By Patrick Olsen, Cars.com
We took five midsize pickup trucks to Michigan for a week of testing. The five judges for this Challenge were:
- Mark Williams, PickupTrucks.com editor
- Aaron Bragman, Cars.com Detroit bureau chief
- Joe Bruzek, Cars.com senior road test editor
- Andy Mikonis, longtime automotive journalist
- And Jennifer Vigus, a 37-year-old insurance sales trainer from Warren, Mich., who is thinking seriously about buying one of these trucks soon
Here's what they had to say about each of the contenders.
The Verdict: "The oldest and heaviest player in the segment still has some pep, especially under the hood," Williams said. "With the most factory-rated torque of the group, I loved the way this truck pulled, almost jumped, off the line. I would also suggest the payload and gross vehicle weight rating numbers could be underrated."
What They Liked
More than off-road-ready: "The PRO-4X is one of my favorite off-road packages for the money: monster-size Hankook tires, no-nonsense traction technology and the fact Nissan includes a first-aid kit under storage netting beneath the rear seats," Williams said. The Frontier was an off-road favorite of several judges. "I really appreciated the Frontier's old-school, low-frills 4x4 formula," Mikonis said. "With a traditional four-wheel-drive system and an aggressive tire, it did as well or better than the higher tech competitors. If you skipped the Luxury Package and got the right price and/or incentives, the PRO-4x would make a fun, basic off-roader." "The PRO-4X feels pure in an old-school kind of way without as much electronic off-road wizardry as the Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road but more aggressive tires working very well off-road," Bruzek said. "Off-road, the Frontier is a blast," Bragman enthused, "with an eagerness to go quickly over the rough stuff that is highly entertaining."
Value proposition: "As challenged as this aging truck might be, there is quite a bit of value here if you don't need the latest technology. Rugged good looks and solid capability are good qualities, especially if the price is right," Williams said. "I like that Nissan can get leather in a truck at this price," Vigus said. "For keeping clean and feeling like you're not making too many compromises, leather has that premium feel."
A trucker's truck: "The Frontier is the sport truck of the group — it feels light, nimble and seriously quick," Bragman said. "Its small stature may lack comfort and utility," Bruzek said, "but it's refreshing to drive a small, nimble truck like the Frontier, which is reminiscent of compact trucks of the past." "When did 'drives like a truck' become a bad thing?" asked Mikonis. "Taken as a whole, the Frontier has a certain old-fashioned charm. I liked driving it more than I thought I would, though testing back-to-back with the others really accentuated its aging platform. "
Power when you need it: "With the lowest stated horsepower and the highest torque of the field, the Nissan 4.0-liter engine really pulls hard, whether it was in dirt or asphalt acceleration testing, or towing and hauling," Mikonis said. "It helped me forgive some of the truck's other flaws."
And...: "Its steering is surprisingly in tune with the road even with the PRO-4X suspension and tires," Bruzek said. "The extra steering feel helps off-road, where I had a better sense of front-end placement over rocks and the trail's groove." "The Rockford Fosgate sound system is impressive, delivering a great audio performance," Bragman added.
What They Didn't
Interior behind the times: "There are no words to describe how angular and cheap-looking the Frontier interior has become, especially when compared to the competition," Williams said. "Sharp edges and plasticky interior surfaces, as well as the ridiculously small navigation screen, make this one a hard choice." "I can live with the cozy interior, but the rubber steering wheel with fake stitching was unforgivable considering this truck has a $2,100 'Luxury Package,' " Mikonis said. "The small, cheaply appointed interior is not something I'd want to drive in daily," Bruzek added. But more to the point, Bragman said, "I have beverage coolers made with better quality plastic than Nissan uses on the Frontier's interior."
Old, and it shows: "I can't believe we're still talking about how old the Frontier is," Bragman said. "It isn't any different than the 2015 Midsize Challenge it participated in a year-and-a-half ago and it still needs an update." "It's easy to call out the Frontier for being the oldest competitor, but seriously, I thought we'd see this long-running platform more sorted out," Mikonis said. "Maybe Nissan could do some experimenting for the next generation — if that ever happens — but it just felt like an old truck," adding that "at this price, the buyer is being taken advantage of."
Too much noise intrusion: "Maybe the most notable detail ... for me was the Nissan doors seem to have the thinnest and most unnerving sounds when slammed," Williams said. "I'm not sure there's much structural support, proper door seals or any sound deadening in any of it. Of course, when this truck was being designed, no one did that sort of thing." "By far the most wind and road noise, with howling knobby tires and seemingly Swiss-cheese interior acoustics," Bruzek noted. "There was a noticeable vibration at idle. Some truck folks or off-roaders may scoff at this, but we're talking about a 2016 truck here and this really stood out to me against the competition," Mikonis said. "It shows how far trucks have come in refinement."
Poor value proposition: "I think I like the look of the console and parts of the interior over the Tacoma, but it still looks like a basic truck," Vigus said. "It's important to me, when I'm spending this amount of money, I want it to look like I'm getting more for my money."
And...: "Like the Honda Ridgeline, the Frontier's small cargo box is outsized by the Tacoma, the GMC Canyon and the supersized Chevrolet Colorado bed," Bruzek said. "The seats are small and devoid of any bolstering whatsoever," Bragman added.
The Verdict: "You can go further with the TRD Pro, but the TRD Off-Road was the best off-roader of our test trucks," Mikonis said. "Having the choice of going at it the old-fashioned way or using the Crawl Control is a lot of bang for your off-road buck."
What They Liked
The off-road king: "The Tacoma is off-road champ, with its advanced four-wheel-drive system performing astonishing feats of hill-climbing prowess," Bragman said. "The Crawl Control technology blew me away with how fast and intelligent the software program could adapt from one surface or climbing situation to another. This system makes you a better driver and could pull your vehicle out of situations you could never do on your own," Williams said. "Unflappable off-road performance on the light trails at Bundy Hill Offroad park with plenty of capability in reserves for when you get into a jam," Bruzek said.
Improved powertrain: "As nimble and efficient as the high-tech engine is supposed to be, I found the key to this powertrain is the new transmission," Williams said. "You can drive it hard or soft, smooth or punishing, delivering what you need."
Effective bed: "The composite bed is cool. I can see other trucks going in this direction. The Honda Ridgeline has something similar," Mikonis said. "It seems durable and doesn't show scratches. It looks like it could be replaced fairly easily if necessary. Also, it must make outer-body repairs simpler since it's not welded to the bed sides or rear fenders." Bruzek liked that "the bed-mounted, 120-volt/400-watt grounded AC power outlet is ready for tailgating accessories or an air pump for beach inflatables."
Quality design: "Even though the redesign didn't stretch things very far, I thought this was the best-looking truck of the bunch. It looks slim and athletic," Mikonis said. "The TRD Off-Road trim complements the Tacoma nicely with a purposeful looking stance and the appearance of a high approach angle. I like the instrument panel too." "The interior is more than just a utilitarian truck, with a few high-quality touches and refreshing style," Bruzek said.
Versatile: "Although it's not the champion performer you'd expect from the segment leader, the more time you spend in the truck, the more you realize it can adapt and adjust to almost every need or driving situation you could have," Williams said.
And...: "The brakes are strong, stopping the payload-laden or trailer-pulling Tacoma with ease and confidence," Bragman said, "and the multimedia screen is bright and mounted high, where it's easy to see and use."
What They Didn't
No go: "Horsepower and torque numbers look competitive, but the Tacoma was a real dog. You had to really flog it when towing and hauling. Everything pulled away from it in the dirt drag racing. The ECT [electronically controlled transmission] button changed the shift points, but the only thing that really helped was more throttle," Mikonis said, and he wasn't alone. "The V-6 supposedly has 278 horsepower, but I'm not sure where they're hiding," Bruzek said. "It feels gutless."
Not tow-friendly: "It's difficult to imagine why a small pickup wouldn't have some type of accommodation for towing or hauling," Williams said. "Yes, you can hit the ECT button to get a revised transmission shift pattern, and yes, you can manually shift through the gears if you need early downshifting or to hold a gear longer. But where's the just-in-case thinking that Toyota is usually so good at?"
Seat problems: "Tacoma had my least favorite seats of the bunch," Mikonis said. "The head restraints jut forward, making it hard to settle into the seat. The cloth felt warmer than the others during that hot week." "The cabin isn't comfortable," Bragman said. "The seat bottom cushions feel short, the climate controls aren't easily usable and I feel like I'm sitting on the unusually high floor." "The seating position, always a problem in this truck, is still difficult to get past," Williams said. "Where other vehicles allow you to adjust your seat up and down, the Tacoma seats will lay you more flat out and only allow you to move forward and back. It's hard to get comfortable with the pickup flooring so high; it makes the roof feel lower than the others." "I'm not that tall and found it a bit of a jump to get into," Vigus said. "I also worry about my 6-foot-1 boyfriend fitting in these seats. It feels like I'm laying flat more than in the others and I keep hitting my leg on the steering wheel."
Crawl Control conundrum: "I got stuck using the Crawl Control," Mikonis said. "I went up easily without the Crawl Control first, then immediately tried again with it on. The truck started digging in and really made a mess of the trail. After backing up and trying again — making another set of holes that rendered it unusable for the trucks — I backed down." And Williams wondered: "Why are the Crawl Control and Multi-Terrain Select system settings only available in 4-Low? Why not allow those great settings and software programs in 4-High or even two-wheel drive? And why not include a Tow/Haul setting there, too, to adjust shift points, steering inputs, throttle response and traction controls? I'm just saying."
Poor entertainment tech: "No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, so pairing with a phone and streaming music and apps is more complicated than in trucks with CarPlay and Android Auto," Bruzek said.
Poor ride all around: "While the brakes are strong when the truck is loaded up, they're unpleasantly grabby and impossible to modulate smoothly when it's just you in there," Bragman said. "On-street performance is lacking even with this mild TRD Off-Road trim, with its numb steering feel and loosely controlled body motion," Bruzek said. He also noted that "the transmission is too eager to upshift and kills momentum. You have to keep the transmission in Sport mode all the time just to have a normal driving experience."
And...: "The rear seats don't really fold flat and the seat bottoms don't really give you much storage when they're folded up," Vigus said. "I'm disappointed with backseat storage."
The Verdict: "The Chevy Colorado is a solid, attractive, comfortable truck that does just about everything well," Bragman said. "It tows a trailer without a problem and hauls a bunch of gear near its payload capacity without being flustered or even affecting its handling very much. On-road or off-road, it does everything asked of it, behaving like a full-size truck in a tidier package."
What They Liked
Tech-friendly: "The multimedia systems are top-notch and the tech content available in the Colorado at this price makes it feel like a good value," Bragman said. "The Colorado's multimedia with Apple CarPlay is a big win if you're an iPhone user," Bruzek noted, "though Android users are out of luck at the moment."
Winning ride: "The Chevy rides and drives more like what I'd expect a truck to feel like," Vigus said. "Its highly refined ride strikes a balance between confidence-inspiring and comfort on the street," Bruzek said. "With the longer wheelbase," Mikonis said, "the Colorado soaked up the rough stuff, even just the unpaved roads" in and around Ann Arbor, Mich.
Effective powertrain: "I could not be more impressed with this little engine that both lugs along under heavy loads and doesn't mind revving into the higher rpm to have a little fun," Williams said. "With Tow/Haul mode and grade braking, the transmission is a real standout in making the GM trucks confident, drama-free haulers," Mikonis said.
Right-sized: That longer wheelbase didn't mean added trouble, the judges found. "The crew-cab long box and its extra 12 inches of wheelbase and bed length is surprisingly maneuverable around town," Bruzek said.
Smart interior: "This is where the Colorado shines most," Williams said. "Sporty bucket seats, simple gauge cluster and nav screen layout, tasteful two-tone dash and door: It all looks sophisticated and ready to play hard." "It's more comfortable to me than some of the others," Vigus said, adding, "The seats fit me better." "The Colorado feels big inside," Bragman said, "with comfortable seats and space for front-seat occupants."
Value proposition: "This is the midsize sweet spot for me," Williams said. "Off-road package, long bed with the bedliner and tons of trailering capacity. Why would you need a full-size with all of this capability? If there's a pickup packed with more value, I haven't seen it."
And...: "The step-in bumper with the angle cut in the stake pocket remains one of the simplest and most brilliant solutions for the age-old problem of how to make climbing into the bed easier," Mikonis said. "It is a mud collector off-road, though."
What They Didn't
Lack of off-road chops: "It has the same tire in a different size as the Toyota but had to carry more momentum to get through the same places," Mikonis said. "Climbing the hill was more harried, but it still got the job done." "The Z71 'off-road' suspension is perhaps an overstatement of its capabilities compared with what the Nissan PRO-4X and Tacoma TRD Off-Road do in the dirt," Bruzek said.
Sloppy handling: "A little unnerving at times how much rattle and shake the rear live axle can do when running down a choppy dirt road at a playful speed," Williams said. Bragman agreed: "The Colorado is bouncy when it's not carrying a payload or towing a trailer, with pronounced tire noise." And for Bruzek, it was worse when full. "Corrugated dirt roads and choppy terrain send the back end of the truck wagging around, which is slightly unsettling when hauling near max payload."
Interior design: Although some judges applauded it, others were not sold. "I don't care for the styling of the instrument panel," Mikonis said. "It has big, intuitive controls, but the overall design is very simplistic. Interiors are a battle ground; I'd like to see some more visual interest."
Deep-seated issues: "The angle of the seat bottom places the front of it very high, pressing on my thighs. I would like to be able to tilt the bottom to vary the position over long drives," Mikonis said. "Seat-height adjustment is more of a rise-and-tilt instead of just up and down," Bragman added.
And...: "The transmission could use a Sport mode with quicker shifting and more eager kickdown for passing," Bruzek said. "The high belt line and hood makes outward visibility more of an issue than in the Japanese-brand competitors," Bragman said. "You wouldn't think the relatively small amount of extra wheelbase would affect the truck so much when navigating parking lots or tight situations," Williams said, "but it does."
The Verdict: "The Ridgeline surprised us by not sucking and doing most truck things in our test just as well or better than the others," Bruzek said.
What They Liked
A unique truck: "From the moment you slide into the front seat, you know this is a different kind of pickup experience," Williams said. "Easier entry, better visibility and widely adjustable seats. Better than anything else."
Bed-a-plenty: "The bed options, such as the integrated speaker and locking trunk well, are such good ideas that other automakers should start upping their bed technology game," Bragman said. "We do a lot of tailgating and bringing gear to and from the softball fields," said Vigus, whose boyfriend is in a competitive league. "We'd be using the bed of the truck a lot." For her, the Ridgeline was the best truck in the competition. "The lockable in-bed trunk has a seemingly endless number of practical uses and is standard," Bruzek said. "Any lockable, sealed outside storage is gold and this trunk is huge. It does leave a shallow bed with a high load floor, but it's a masterful packaging compromise," Mikonis said. "However, no new ground is broken here; it's not noticeably different than the first-generation Ridgeline's bed."
Two-way tailgate: "While it is certainly helpful to access the in-bed trunk, I thought the two-way tailgate was gimmicky until I actually had to load the bed. Not having to stretch over the open tailgate, or take the extra step of loading things onto it first made a difference. It also leaves the full bumper exposed to step on to climb up in the bed," Mikonis said. "It was disappointing to not have the tailgate damped to keep it from slamming down if let go when opening in the traditional downward direction, but that latch/hinge is already a complex affair, so maybe that's too much to ask."
Plenty of room and comfort: "The Ridgeline is astonishingly comfortable," Bragman said. "It feels like a spacious crossover or a minivan but not like a midsize pickup truck." "The spacious cab is almost full-size truck territory," Bruzek added. Williams said he was "very impressed with how much sound insulation there is from the windows and the rear of the cab. Very quiet."
Great ride and handling: "The all-wheel-drive system with mechanical torque vectoring of the rear axle is proficient enough in sand and loose gravel to keep up with the rest of the truck crowd in light off-roading," Bruzek said. "The ride is the smoothest here and the V-6 engine feels very strong, even when towing a trailer," Bragman said. "The traction the Ridgeline gets off-road with street tires is startling. Even when it was cutting power for some reason and was stopping on the slope, it got going again where some of the other trucks probably couldn't have. It seemed to do better over the sandy soil where the others were sinking in," Mikonis noted.
And...: "This is the first pickup on the planet that has an Eco mode. Push the button, and the transmission and throttle respond to smooth out all your spikes and inconsistencies, making you a more efficient driver," Williams said, adding it "saves you money." "It was an easy slide into the vehicle; best of the bunch," Vigus said. "I really like the seats and how comfortable they feel. Gives me a lot of the visibility I want but doesn't really feel like a truck."
What They Didn't
Not carrying its weight: "It has a real problem carrying heavy loads," Williams said. "Too much squat in the rear end and riding near bump stops when we only had half of our calculated payload in the bed. Brakes got mushy, too." "There's too much rear-end squat while carrying payload that points the nose toward the sky and makes driving at highway speeds sketchy as hell," Bruzek added. "Load up the Ridgeline's bed to nearly payload capacity and it is not happy," Bragman said. "The handling gets really unstable as the truck squats rearward, unloading the front tires."
Not enough "truck": "The crossover vibe of the interior is a real bummer," Mikonis said. "From the conversation mirror to the captain's chairs' armrests, it looks and feels like you are sitting in a Pilot. It shows the apathetic effort to differentiate it from whence it was derived, unlike the first-generation Ridgeline." "I really don't like a transmission that doesn't allow me to use the gears in some fashion," Williams noted. "The L and D4 settings have their use but don't provide nearly the amount of usage bandwidth most pickup owners sometimes need...am also not a fan of how much unnerving squat there is in the rearend when loaded."
Poor ride quality, on-road and off: "Although the smartest engine and traction control system I've ever seen does a lot to help this vehicle on loose, flat dirt and sand," Williams said, "the lack of ground clearance, the low-profile street-biased tires and weaker-than-most gearing (no low range) would make this quite vulnerable on just about any real-world off-road situation." "Ride quality on anything but perfectly smooth surfaces is overrated," Mikonis said. "The truck rode better on unpaved roads. Even deteriorated Michigan pavement made the rearview mirror vibrate and the unoccupied passenger seat belt rattle against the interior trim, which was legitimately annoying."
Bad brakes: "The brakes are squishy, lacking any confident bite or pedal feel," Bragman said. "A numb, soft brake pedal travels uncomfortably far to the ground when hauling near-max payload," Bruzek said.
And...: "Honda's Display Audio multimedia system is awful," Bragman said, a common complaint with our editors about the current Honda lineup. "It's difficult to read in bright light, hard to control quickly and smudges up with fingerprints in seconds." "The rear-seat cargo room with the seats folded looks big, but it is deceiving since the rear doors don't open very far," Mikonis said. "Longer or wider items will not load straight in. Also, the lawn-furniture-grade bent tubing that holds up the seat bottoms looks really hokey." And "the high cargo load-in makes it harder to shovel items like salt bags into the bed, especially a lot of them, repeatedly, over a week of testing," Bruzek said.
The Verdict: "Literally the lightest truck in our test, yet it has the most payload capacity, most towing capacity and the highest gross combined weight rating as well," Williams said. "I like that strategy. A truck should always be ready to do a lot of work."
