By Joe Bruzek, Cars.com
We chose a hot, sweaty Michigan summer day to test acceleration and braking performance in PickupTruck.com's 2016 Midsize Pickup Challenge. Temperatures at the Milan Dragway maxed out at 89 degrees while the humidity pegged the needle at 100 percent. Though we didn't expect to scorch the earth with fast times, the track surface was hot and sticky enough without any extra track preparation so wheelspin was a non-issue, even with trucks in two-wheel drive — except for the 2017 Honda Ridgeline, which has a permanent all-wheel-drive system.
One truck that didn't sweat a drop was the 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 Ridgeline, which didn't have to try hard to blow the doors off the competition in all-out acceleration, with or without payload. Its 7.39-second sprint to 60 mph and quarter-mile time of 15.5 seconds at 90.4 mph (unloaded) was close to a half-second faster than the next-fastest truck, the 2016 GMC Canyon. The difference was big enough to be felt in the seat of your pants. The runs recorded with our Racelogic Vbox II showed the Ridgeline and Canyon left the line in a dead heat until about 15 mph where the gap grew; above 60 mph, the Ridgeline really pulled away from the Canyon. It's great fun when the Honda's engine passes 5,350 rpm and changes to its aggressive camshaft profile (known as i-VTEC) that lets out a more defined and audible growl up to the engine's 6,800-rpm redline. The Honda was fitted with the most aggressive axle gearing of the competition, a 4.25:1 ring-and-pinion ratio, and the six-speed automatic transmission shifted lightning-quick.
What's somewhat surprising about the results is that even though the Ridgeline is based off carlike architecture, it isn't the lightest in this group. Its V-6 has to lug 4,500 pounds, which is 60 pounds heavier than the lightest truck, the Canyon, at 4,440 pounds. The trucks spanned a large difference in sizes and capabilities, though putting them on a certified truck scale showed there was only a 140-pound difference from lightest to heaviest.
No matter how strong the Ridgeline's numbers look, the Canyon and the identically powered 2016 Chevrolet Colorado have a 305-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 with more linear power delivery that feels comfortable managing payload on the street thanks to a transmission Tow/Haul mode that is lacking in the Ridgeline. The Ridgeline also lost points in highway composure carrying its 1,360-pound payload (second highest of the bunch to the Canyon's 1,400) with a tail-squatting, nose-high attitude that made for a skittish highway ride. The other trucks were much more composed near maximum payload.
The Colorado's numbers were strangely weak compared with the almost identical Canyon, with which it shares its engine, transmission and axle ratio configuration, and it's only 100 pounds heavier with its extended wheelbase. We experienced what could only be described as the Colorado losing power after successive acceleration runs. Most trucks either got faster on each run or were consistent within a few hundredths of a second, but the Colorado lost a half-second between its first and fourth run. We let it cool down thinking the heat was getting to the truck after the pedal stopped commanding full power, but we couldn't improve on the fastest time. When loaded, the Colorado slowed even more and lost up to seven-tenths of a second from the first, fastest zero-to-60-mph run (10.9 seconds) to the slowest final run (11.6 seconds).
Despite the 2016 Nissan Frontier's engine being unapologetically loud, it was decently quick with acceleration not far behind the best. The accelerator responsiveness and refined transmission programming are well-matched and performed consistently, and it actually felt faster than the numbers suggest thanks to the cabin's excessive wind and road noise; whether that's a pro or a con is up to you. Slowest of the bunch unloaded was the recently redesigned 2016 Toyota Tacoma, which has a new engine and transmission that may need a little more time in the research and development oven. The accelerator pedal is mushy and unresponsive, and the engine doesn't have much pulling power at lower speeds, even with a 3.91:1 axle ratio and the transmission gear selector in Sport mode. When loaded, only the struggling Chevrolet was slower than the Tacoma.
Our braking tests from 60 mph demonstrated how well a truck performs in a panic stop. We got the trucks up to 60 mph, leveled off speed in the highest numeric gear and applied full braking force as quickly as possible. Each truck did three or four runs along the same strip of asphalt as the other trucks; braking is the first testing we do to ensure the brakes are cool. Also important to braking performance are the truck's tires, and our spread included a wide range of street and off-road tires from the Ridgeline's highway-friendly Firestone Destination LE2 245/60R18s to the Frontier's off-road Hankook Dynapro ATM 265/75R16s.
While we shouldn't be surprised after years of testing the Frontier, its brakes proved up to the task of short stopping distances just like in our 2015 Midsize Challenge even with aggressive, large 31.7-inch diameter off-road tires. This time, it stopped in the shortest distance of 140.1 feet from 60 mph, narrowly beating the Colorado's 140.3 feet. Loaded, the Nissan's braking distance was also the shortest and increased a miniscule 2.5 feet to the Colorado's increase of 11.7 feet with payload. We should note the Colorado was carrying nearly 500 pounds more than the Frontier, since payload capacities differed significantly (we loaded each truck with 90 percent of its calculated payload). The Frontier exhibited a fair amount of nose-dive during braking and, while it was ugly, the truck got the job done. The Colorado and Canyon had the most predictable, linear brake-pedal feel, even if the numbers weren't best in class.
Brake-pedal feel is important to braking performance; a confident brake pedal reassures that you're in control. The Ridgeline, while managing midpack distance performance, was at the back of the pack in terms of subjective brake-pedal confidence. Its pedal travels uncomfortably far to the floor before full braking force is applied, and the pedal is soft and uncommunicative. On the upside, the truck is very settled when stopping, which you'd expect from its carlike construction. The Tacoma was on the other end of that spectrum with a very high brake pedal and almost all of its force delivered in the top third of pedal travel. Beyond that, it was the sketchiest to haul down from speed; it was the only one where I needed to apply steering correction when the back end stepped out during a loaded run. The Tacoma was a bit old school in terms of brakes. It was the only truck with rear drum brakes, which seems an odd technology to retain in a redesigned 2016 model.
How We Conducted the Testing
All testing was performed at Milan Dragway in Milan, Mich., on the same day and the same track surface.
Testing included finding which truck accelerated the quickest to 60 mph and in quarter-mile elapsed times with the cargo box empty and loaded to 90 percent payload capacity. Braking tests to measure 60 mph-to-zero distances were also performed with and without payload. The 90 percent payload capacity took the form of a bed full of 40-pound rock-salt bags measured to 1,400 pounds in the GMC Canyon, 1,360 pounds in the Honda Ridgeline, 1,320 pounds in the Chevrolet Colorado, 1,000 pounds in the Toyota Tacoma and 880 pounds in the Nissan Frontier.
We actually ended up exceeding maximum payload capacity by a few pounds in each truck considering the 170-pound test driver, though we might have been closer to exact payload at the end of the day as the driver sweated out water weight in the hot weather — I was the driver and it got pretty nasty.
We used a Racelogic Vbox II GPS data logger to record our tests. Quarter-mile acceleration numbers mirrored how a dragstrip calculates quarter-mile times, including the 1-foot rollout method accounting for the distance a front wheel moves in the timing beam before rolling out of the beam and triggering the timing system, which is typically a few tenths faster than not including rollout. Zero-to-60-mph times were raw times from a standstill and do not include a 1-foot rollout.
Cars.com photos by Angela Conners