By Patrick Olsen, Cars.com
We put these five light-duty pickup trucks through a week's worth of tow testing in and around Houston to see which came out on top. Our judges were:
Mark Williams — PickupTrucks.com editor
Joe Bruzek — Cars.com senior road test editor
Bruce Smith — automotive freelance journalist who specializes in trucks and 4x4s
Kent Sundling — editor and owner of MrTruck.com
Here's how the trucks finished and what the judges thought about each one.
No. 5: 2016 Toyota Tundra 1794 Edition, 5.7-liter V-8; 2,102 points
100-point categories (best in test): Fuel-tank capacity
The Verdict: "Perhaps a Tundra equipped differently could have made a better tow rig," Bruzek said, "but this Tundra with its off-road package was far outclassed for a comparison on maximum towing."
What They Liked
Quick start: The Tundra "launches with authority," Smith said, and Williams agreed: "The engine and transmission is always ready to jump off the line."
Transmission: "It may be short a few gears compared with the others," Bruzek said, "but the Tundra has very positive shifts from its six-speed package."
Handling: "Its light steering effort makes for quick lane changes, despite being the heaviest in this comparison," Bruzek said, and Smith liked how the Tundra "handles the trailered load."
The 1794 trim level: Bruzek liked the "beefy looks of its TRD Off-Road Package," while Williams said that "the 1794 Edition is a good first attempt with room for improvement," and Sundling appreciated its "quality luxury interior."
And …: Smith liked the "overall visibility." Sundling applauded that its "4.30 axle ratio is made for towing; you have to go to a Ford F-450 to get that axle ratio." And Williams noted that "there is nothing like the CrewMax cab out there. It's an entirely separate room in the back of the cab."
What They Didn't
Poor mpg: It "inhales fuel," Smith said. "The fuel mileage is the lowest in this group," Sundling noted, and Williams added, "fuel economy for a truck like this in a segment this competitive needs to be much better."
Transmission, while towing: "It did a lot of hunting when loaded with a heavy trailer," Williams said, and Sundling found that "at slower speeds, even in Tow mode, the transmission hunts for gears and doesn't stay in gear until it reaches higher speeds."
Ergonomics: Smith disliked "the Tundra's placement of switches and knobs," while Sundling noted that he's "glad they finally have a factory trailer-brake controller, but it's hard to see while driving and using the manual control."
The exhaust note: "The optional TRD exhaust is an initial novelty that grows old the more miles you put on the truck," Bruzek said, and other judges agreed.
And …: "Most outdated truck in the group, other than the sheet metal," Sundling said. "Brake pedal feel is light and uncommunicative," Bruzek said. Williams found that there was "too much sagging in the rear end with payload; 1,200 pounds of [calculated] payload here is unconscionable."
No. 4: 2016 Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn, 5.7-liter V-8; 2,149 points
100-point categories (best in test): None
The Verdict: "The value player in the group when loaded with options and features," Williams said, "if you're looking for a half-ton that doesn't need to work too often."
What They Liked
Interior quality: "Our Laramie Longhorn delivered top-notch layouts and quality at thousands less than Ford and GMC," Williams said. "It has the look and options of a luxury truck for a midrange price," Sundling said. "Highest quality and most comfortable interior with supple leather seating and fine materials for this class," Bruzek said.
Ride quality: "One of the most comfortable empty," Bruzek said, and Smith said he liked the "stable ride it provides when towing." Other judges agreed.
Value proposition: "A dollar goes very far with features like heated front and rear seats, ventilated front seats, towing mirrors, front and rear parking sensors, all for $50,805," Bruzek said.
And …: "I love the sound of the Hemi under hard throttle," Smith said. "By far the easiest to get comfortable inside and around town," Williams said. "Visibility is as good as it gets for a pickup truck," Sundling said. Finally, "although some hate them," Williams said, "I like the pivoting side mirrors that offer a ton of rear visibility."
What They Didn't
Side mirrors: "They hang out like oars and do little to increase vision," Smith countered.
Trailer squat: Williams disliked "the horrible sagging when the Ram was loaded with bed cargo. It's uncomfortable to look at and has the headlights pointing skyward." "With this squat," Sundling added, "it handles the worst with a trailer, fishtailing."
