By Joe Bruzek
Flogging these pickup trucks off-road wasn't our only consideration when picking the 2017 Monster Factory Off-Road Challenge winner. Each truck racked up points through rigorous evaluations in a number of subjective categories that included judges' scores in interior quality, versatility, value and more. Points also were awarded for measured testing of acceleration and braking and various truck-centric capabilities, including payload and gross vehicle weight ratings.
The winner was perhaps a bit lopsided in off-road chops and leaned so far in that direction that its shortcomings in other areas weren't serious enough to keep it off the top of the podium. Here's how they finished:
No. 6: 2017 Ram 2500 Power Wagon, 1,879 points
Equipped with the heaviest duty of heavy-duty parts, we were a bit surprised to see the 2500 Power Wagon come up last. It wasn't due to a lack of enthusiasm from the judges; we scored the Power Wagon our second favorite in subjective categories.
"If any vehicle looked and felt at home on the trail, it was the Power Wagon. There's so much to love here: live axles, softened coil springs, dual-pivot lower control arms, a sway-bar disconnect, front and rear locking differentials, and gobs of ground clearance," said PickupTrucks.com Editor Mark Williams.
No, it was the fuel economy of the heavy-duty gasser, pokey acceleration numbers and mid-pack payload that bit away at the Power Wagon's chances of placing better among lighter, more fuel-efficient and quicker, yet mostly less off-road-capable, trucks.
No. 5: 2017 Nissan Titan XD Pro-4X, 1,899 points
The Titan XD Pro-4X diesel may be a partial-heavy-duty pickup, but it's more similar to the Power Wagon than the other trucks and the two battled head-to-head for the best of the heaviest. Test judge and automotive freelance journalist Greg Whale commented that the XD is "a very good truck for working at, or towing things to, off-highway locations," and that's how the XD beat the Power Wagon, by eking 20 more points from categories including gross vehicle weight rating, payload and towing.
The XD's diesel engine also returned better fuel economy than the gas Power Wagon and ranked second on our fuel-economy loop. For some judges, the diesel engine was notable on the trail for low-end torque that was able to impressively pull the 7,400-pound truck through ruts and over rocks.
Not all judges were thrilled with the diesel engine, however, on- or off-road.
"I haven't liked this engine," said Cars.com Los Angeles Bureau Chief Brian Wong. "It's not responsive in either environment and it has a weird exhaust note I didn't enjoy."
No. 4: 2016 Toyota Toyota Tundra TRD Pro, 1,915 points
The Tundra TRD Pro elicited the most "What if?" comments. What if it had more aggressive tires? What if it had a locking differential? What if it had fewer miles? The Tundra, with 15,000 miles on its odometer, was a rattle trap compared with the other trucks. It was also the least expensive of the group with few convenience options (the TRD Pro has no optional equipment). But to some, the Tundra's basicness was a plus.
"Simplicity is always a bonus — see the shifter and climate controls — but it feels a generation old, maybe because, for most intents and purposes, it is," Whale said.
The Tundra TRD Pro overcame the same trail obstacles as the other trucks, but it always seemed to struggle just a little bit more, needing awareness in throttle application and patience to tackle similar obstacles. Throttle control helped the Tundra in these tough situations. "I still really enjoy the engine/throttle combination. On the street it makes the Toyota feel a bit spritelier, and off-road it's the one I preferred for crawling obstacles," Wong said.
The TRD Pro's standard Michelin tires were far less aggressive than other trucks' rubber, though they had a deceiving amount of grip on the rocky trail. The factory tires are nothing like the aggressive optional BFGoodrich tires we've previously tested on a Tundra TRD Pro, however.
No. 3: 2017 Nissan Titan Pro-4X, 1,949 points
Mid-pack was an appropriate finish for the half-ton Titan Pro-4X with the gas V-8. It was the truck judges proclaimed did everything acceptably but didn't stand out in any particular way. It struck a balance between street driving, hauling ability and off-road capability. The Titan struggled off-road with a weak approach angle and a front skid plate that seemingly had a death wish. Williams explained:
"It doesn't take too long on a rough-and-tumble trail to find the limits of the suspension, finding out how soft the front end, with its long nose, can be. It's not right when you have to get used to hearing your front skid plate work so hard with off-roading."
The Titan's street ride quality was superb and very much like other modern half-ton trucks, though clearly more street oriented than off-road focused, but still capable of light-duty off-road work. "A worthy choice for a second car that pulls quads, snowmobiles or a moderate camping trailer occasionally," Whale said.
No. 2: 2016 Ram 1500 Mopar Rebel, 1,952 points
Ram didn't need to throw much at the Ram 1500 Rebel for it to be a capable off-road package. The air suspension and eight-speed automatic transmission are such big strengths of other Ram 1500s and are aided by grippy 32-inch-tall (as measured by PickupTrucks.com) all-terrain tires and a 3.92 axle ratio for a package that's surprisingly balanced. The air suspension proved a popular feature among judges.
"What's not to like about a suspension that allows the driver to decided how high or low they want to go when driving different terrain?" Williams asked. "The airbags clearly help with on-road comfort and driver feel, but it's odd that when in 'Off-Road' mode it delivers the stiffest, most punishing ride."
The whole package was tied together with supple ride quality, smart engine and transmission tuning, and creature comforts including remote start, a heated steering wheel and a Mopar special edition package on this particular truck. One feature we'd ditch are the tubular side steps, which took a beating on the trail.
"I get that Mopar offers quite a few customizing choices to their buyers, but the side steps took considerable work to protect. I would not recommend it for anyone thinking about venturing off-road, especially with a truck that can lower you to the ground with an air suspension," Williams said.
No. 1: 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor, 2,087 points
To put it simply, the F-150 Raptor dominated. Sure, its trailering capabilities are a class below the other trucks in this Challenge, but this menacing pickup is the sports car of off-roading. It dominated low-speed trails and higher-speed loose dirt roads, plus it exhibited surprising civility on the road and had a long list of creature comforts.
"This is the new kind of sports truck," Williams remarked. "One that can do many things in several types of environments. My only complaint is that when it comes to being a bed-cargo-carrying pickup, it falters."
Williams wasn't alone in his criticism of the Raptor's truck capabilities. "As a desert speedster or mountain goat, it's state of the art; as a second car, it's space inefficient and not particularly economical, and as a pickup, it barely edges out the average garden tractor or side-by-side," Whale said.
The Raptor didn't just perform well off-road. Its zero-to-60-mph and quarter-mile acceleration were more Mustang-like than trucklike and absolutely embarrassed the other trucks. Being well-rounded and a blast to drive on- and off-road echoed in the minds of the judges.
"I did not think it was possible to engineer such a specialized truck to be good at so many things," Wong said, "but it was."
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears