By Andy Mikonis, Cars.com
We put our five 2016 Midsize Pickup Challenge contenders through a real-world mileage test (see how we conducted the test below). Not surprisingly, when empty, all the trucks came pretty close to their EPA combined ratings, with four of the five test trucks exceeding those numbers outright. Not surprisingly, given that it has the highest EPA ratings of the group, our empty midsize winner was the 2017 Honda Ridgeline at 22.8 mpg, with the 2016 GMC Canyon close behind at 22.0, the 2016 Chevrolet Colorado at 20.8, the 2016 Toyota Tacoma at 19.5 and the 2016 Nissan Frontier at 18.1.
Unexpectedly, the Tacoma, with its new V-6 engine and transmission, actually saw an increase of 1.3 mpg when loaded, scoring the highest mpg for payload mileage testing at 20.8. This was even more surprising to us since several judges thought it felt like it labored the most when hauling. Likewise, although several judges complained about the ride quality and highway behavior when laden, the Ridgeline didn't have any trouble actually moving the goods and pulled off a respectable second-place performance at 20.0 mpg with almost 1,400 pounds aboard. It's worth noting that the pickup with the oldest engine and lowest horsepower, the Frontier, showed the smallest decrease in fuel economy when comparing empty and loaded loops, recording the lowest mileage in both categories, with the smallest maximum calculated payload of the group.
The Canyon and Ridgeline had the highest mileage decreases when comparing empty and loaded mileage, with 3.4 and 2.8 mpg respectively. We should also note our afternoon drive loop did have a prevailing southwest wind averaging between 13 and 15 mph with a few occasional gusts. This may have affected some vehicles more than others. Additionally, leg two in the afternoon saw 20 minutes of stop-and-go traffic due to temporary lane restrictions as traffic built up. Also, leg five in the afternoon saw higher cruising speeds, which may have been more of a disadvantage to the loaded trucks given the increased wind speeds.
A comparison of the Colorado and the Canyon, with identical drivetrains and EPA estimates, suggests factors in the afternoon may have dragged down mileage across the board. The Canyon's empty morning run bettered the Colorado's empty afternoon run by a not-insignificant 1.2 mpg, around a 6 percent improvement (the long-wheelbase Colorado was just 100 pounds heavier). Interestingly, the Colorado's loaded loop beat the Canyon loaded by a slight margin. Looking back, these conditions likely accentuated the Tacoma's curious numbers as well, where its loaded mpg number (20.8) was better than its empty loop (19.5). As the EPA estimate footnote states, "... actual results will vary for many reasons."
How We Conducted the Testing
Our mileage drive consisted of a 165-mile loop that we drove twice around Ann Arbor, Mich. All our trucks had V-6 engines ranging from 3.5 to 4.0 liters, automatic transmissions and four- or all-wheel drive systems.
The drive loop contained several types of on-road driving situations from congested city traffic, high-speed interstate highway, country roads, unpaved sections of road and even some stop-sign-to-stop-sign neighborhood driving.
During our first loop, two of our pickups ran empty while the other pickups were loaded (with bags of rock salt) to 90 percent of their calculated maximum payload after we weighed each pickup and subtracted that amount from its gross vehicle weight rating. Our route was divided into five legs so that each judge drove each truck, and so that weight and driving style differences were minimized. We had the same person fuel each pickup at the same pump at the same station at the beginning and end of each loop to reduce as many variables as possible.
During our loops, we drove normally, obeying all posted speed limits, and did not let the trucks idle at stops. All the trucks were set to two-wheel drive except the Ridgeline (which does not have that option), and we had all windows up with the air conditioning on auto and a consistent temperature setting for each truck.
Cars.com photos by Angela Conners