What They Liked
The silence: "The GMC's low road and wind noise rivals the Honda and is more impressive considering the Canyon is a traditional body-on-frame truck," Bruzek said. "It is quieter and smoother than its Chevrolet sibling," Bragman said, "with comfortable surroundings and quality materials in the cabin."
Interior quality: "I like the interior; it really looks like they've made the attempt to make it look upscale with really nice material and accents," Vigus said. "I like the aluminum and woodgrain. It classes it up."
Technically efficient: "Like the Colorado, the Canyon's similar multimedia system with Apple CarPlay is a big win for iPhone users," Bruzek said. "The Ridgeline is the only truck offering Android Auto and physically interacting with that screen is a disaster." "The SLE trim level is a decent value — a realistic selection of available equipment without getting too crazy on price," Mikonis said. "But I would forgo the Driver Alert Package in exchange for keyless start or some bed protection." "Like the Chevy, the GMC's multimedia system is just about perfect, with easy controls and the simplicity of Apple CarPlay to assist you," Bragman added.
Smart four-wheel drive: "I really like that GMC allows its little pickup to have an Auto four-wheel-drive button," Williams said. "It seems so simple and easy to ignore but does an amazing job of delivering more confidence in a wider variety of bad weather or terrain situations." Mikonis agreed: "This is my favorite truck based on my personal truck needs, even though I scored the Chevrolet higher. I rarely get off-road, so its four-wheel drive with locking rear differential has enough capability for situations I might encounter. The Auto drive setting would be nice for snow. I'll take the shorter wheelbase for smaller dimensions in city situations."
Powered up: "The ubiquitous 3.6-liter direct-injection V-6 makes the GM trucks," Mikonis said. "The power level pushes it into half-ton pickup territory for towing and hauling. You get satisfying acceleration when empty, and it's smooth and dead quiet at idle."
Ride and handling: "Regular street tires are key to the GMC's comfort and street ability, with more planted handling and less noise than the Chevrolet's knobbier off-road tires," Bruzek said. "The Canyon rides beautifully on-road due in part to its more street-oriented tires, and its V-6 engine feels strong even with a nearly full payload," Bragman said.
And...: "The rear seats are the only ones in which I didn't feel cramped," Vigus said. "They were probably my favorite seats of the group."
What They Didn't
Value proposition: "I would really like to see more technological separation in a GMC from its competitors or when compared to its Chevy brother," Williams said. "All-wheel drive is a good separator but it needs much more." Mikonis agreed: "Though I drank the GMC Kool-Aid on this one to some extent, there needs to be more differentiation between the Colorado and Canyon interiors, particularly the instrument panel. Some more stitching and fancy brushed-metal trim does not a different truck make." Other judges said much the same. "The bed lacks some of the bonus features of the others at this price, like an AC outlet, a lockable bin or a cargo management system that the others had," Bruzek said.
Poor road manners: "The shorter wheelbase means the GMC isn't as happy towing as the Chevy — the front end feels light and the truck gets pushed around by side winds a lot," Bragman said. "The street-oriented tires are at a grip disadvantage in loose sand and gravel," Bruzek said, "though that remedy is just one tire change away. Corrugated dirt roads and choppy terrain send the back end of the truck wagging around, which is more pronounced with the GMC and its standard suspension and street tires."
Bad bed: "This was the only truck without bed protection or alternative bed materials. It was showing scratching already after some mild use," Mikonis said. "Whose dumb idea was it to paint pickup bed floors, anyway?"
And...: "It's a small thing, but the seating materials seem hard and thin for a midlevel GMC," Williams said. "Also, the amount of rear under-seat storage is abysmal. Small cubbies and restricted fold-flat and flip-up abilities of the rear seats are not practical for much use." "The gauges are too dark," Bragman said. "Unlike the brightly lit Chevy gauges, the numerals and hash marks disappear easily when wearing sunglasses." "I can't get into OnStar navigation. Or OnStar in general for that matter. I'm not buying into the idea of a pay-per-month service," Mikonis said. "Literally."
Cars.com photos by Angela Conners