By Mark Williams, PickupTrucks.com
Competition has never been fiercer in the light-duty pickup truck segment, and the current Pickup Wars are being waged on many fronts. With all the money and time spent on aerodynamics, lightweight materials and high-tech powertrains, it's clear that fuel economy and efficiency are important topics for truckmakers as well.
That's why we broke our Texas Truck Showdown 2016 into two separate tests, asking manufacturers to send us their best max-tow crew-cab two-wheel-drive pickups and their best fuel-economy-biased trucks, however they defined that. While we had some rigid criteria for the max-tow contenders, we were more lenient with the fuel-economy competitors. We were curious as to what model each pickup maker thought best represented what shoppers want. We invited each of the half-ton truckmakers to participate in both Showdowns, but GMC and Nissan declined to participate in this one.
Our competitors ran the full range of engine choices. We didn't get any base-level, naturally aspirated V-6 pickups, but maybe that makes sense given how low their volume typically is and how incredibly efficient some of the V-8 and turbo-diesel options are. The outlier in our group is the 2016 Toyota Tundra, which offers an aging 4.6-liter V-8 as its base engine and has EPA fuel economy ratings similar to the more technologically advanced and powerful 5.7-liter V-8. It's worth noting this group had two V-8s (Chevrolet and Toyota), one twin-turbo V-6 gas engine (Ford) and one single-turbo V-6 diesel (Ram).
All of these two-wheel-drive trucks had relatively spartan interiors and optional features. Because pricing was not one of our criteria for this contest, it was not scored, but that doesn't mean each of these pickups isn't value packed, from the least expensive Tundra SR ($31,714) to the most expensive 2016 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LTZ ($46,545).
Although this test is centered on fuel economy, we did our usual battery of acceleration and brake testing (empty and loaded) as well as comparative engine dyno results, sound testing, payload and gas-tank-range calculations. In all, we have 18 scored tests (all equally weighted) along with judging from four experts who evaluated each combatant in six key categories: mpg performance, seating comfort and ergonomics, tech and entertainment, ride quality, visibility and value.
2016 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LTZ 5.3-Liter
Our Siren Red double-cab Silverado was fairly well equipped and carried the highest price at $46,545. A base-level LTZ is closer to $42,500, but our test truck had a few options such as the 20-inch chrome wheels ($1,495), tube side steps ($750), a soft-cover tonneau ($625), a spray-in bedliner ($475), an integrated trailer-brake controller ($275), in-bed LED lighting ($125) and four movable tie-downs ($60). The blazing red paint job cost $495. Interestingly, our test truck came equipped with the EcoTec3 5.3-liter V-8, which offers direct injection, cylinder deactivation and a new optional eight-speed automatic transmission, all of which work together to deliver mpg numbers similar to those of a four-wheel-drive midsize pickup. The Silverado gets a five-star overall crash-test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and has EPA fuel economy ratings of 16/22/18 mpg city/highway/combined. The Silverado was the only player in our mpg contest that had a calculated payload high enough to comfortably accommodate our test load of 1,500 pounds and a normal-size driver, and still be less than its gross vehicle weight rating.
For a larger version of the 2016 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Monroney, click on the picture above.
2015 Ford F-150 XLT 2.7-Liter
The Green Gem Metallic F-150 SuperCab Ford sent came in the basic XLT trim ($2,150), which gave us, among other things, a rear window defroster, satellite radio and a backup camera. Other options on our test truck included the impressive twin-turbo 2.7-liter V-6 EcoBoost engine ($795), the upgraded 3.31:1 axle gears ($420), running boards ($250), power-sliding rear window ($350), rubber floormats ($95), LED side-view mirror spotlights ($175), behind-cab bed-access steps ($325), tailgate step ($375), reverse sensing system ($275), LED bed lights and BoxLink ($80), a spray-in bedliner ($475) and an extra 110-volt, 400-watt outlet ($200). The smaller V-6 engine combined with the lighter overall weight of the truck (between 500 and 800 pounds less than the other competitors) provided a great power-to-weight ratio and good fuel economy. The idea is efficiency when empty and twin-turbo when hauling. The F-150 has a five-star overall rating in federal crash testing and has EPA fuel economy ratings of 19/26/22 mpg city/highway/combined. The F-150 was the rocket ship of the group, making our track driver work hard to keep the rear tires from spinning at launch.
For a larger version of the 2015 Ford F-150 Monroney, click on the picture above.
2016 Ram 1500 HFE 3.0-Liter
The quad-cab Ram 1500 came with Flame Red paint and a Diesel Gray interior. The popular 3.0-liter V-6 EcoDiesel under the hood was mated to an eight-speed transmission. The High Fuel Efficiency trim started out as a simple add-on order package, but now it's a separate trim level. It delivers better aerodynamics, more efficient gearing and a bed tonneau cover, which minimizes mpg-robbing air turbulence. The EcoDiesel-equipped HFE has a base price of $38,880 (including destination). Given that Ram wanted to keep pricing as close to or less than $40,000, that meant it could add one option, the Customer Preferred Package 28F ($695), which includes fog lamps, body-colored front and rear bumpers, and front and rear floormats. The Ram 1500 HFE gets a four-star overall crash-test rating from NHTSA and EPA fuel economy ratings of 21/29/24 mpg city/highway/combined, the best in our test (and in the segment). The Ram 1500 has been a runaway success with this engine and tranny combination, and fuel-economy numbers on our relatively flat test routes were exceptionally good.
For a larger version of the 2016 Ram 1500 Monroney, click on the picture above.
2016 Toyota Tundra SR 4.6-Liter
The Super White Toyota Tundra we received was about as basic a pickup as we've ever seen. Not only did this Tundra have the lowest price in our contest, it didn't have a single option. This literally is the most stripped-down Tundra you can buy — a double-cab SR trim with the base 4.6-liter V-8 with a column shifter and hose-out-friendly rubber floors. As a result, the SR trim delivers a solid value proposition with a fairly peppy 32-valve V-8, a manual thumb-shifter button on the column, four-wheel disc brakes, an easy-drop and lift tailgate, 40/20/40-split front seats with three seat belts and a strong set of rear leaf springs. The Tundra, when equipped with this V-8, has dismal EPA fuel economy ratings of 15/19/16 mpg city/highway/combined, and it gets a four-star overall crash-test rating from NHTSA. The Tundra, although upgraded in 2014, has an interior and exterior look that's aging faster than the competitors. Still, there is a good amount of value here if you're looking for good payload numbers, and it is quite composed when driving around town near its max GVWR limits. Don't let the plain-Jane looks deceive you; for a truck that is $8,000 to $15,000 less than its competitors here, it's a pretty nice package.
For a larger version of the 2016 Toyota Tundra Monroney, click on the picture above.
The judges for this contest include auto writers from inside the Cars.com/PickupTrucks.com family as well as expert truck-loving freelancers. The judges spent a great deal of time in each vehicle and engaged in comparative discussions throughout the week. Our judges were:
Bruce Smith — A longtime automotive magazine editor, Smith is skilled in the art of towing, four-wheeling, and wide-mouth bass and walleye fishing.
Kent Sundling — Known to the world as Mr. Truck, if it has a trailer or pickup bed, it's likely Sundling has driven it over the Rocky Mountains.
Mark Williams — A veteran automotive journalist and editor of PickupTrucks.com, Williams sometimes wakes up at night with new comparison test ideas.
Brian Wong — One of the newest additions to the Cars.com editorial staff, Wong is a longtime Mazda MX-5 Miata fan; he came to this test without any biases.
To see the comparison specs of these pickups, click on our What You Get chart below.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears and Angela Conners