By Mark Williams, PickupTrucks.com
After a week of testing all the midsize pickup trucks in the segment for our head-to-head 2016 Midsize Pickup Challenge, we learned quite a few things about each of our competitors. Each one had its own strengths and weaknesses as well as a strong value proposition. Maybe that's why, from a percentage basis, each player in this segment is a sales success when compared to 2015 sales numbers. And from the way these players performed during our battery of tests, we don't expect that to change anytime soon.
Midsize pickups will continue gaining marketplace traction as they keep providing better solutions for buyers looking for an alternative to a full-size pickup or crossover. And the fact that two of the midsize competitors — the Honda Ridgeline and Toyota Tacoma — now have new versions to better compete with GM's popular Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon might have quite a few people interested in the results of this Challenge, some of which are surprising.
As interesting as it is to find out which pickup takes the top spot in one of our comparison tests, sometimes the substories can be just as interesting. As we've seen in Olympic competitions, sometimes outstanding individual performances don't always lead to a gold medal. And sometimes the silver medal winner can be the biggest story of the day. With that said, this year's overall winner did not win the most scored categories, but it put in a consistent performance throughout the competition to make it to the top.
Here's how our five contenders finished, with the specific tests they won and overall point totals:
No. 5: 2016 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X, 2,307 points
First-place finishes: Best 60-to-zero mph, empty braking; best 60-to-zero mph, loaded braking
You have to give Nissan credit: It has the oldest midsize pickup in the segment and it continues to sell well. It's likely to finish 2016 in a strong third place just behind the hot-selling Chevrolet Colorado. We know it's an easy vehicle to dismiss because of its aging interior, but there are plenty of Frontiers on the road and from what we're hearing, dealers must be willing to make midsize truck shoppers a good deal.
Still, because it's a small and relatively heavy (it was the heaviest in our test) midsize pickup that hasn't been improved much in the last 10 years, the hard-plastic interior materials, small navigation screen, squared-off center console, small cupholders and storage cubbies make the Frontier's interior feel even older than it actually is. However, a few of our judges liked the old-school look of the pickup and appreciated that it's not trying to pretend to be anything but an efficient, durable tool.
Our testers liked how much pep the engine offers off the line; it was one of the most powerful of the group with its quick throttle response. But maybe more impressive than it's off-the-line feel was how well it stops, both empty and loaded. Not surprisingly, the braking tests were the only two the Frontier won.
The PRO-4X has been one of our favorite off-road pickups for quite a while because it's so simple. There's not a lot of software technology, but you do get a push-button locking differential, strong gearing, big, knobby tires and Bilstein shocks, all of which will get you over any rock pile with relative ease. Unfortunately, the outdated styling, rough-and-tumble chassis and sluggish steering kept the Frontier solidly at the back of the pack during most of our testing. Even more unfortunate? A next-generation Frontier is still 18 to 24 months away.
No. 4: 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road, 2,390 points
First-place finishes: Least expensive, most horsepower on dyno, mpg loaded
In some ways, this could be the most surprising news coming out of our Challenge: that the No. 1 selling vehicle in the segment finished fourth in a five-truck comparison test. How is it that the all-new Toyota Tacoma is better in every way from the aging vehicle it replaces — which also was the No. 1 selling truck in the segment — but still falls well short when compared to its direct competitors?
According to our judges and testing, the answer is both simple and complicated. To begin, we found the Tacoma's ride height and seating position challenging; some of our testers couldn't get comfortable with a relatively high and flat seat height that only allows for seatback and front-to-back slide adjustments. Other areas where the new Tacoma lost points with our judges included the love-it or hate-it interior update, where the textures and materials are nice but the horizontally biased dash and gauge layout did not impress, especially not with our in-market-shopper guest judge.
However, had this competition heavily weighted off-road performance, the TRD Off-Road with its Multi-Terrain Select system and Crawl Control would have been our runaway champ; in fact, in the off-road category, the Tacoma tallied one of the highest average scores from our judges. As to its off-road capability, the Crawl Control takes some getting used to. It provides the driver with a lot of noise and herky-jerky motions when engaged, but when set properly, we found there is almost nothing it can't conquer. Unfortunately, the off-road portion of this test was only one of 10 categories our experts were assessing.
Probably the most commonly noted disappointment with the Tacoma was the feel and overall performance of the engine and transmission when towing or hauling a load. Thankfully, as in many of the Toyota's vehicles, the Tacoma has an electronically controlled transmission button that allows the driver to change the transmission shift points, but in many cases we found it lacking in terms of what we were hoping for.
As efficient as the powertrain is at delivering good fuel economy, our judges made note of fluctuating dead spots in the midrange power band. Yes, the Tacoma does a lot of things well, but based on our time behind the wheel, you have to really want to overlook a lot of things it does marginally.
No. 3: 2016 Chevrolet Colorado Z71, 2,462 points
First-place finishes: Gross combined weight rating (tie with GMC), max tow rating (tie with GMC)
The Chevy Colorado was literally the only truck in our contest that did not win a single scored category outright; however, it did tie with the GMC Canyon for highest GCWR and max tow rating — both manufacturer-supplied specs. But that's not to say it didn't perform well during our multidimensional test. Our judges noted that in some ways, it is a packaging mystery because it offers from 12 to 15 more inches of wheelbase than the competitors (in frame and bed length, both steel), yet is not the heaviest truck in the Challenge. In fact, the 12 extra inches of wheelbase (which means a 6-foot-plus bed) seemed to help our test drivers on off-road trails, keeping its wheels out of shorter wheelbase ruts and holes. However, when it came to navigating tighter parking lots in shopping malls or at Ann Arbor, Mich., restaurants, the longer pickup was noticeably less maneuverable.
Also of note, during our off-road testing, the longer wheelbase seemed to get hung up on ledges and off-camber mounds; additionally, the low-slung front air dam (great for improving aerodynamics) is horrible when trying to avoid rocks and ruts on the trail. But we don't want to make it sound like it wasn't perfectly competent during our off-road driving, because the Z71 all-terrain tires had the most aggressive tread of the group and showed it when climbing unwalkable hills.
On the plus side, and based on several comments from the judges, the Colorado's technological standout feature was the multimedia system with Apple CarPlay. The system was easy to use and intuitive, and synced quickly to most of our devices. The Colorado's overall interior quality — seats and dash textures — ranked pretty high as well.
Although we found the 3.6-liter V-6 gas engine sufficient for powering this almost 2.5-ton vehicle (mostly because it has a dedicated Tow/Haul mode), we would have liked to have had the 2.8-liter inline four-cylinder turbo-diesel. Unfortunately, Chevy told us it could not package the diesel in the Colorado crew-cab 4x4 and meet our other criteria. We'll have to save that test for a later date. Regardless, the Colorado performed like the Sporty Spice choice, with its Z71 looks and performance to back it up.
No. 2: 2017 Honda Ridgeline RTL-E, 2,490 points
First-place finishes: Zero-to-60-mph acceleration, empty; zero-to-60-mph acceleration, loaded; quarter-mile, empty; quarter-mile, loaded; gross vehicle weight rating; max torque on dyno; max mpg, empty; quietest at idle; quietest at 60 mph
There's no question the Ridgeline was the surprise of this Challenge — in fact, for much of the contest, we thought it was going to win — especially when it beat the competition at the racetrack in both empty and loaded acceleration runs.
To its credit, the Ridgeline won half of all our objective categories — nine of 18 — and not surprisingly, most of our judges found the Ridgeline quite civilized on the highway since it shares many cabin features and much technology with its sibling, the Honda Pilot SUV.
Our biggest surprise came at our daylong romp at the Bundy Hill Offroad park, where we found the Honda Intelligent Traction Management system to be shrewd and smooth during our sand drags and steep hill climbs (see our off-road story). However, as well as it performed, it still had a few problems.
Among the characteristics that our judges did not like was how much sag occurs while carrying payload. According to our payload calculations (GVWR minus actual truck weight), the Ridgeline can carry 1,519 pounds. But when we loaded it to 90 percent of that amount, nearly 1,400 pounds, it sagged worse than any of its competitors, all of which were carrying close to their own maximum payload capacity. Additionally, the braking feel (a little mushy when empty) became sometimes unpredictable when carrying a nearly max payload.
Regarding the Honda's interior, we had a huge problem with sun glare and using the nav/multimedia screen. Our judges hammered the interior touch-screen multimedia controls, many of which do not have corresponding manual knobs or buttons. Interestingly, by not providing us a less expensive lower trim model (which does not have the large touch-screen), Honda seemed to cost itself several judges' points. Still, if you need your pickup to be a Swiss army knife and you don't need to carry a lot of gear, there isn't anything else in the Ridgeline's league.
No. 1: 2016 GMC Canyon SLE, 2,509 points
First-place finishes: GCWR (tie with the Chevy), lightest vehicle, most payload, max tow rating (tie with the Chevy), most judges' points
Finishing in first place by one of the slimmest margins in any test we've conducted, the GMC Canyon won this competition by keeping a slow and steady pace in each and every event. Yes, the Canyon won four objective test categories outright (two of which it tied with Chevy Colorado), but maybe more importantly, it finished first or second in the majority of categories, as well as scoring two and four points (out of a possible 1,000) ahead of the Ridgeline and Colorado, respectively, in the five-judge portion of our test.
Many of our experts commented on how well-balanced and confident the truck felt while on the track, driving around country roads and even at the off-road park. The midlevel SLE package is decently appointed, collecting a solid number of points from most judges, while the structure of the vehicle put it at the top of the capability categories. This pickup had the highest payload capacity and GCWR, it was the lightest of our competitors, was the only four-wheel-drive system in our test with a separate all-wheel-drive setting, and the V-6 gas engine was both powerful and efficient. The GMC Canyon SLE is probably the best heart-of-the-market offering of the test, providing value and strength for those who need versatile capabilities in a downsized package.
How We Conducted the Testing
As with many of our past comparison tests, we put all of the competitors through head-to-head testing in multiple objective categories — this time 18 (see all the charts below) — scoring each against the other. We do not weight any of the objective categories and provide you with all the results so you can select the categories that are more important to you to help you choose the midsize pickup that best meets your needs.
Like many of our other industry-leading comparison tests, we track tested each truck, carried heavy loads, did some towing and took them on a real-world fuel economy route. Additionally, we tested each vehicle on the same Mustang chassis dyno, conducted sound measurements at idle and at 60 mph on the same stretch of highway, and measured each truck against the others in categories such as manufacturer towing capacities, overall weight and price. This portion of the test accounted for 70 percent of the total points for this Challenge.
In our judges' categories, considered the expert-review part of the test, the vehicles were scored in 10 different categories that covered interior quality, cabin and bed storage, tech and entertainment, seating comfort, performance and value. Our judges scored each category on a 1-to-10-point scale. We then doubled their scores so that that they accounted for 30 percent of the total points. We'd like to especially thank in-market judge Jennifer Vigus for spending so much time learning about each pickup from their respective manufacturer representatives and then driving each pickup on the same designated test route. You'll find many of her comments woven into our "What the Judges Said" piece.
In the end, we added up the numbers to find out which truck won; it's as simple as that. This year the returning 2015 champion, the GMC Canyon, nosed out the impressive, all-new Honda Ridgeline by just 19 points out of a possible 2,800. Check out all the head-to-head test results in the charts below.
Cars.com photos by Angela Conners