Power: "I expected gutsier acceleration for its power and torque ratings with the eight-speed automatic transmission," Bruzek said, "though its hefty weight might have something to do with that."
Controls: "I don't like the dial-a-shift in the Ram," Smith said, "and the Longhorn's distracting gauge overlays make it difficult to read them, day or night."
And …: "I can't quite explain why this truck has a heavy and sluggish steering feel," Williams said. "Braking performance is far less confident when carrying the maximum payload," Bruzek said. "Ram desperately needs a more aggressive fuel-economy strategy as the Hemi has to be babied to get good mileage."
No. 3: 2016 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LTZ, 5.3-liter V-8; 2,233 points
100-point categories (best in test): Empty 60-to-zero-mph braking, sound at idle (tied with Ford), empty mpg (tied with GMC), calculated maximum payload, gross vehicle weight rating (tied with GMC)
The Verdict: "The Silverado offers stability and driver confidence when towing," Smith said. "The only thing that could make this package better would be if it had the 6.2-liter engine under the hood."
What They Liked
Transmission: "The eight-speed transmission squeezes every bit of acceleration from the 5.3-liter with impressive results," Bruzek said. Smith agreed: "The eight-speed's programming is perfectly matched to the engine."
Value proposition: "This Silverado is a good value for the price difference versus the 6.2-liter if you don't tow often," Sundling said. "I can't think of a better mainstream player in this segment, delivering solid ability and function," Williams said. "It's not sexy, but it's honest."
Interior design and quality: "It has a huge number of USB ports plus wireless charging, and that allows every passenger to charge a device at the same time," Bruzek said. "The interior designers have shown wonderful self-restraint," Williams said. "It's easy to see all the important stuff with dials and big buttons." "The memory foam in the seat makes it the most comfortable GM has ever made," Sundling said.
And …: "I like its fuel economy and power," Smith said, while Sundling appreciated its speed and braking ability while empty. "Its handling is planted when loaded or empty," Bruzek noted, and Williams concurred: "The Silverado chassis has the most composed feeling when loaded or towing."
What They Didn't
No 6.2-liter engine: "I had 6.2-liter envy driving this back-to-back with the GMC's more powerful engine," Bruzek said. "With little difference in fuel economy versus the 6.2," Sundling said, "it would be hard to pick the 5.3-liter."
Steering-wheel position: "GM trucks still have their steering wheels pointed toward the door," Sundling said. "This goes back to the 1970s when it served the purpose of making entrance easier. Now that we have tilt and telescoping steering wheels, why doesn't GM align the steering wheel with the seat and doors?" Other judges agreed.
Ride: Smith didn't like "the harshness from the front suspension when encountering sharp bumps and dips, such as expansion joints and broken pavement." "Ride quality when empty is slightly disruptive and definitely more trucklike," Bruzek said, "but at the same time, body movement is controlled very well."
Features and quality: "Chevy trucks will always come up short on more options and features as long as GMC is around," Williams said.
And …: "I can't believe the crew cab doesn't offer a bigger fuel-tank choice," Williams said. "The new hood blocks frontal vision," Smith said. "With a trailer, acceleration is disappointing," Sundling said, "even with the eight-speed transmission."
No. 2: 2016 Ford F-150 Lariat, 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost; 2,323 points
100-point categories (best in test): Least expensive, scale weight, sound at idle (tied with Chevy), sound at 60 mph, peak torque on dyno @ rpm
The Verdict: "This F-150 is perfect for the times when V-8 muscle is needed," Smith said, "and perfect for when mpg matters most."
What They Liked
The way it drove: "The F-150 has unparalleled agility and maneuverability in this comparison that contribute to the Ford driving like a much smaller truck," Bruzek said. Smith liked "the nimble, sporty feeling when driven empty."
Power: "The torque from the EcoBoost 3.5-liter is confidence inspiring with big payloads," Bruzek said. Smith appreciated the Ford's "surprisingly nice balance of horsepower and fuel economy."
Interior quality and ergonomics: "This is the standout feature for me," Williams said, "offering more features and options and quality surfaces than anyone in this price range. There isn't anyone who understands how to deliver information to the driver than Ford." Smith agreed: "I like Ford's technology package and how it gives a broad scope of information that's easily accessed while driving." Sundling applauded its "great dash layout, with the most options to scroll through."
Bonus features: Bruzek liked the "countless utility features, such as LED box lighting, the Pro Trailer Backup Assist, retractable tailgate step and digital dashboard displays with trailering info."
And …: The Ford "has great grade shifting in Tow/Haul mode," Sundling said, "and it's very well-equipped for the price."
What They Didn't
Wheel choice: Smith didn't like "the way its two-ply, carlike tires handle when towing," while Bruzek, our track driver, saw "absurd wheelspin that keeps the big power from being used to its maximum potential." "Our test truck had Michelin Energy Saver tires, and it was frustrating to watch it on the track," Williams said. "Yes, it got better mpg, but there was a lot of tire spin."
Trailer and payload issues: Smith didn't like the F-150's "soft rear suspension when towing," and Sundling noted that it "squatted bad with a trailer, which changed the headlight angle." "It doesn't track nicely when loaded on the track," Bruzek said. "It was darting around at highway speeds with the nose pointed high and the rear of the truck squatting."
Lightweight: "We could definitely feel that this truck was the lightest of the group, but that meant it was less settled on bad roads," Williams said.
And …: "There's nothing like the Pro Trailer Backup Assist, but it forces the trailer-brake controller too low," Williams said. "It didn't have the optional towing mirrors that many others in this competition did," Bruzek said.
No. 1: 2016 GMC Sierra 1500 SLT, 6.2-liter V-8; 2,357 points
100-point categories (best in test): Empty zero-to-60 mph, loaded zero-to-60 mph, empty quarter-mile, loaded quarter-mile, loaded 60-to-zero-mph braking, peak horsepower @ rpm dyno, empty mpg (tied with Chevy), mpg with trailer, calculated maximum towing ability, maximum rated towing, gross combined weight rating, GVWR (tied with Chevy)
The Verdict: "This is a mild-mannered pickup that is ready to don its cape and do some heavy lifting," Williams said, "saving the day from a long list of work chores."
What They Liked
The powertrain: "The hot-rod 6.2-liter engine and eight-speed transmission are a match made in heaven," Bruzek said, "capable of making a maxed-out payload feel nonexistent." "The engine and transmission are synced up like a smooth-flying jet rocket," Williams added. And Smith liked "the fuel economy and power the 6.2-liter and eight-speed combo provides." "I love the sound of the 6.2," Sundling noted.
And more powertrain: "Did I mention it's fast?" Bruzek asked. "It's like hit-the-speed-governor-before-the-quarter-mile-ends kind of fast." "It's surprising how much of a sleeper hot rod this is," Williams said. "Loaf along and get rewarded; stomp the throttle and get rewarded too."
Tech: "I like the way the Apple CarPlay integrates with the Sierra," Smith said. "Apple CarPlay simplifies using an iPhone in the truck easier than any other multimedia system," Bruzek added. "The gauge layout is the quickest to read the vital signs such as engine temperature, oil pressure and battery amps," Sundling said.
Interior quality: "Even the midlevel package SLT offers all sorts of nice details and touches in the cabin," Williams said. "Soft for all elbows."
What They Didn't
Value proposition: "The 6.2-liter and eight-speed automatic are only available on the priciest trim levels," Bruzek said. "GMC will always be a little pricier," Williams said, "but I'm not a fan of having to pay $50,000 for the big V-8." Smith objected to the GMC running on premium, adding to long-term ownership costs.
Empty ride: "Like the Chevy, ride quality without payload or a trailer is bouncy and more rigid than the more-refined-riding trucks in this comparison," Bruzek said. Smith disliked "the GMC's stiff compression damping of the shocks, especially in the front." "The ride is not as good as the Ram's rear coil springs," Sundling said.
And …: "Just like the Chevy, it's difficult to believe that there isn't a larger fuel tank option for crew cabs. Everyone else has it, even Toyota," Williams said. "It has a smaller windshield than the other trucks, and the large rearview mirror with OnStar blocks some of the view," Sundling added.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears and Angela Conners