By G.R. Whale
The competitors in our 2017 Monster Factory Off-Road Challenge are the best factory-built pickups trucks their manufacturers offer for off-pavement travel. With that said, what they won't do is turn a full-size pickup into a hard-core trail toy — think Land Rover Defender 90 or Jeep Wrangler Rubicon — with their external dimensions often being the main go/no-go decision factor.
We looked at each pickup's price premium relative to their nearest-equipped stablemate, and how they worked in their target terrain. Because of the warm, dry weather we had while driving them on extreme 4x4 off-road trails outside Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, just north of Tucson, Ariz., there was no testing in mud or snow. Alphabetically, here's what makes them different.
2017 Ford F-150 Raptor
As the only SuperCab short-bed F-150 available, the Raptor was different in almost every way compared with its competitors, from tires to clearance lights. It costs roughly $8,500 more than a base F-150 Lariat. For that price bump, you get a unique frame with a 6-inch-wider track along with unique bodywork and bumpers; a transfer case; a high-output 3.5-liter engine; dual exhaust; cast-aluminum lower A-arms, wheels and tires; hydraulic bump stops; nine-stage big-bore Fox Racing dampers; and 1 .6 kilowatts of cooling fan power. A locking rear differential and 4.10:1 gears are standard, forged aluminum beadlock-capable wheels cost $1,165 and a Torsen limited-slip front differential was part of an option package; this truck had both.
The suspension system delivers 13 inches of travel in front and 13.9 inches in back compared with an F-150 FX4's 7.3 and 9.5 inches respectively. It allowed the 3-ton truck to barrel along washboard roads, dunes and dry washes at giddy speeds, airing out to soft landings without tossing occupants around. There's no factory truck that can keep up; a Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro would be the most likely second-place finisher, but with roughly half the power it would literally be left in the Raptor's dust. All that travel also lets the wheels drop gently at slow speeds for easy crawling over rocks or through divots.
With 450 horsepower working through a close-ratio 10-speed automatic transmission, a multimode transfer case and a locker, finding traction was never an issue, whether the truck was in wide-open throttle at high range or feathering the gas pedal in low. On the highway, the long-travel suspension allowed lots of body roll and pitch, but it wasn't alarming and it felt like the weight was relatively low. Aluminum running boards got scraped on our rocky trails because the Raptor's width and its breakover angle were just a fraction of a degree better than the longer-wheelbase half-ton 2017 Nissan Titan and 2016 Ram 1500 Mopar Rebel.
2017 Nissan Titan Pro-4X
Initially the $4,000 bump from SV to Pro-4X might seem a bit much because it doesn't all go to off-road performance. But there's little choice in the matter, so the list of functional improvements is significant: Our half-ton Titan had a size larger all-terrain (rather than all-season) tires (only the Nissans had a matching spare wheel and tire), and the lack of a front spoiler improved the approach angle by 5 degrees, and departure and breakover angles by a few more. Bilstein shocks, a locking rear differential, a transfer case, steel radiator skid plates, hill descent control, foglights, LED headlights, blind spot mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, a Class IV hitch, tow hooks, a spray-in bedliner, navigation, a rear camera, floormats, a 120-volt console outlet, captain's chairs and a few other conveniences rounded out the list of features.
The Titan got through all our off-road courses without trouble or complaint. It wasn't the fastest over the rough stuff, nor the most flexible in the articulation sections. That wasn't a surprise given it carried 32 percent more calculated payload capacity than the 2017 Ram 2500 Power Wagon, 61 percent more than the Rebel and 83 percent more than the Raptor. Its relatively heavy steering and large turning circle made low-speed trails feel more like work than in the others, but the locker and relatively quiet traction control made up for limited flex and tread aggressiveness, and the skid plates did their job. On steep approaches tow hooks became the ramp, so the Nissans' tow hooks were more abraded than the others', but we'd rather replace a bolt-on hook than a bumper.
Nothing in the Pro-4X upgrade affects its road manners beyond the 1-mpg EPA highway drop. You'd be hard-pressed to do a locker, shocks and bigger tires on an SV for the $4,000, and your work wouldn't be warranted.
2017 Nissan Titan XD Pro-4X
For the same $4,000 bump above an SV, the Titan XD version added essentially the same equipment as the Titan Pro-4X, the primary differences being three additional skid plates (the hitch and mirrors are already on the SV), tires that grow three sizes on an inch-larger diameter wheel, and the locker and Bilsteins are obviously stouter.
In slow going, the XD did very well, aided by a powertrain that idled over most things, rarely needed more than 1,000 revs for the rest and used a lot less fuel on the trail. Load-biased suspension (55 percent more payload capacity than the Power Wagon) didn't do much for flex and tires were moderate, so the locker was engaged earlier, but the wheelbase and rigid feel eased climbs.
Like the Titan, steering heft and maneuverability were prime drawbacks here. On faster terrain, the XD handled competently, height and relaxed power delivery masking speed that inevitably found front shock limits. Bear in mind it was chasing purpose-built half tons and we'd expect it would work as well, or better, with 1,000 pounds in the bed. We found the XD better suited to towing toys to base camp than being the toy and playing out on the trail.
It's unlikely XD mileage is affected much by choosing the Pro-4X, and as with the Titan, the aftermarket can't match the parts value.
2016 Ram 1500 Mopar Rebel
Arguably the only mechanically functional Mopar piece on the Rebel is a power-steering skid plate — the only skid plate we didn't use. A Ram 1500 with recalibrated air suspension set one step higher and the 33-inch LT tires (as measured by PickupTrucks.com) on 17-inch wheels are the Rebel's primary mechanical upgrades; it has greater cosmetic distinction than any truck except the Raptor. When ordering a similar Big Horn with air suspension, a limited-slip diff, skid plates and a Hemi (you don't want a V-6 to spin these tires), the Rebel price premium is less than $1,250.
With its slightly smaller tires, the Rebel's low-range gearing matched the Raptor's, so the Rebel's eight-speed powertrain crawled along quite easily, and while the air suspension provides the option of added frame clearance and better-than-average tire help, traction control was often called upon. Optional side-step brackets meant lots of steering around things, so the tight turning circle was appreciated — but it also meant top ride height, which added bounce and limited drop travel, invoking traction control.
At higher speeds, tire squish and travel let the Rebel slot between the Raptor and the 2016 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro and half-ton Titan; fast steering helped and it was generally playful, if not as directionally stable, as the half-ton Titan. The Rebel was a top player for pavement ride and handling, too; the only detractions were some tire sing and a payload capacity of just 840 pounds.
2017 Ram 2500 Power Wagon
Ram's big wheeler doesn't have as many unique parts as the Raptor, but it's a more distinct model than others in this Challenge. The Power Wagon brings a standard 6.4-liter V-8 Hemi, a manual-shift transfer case, locking differentials at both ends, front anti-roll-bar disconnect, 4.10:1 gears, skid plates, a trailer brake control, a winch, hill descent, 32-inch Duratracs (as measured by PickupTrucks.com) on 17-inch wheels, the best off-road angles in the test and unique shocks, springs and front suspension for about $5,200 more than the base Ram 2500 Laramie trim. The only functional options were towing mirrors and dual alternators.
Not built for speed, the Power Wagon acquitted itself surprisingly well in faster sections of the trails; its generous wheel travel never felt under-damped and directional stability was spot-on. You can't lock the rear diff in two-wheel drive, but weight and flex were sufficient to find traction; even the big Hemi V-8 rarely overpowered anything.
In slow stuff, the disconnecting sway bar and solid front axle allowed superior articulation and the Power Wagon was excellent at keeping all four wheels on the ground. It was the only truck in this competition in which the rear axle didn't feel like it was doing nearly all the work. Ground clearance was minimal under the huge rear diff, but iron doesn't give like aluminum, so when the Power Wagon dragged somewhere, we worried more about what it dug up than any mechanical issues underneath.
The Power Wagon also was more self-contained: If you got the line completely wrong — or had we encountered sticky mud — the winch could save the day, and with gobs of charging power you could make long continuous pulls for long stretches.
Alas, solid hardware mass yields an effective payload just north of 1,000 pounds, so people go inside, everything else goes in the trailer and fuel economy runs about one-quarter behind the diesel Titan XD.
2016 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro
The only truck that ran the same size tire as its brethren (albeit with slightly more aggressive tread), the Tundra TRD Pro is a moderate $1,500 step up from a Limited with the mild TRD Off-Road Package. It gets a dual exhaust for a nominal power and volume increase, an aluminum skid plate with oil service access, remote-reservoir three-stage Bilstein shocks and 2-inch-taller front springs.
Built for higher (not really high) speeds off the highway while maintaining the same on-highway performance, the TRD Pro was at home on washes, graded dirt and dune-running. It didn't want to disable traction control in 2WD, sapping the fun slightly, but with maneuverability second only to the Ram and lively feel, it was good fun at wide-open throttle.
In low range, the traction control got a workout because it has no locker nor the Rebel's 32-inch tires, yet it went everywhere the rest did and with the second-best approach angle, the body — somewhat surprisingly — got less dinged up in the process. With the Tundra's reasonable payload offering, much lower replacement costs for tires and no EPA penalty, we'd call the $1,500 for the TRD Pro trim money well spent.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears