cord wood and maybe even tow a small boat. After all, no matter what the trim package, it still has to work like a pickup.
Here's how we scored the 2015 4x4 Challenge.
First Place: 2015 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro: 1,925.5 points
Winning our competition by less than 1 percent (in fact, just a little more than one-half of 1 percent), the Tundra takes one of PickupTrucks.com's narrowest victories in the history of our comparison testing. Among its more impressive feats, the Tundra had the best payload number and the best overall ground clearance of the two 4x4 packages. It's also worth noting the Tundra was much cheaper than the Ram Rebel and had some of the best off-pavement drag race performances we've ever seen.
With the exception of its two-wheel-drive "normal" operating parameters, our judges couldn't stop praising the Tundra's snappy throttle response, quick-shifting transmission and super-smart traction control setup. Although the Tundra, when simply looking at its 15-event test scoring, comes up short of the Rebel by 26 points (out of more than 1,400), the judges' votes were enough to tip the scales back in favor of the Tundra, giving it a 12-point lead when all was said and done. In every category except for interior layout and features, the judges unanimously selected the Tundra as the winner.
It's worth noting that if it wasn't for the optional BFG All-Terrain tire upgrade (costing nearly $3,300), the actual cost of the Tundra off-road package would have been closer to $45,000 and $7,000 less than the Rebel. Can there be a better bang-for-the-buck off-roader anywhere else in world?
Second Place: 2015 Ram Rebel 1500: 1,913.5 points
The Rebel is an excellent combination of parts and performance features that makes for one of the strongest outdoor-oriented adventure packages. Its all-around abilities are obvious when you look closely at the scoring. The Rebel won the majority of our 15 head-to-head contests, finishing 26 points ahead of the Tundra.
Our judges gave the Rebel high marks for its polished and comfy interior, especially when exploring the remote open land in and around Death Valley, and sang the praises of the large-screen Uconnect system that offered a detailed look at the 4x4 trails we found ourselves lost on several times.
Unfortunately, even though the Rebel came out ahead during our head-to-head test scores, it lost points to the Tundra in our judges' scoring. There's no question the Rebel was capable of conquering all the nasty terrain we could find to throw at it, but when compared to the more athletic, nimble and responsive Tundra, it missed the tape by mere inches.
Similarities and Differences
It's difficult to remember when we've had a more evenly matched comparison test. Both competitors have much in common. They both have:
- Strong V-8s
- Significant interior strengths
- Upgraded suspensions
- Dual exhausts
- Weigh within 40 pounds of each other
- Off-road-dedicated big wheels and tires
- Part-time 4x4 systems with 2.64:1 low-range ratios
- Sporty, active-lifestyle personalities
- Upgraded front and rear seating
We discovered many differences between these two trucks as well: The Rebel works hard to get attention, while the Tundra is more subtle. The Rebel's eight-speed transmission is thoughtful and shifts smoothly, where the Tundra's six-speed is responsive and wants to play, never shying away from a quick shift. The Rebel's interior is lush and full of quality details, while the Tundra looks like a sport package designed for function and purpose. The Rebel's Toyo tread patterns are more vertical, while the Tundra's BFG All-Terrains are more horizontal. The Rebel's dual exhaust is actually just dual tailpipes, but the Tundra has a true dual exhaust setup.
Where All the Points Come From
We've discussed and identified some of the 15 scored categories, and reviewed the five different judges' scoring categories, but let's explain where the awarded points for each 4x4 competitor came from.
Although we did not require Ram or Toyota to meet a specific price limit, we did ask them to send us their best-equipped (however they wanted to define it) off-road Rebel and Tundra TRD Pro. We calculated actual payload for each truck by weighing them and subtracting their scaled weight from their listed (on the door tag) gross vehicle weight rating. We took the manufacturer's listed maximum trailer tow rating for each pickup and scored them accordingly.
Because this was a test of four-wheel-drive trucks, we measured and awarded points for front and rear ground clearance, crawl ratios (1st gear multiplied by axle gear multiplied by low-range gearing) and suspension flexibility. We also scored the results of our four sand drag races; each of those runs was conducted using a different powertrain and traction-control setting.
Finally, we included daily-driving categories such as fuel economy (measured on deserted highway stretches and elevation-climbing two-lane roads) and interior sound.
Of course, the final piece of our 4x4 Challenge scoring — approximately 25 percent of the total — was drawn from the impressions of our expert judges. All totaled, and speaking to how good both of these pickups are, our head-to-head competitors had close to 2,000 points to fight about, and in the end they were separated by just 12.
Although we believe the scoring tells a complete story, we discovered some interesting issues about each off-road-biased pickup that we don't want to let slip past without note.
It's somewhat troubling to us that the Rebel has only 900 pounds of payload capacity, which is less than a normal amount of tongue weight for a pickup that is supposed to offer 10,000 pounds of towing capacity (and that doesn't account for the driver's weight, additional passengers or actual payload). As a pickup truck, that doesn't look good; either the towing number is over-promised or there's something odd about having such a low GVWR (6,800 pounds for a 5,900-pound pickup).
Since this 4x4 Challenge targeted remote deserts, high-elevation mountains and rugged obstacle course performance, maybe it makes sense that the truck that performs those duties best overall should be the winner, but this decision, once you've decided you want a superior off-road cruiser, could easily be made on price alone. We'd expect quite a few people would happy saving several thousand dollars and opt for the Tundra, while another group surely wouldn't mind paying the extra cost for a quieter, more luxurious, living-room-like interior.
Naturally, with a score this close, we'd anticipate a lot of people being happy with either pickup choice here, whether the Rebel with its initial empirical points victory or the Tundra with its judges' and overall point victory. But we can have only one winner.
We'd like to thank both Toyota and Ram for getting these half-tons to us for this contest and the state of California for providing us with such a diverse set of nasty geographic obstacles all within easy driving distance.
Be sure to let us know what you think, and we'll try to answer as many questions as we can. Finally, where should we go for our next comparison test and how should we set up the test?
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears