By Brian Wong
It may seem counterintuitive to talk about how the six competitors in our 2017 Monster Factory Off-Road Challenge function as daily drivers, but the reality is that these pickup trucks won't be used exclusively off-road and will spend much of their lives on paved surfaces.
How they do on the roads will be a factor for anyone thinking about buying one. Considerations such as fuel economy, ride, payload and towing capacity, and the fact that you might need a ladder to get into the 2017 Ram 2500 Power Wagon, are worthy points of discussion.
Our four judges were:
- Joe Bruzek, Cars.com senior road test editor
- Greg Whale, freelance writer
- Mark Williams, PickupTrucks.com editor
- Brian Wong, Cars.com Los Angeles bureau chief
We spent a week in Arizona with these pickups — including three days on off-road trails — but our testing also included a full day of street driving, as well as a long drive to get our own fuel-economy figures for each truck. The fuel-economy route for these trucks was a 170-mile loop around southern Tucson that offered a mix of highway and street driving.
Here's how they did on the pavement (in alphabetical order).
Drivetrain: 450-horsepower, twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6; 510 pounds-feet of torque; 10-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy: 15/18/16 mpg city/highway/combined
Tested fuel economy: 16.5 mpg (third)
Calculated payload: 740 pounds (sixth)
Max tow capacity (as equipped): 6,000 pounds (sixth)
As good as it was off-road — where it was excellent — the Raptor was also surprisingly comfortable and docile on pavement. There was some noticeable body roll, which is to be expected in a suspension that's set up in this manner, but it wasn't enough to turn me off to it — it still felt in control.
Our judges also praised the 10-speed transmission, with Bruzek saying that "the transmission is remarkable; there's a gear for everything you can imagine. It also upshifts quickly; by 40 to 50 mph, it's already cruising along in 10th gear, but the engine doesn't struggle to pull that, either. And if you floor it, the transmission skips half the gears to 5th and you're off instantly."
The Raptor was miles ahead of the rest of the field in the technology department. Sync 3 remains one of my favorite in-car multimedia systems and if that's not doing it for you, there's also Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration (the Raptor was the only competitor to offer this). The Raptor also featured a lot of safety technology that wasn't found in any of the competitors such as adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist.
The Raptor was the only one of our trucks that didn't come in a large cab configuration, so it had the smallest and least comfortable backseat of the bunch. But it was still large enough to fit adult passengers without feeling too cramped.
Bruzek found one other annoyance: the engine noise. "I can't stand the augmented engine sound," he said. "What's coming from the speakers and what's coming from the tailpipe sound like two different vehicles." It's a shame, because the sound from the dual tailpipes sounds pretty good from the outside.
Williams had only one negative about the Raptor: "My only complaint is that when it comes to being a bed/cargo-carrying pickup, it falters." Towing/payload was really the Achilles' heel for this rig; it was dead last in our test for both measurements especially when it came to towing, where it lagged its nearest competitor, the 2017 Nissan Titan Pro-4X, by 3,230 pounds.
Drivetrain: 390-hp, 5.6-liter V-8; 394 pounds-feet of torque; seven-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy: 15/20/17 mpg
Tested fuel economy: 17.0 mpg (first)
Calculated payload: 1,355 pounds (second)
Max tow capacity (as equipped): 9,230 pounds (fifth)
On the street, our judges liked the Titan Pro-4X, specifically calling out its strong brakes and smooth, comfortable ride. I was impressed by the Titan's quietness, where there wasn't much wind or road noise even at highway speeds. The Titan also had my favorite front storage setup; the front cupholders can be moved to customize the space and there's a good-sized bin that can fit everything from phones to a small bag.
The Titan did well in our testing: It had the best fuel economy of the bunch, matching its EPA-estimated combined figure at 17.0 mpg on the dot. And it offered enough payload/towing capacity to make usable in a work-truck capacity as well.
There were a few drawbacks:
- The steering at low speeds was heavy, and in parking lots or while driving in the city, several of our judges made a note of it.
- The media system and screen size feels dated for a modern pickup.
- The Titan came equipped with an around-view-monitor system, but testing it back-to-back against the Raptor made the Titan's setup less appealing -- it lacked sharpness, and I had trouble making out objects on the screen with the cameras on.
- The backseat was large and roomy, given the crew-cab setup, but its seats were not comfortable. Bruzek noted that "there's minimal thigh support and you sit upright," which is likely to be fatiguing on longer trips.
Our judges all agreed that the Titan's greatest strength was its all-around proficiency. Whale called the Titan "a worthy choice for a second car that pulls quads, snowmobiles or a moderate camping trailer occasionally."
Drivetrain: 310-hp, turbo-diesel 5.0-liter V-8; 555 pounds-feet of torque; six-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy: N/A (EPA does not require mpg testing for vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating more than 8,500 pounds)
Tested fuel economy: 16.6 mpg (second)
Calculated payload: 1,590 pounds (first)
Max tow capacity (as equipped): 12,037 pounds (first)
The Titan XD and the Titan half ton had virtually identical interiors, so the good and the bad from the Titan apply to the XD as well. The front seats were very comfortable, the rear seats less so and the screen needs an update.
There was one interior difference: cabin noise. The XD was louder inside than the regular Titan, and more noise from that big diesel engine crept into the cabin and it was not welcome. The XD didn't have a pleasant exhaust note either.
When we put the XD up against the other heavy-duty truck here, the 2017 Ram 2500 Power Wagon, it offered a better driving experience on the street. The Power Wagon drives like what it is: a big HD truck. But I found the XD hid its size well, especially when it came to braking, and it rode comfortably on pavement.
With that diesel engine, the XD did very well on our fuel economy run, with the second-best tested fuel economy of 16.6 mpg, trailing the gas Titan. For payload and towing capacity, the XD was king of the hill, offering the highest number for both figures of all the trucks in our Challenge.
Our judges' complaints about the XD mostly centered around the powertrain. All of that torque was helpful when we were doing low-range crawling on the trails, but on the road it just felt sluggish. Bruzek said that "part-throttle responsiveness is laggy and it never feels like there's much oomph under the hood, despite its torque ratings." And like the Titan, the XD's steering was in need of an adjustment — especially when it came to low-speed weight.
Drivetrain: 395-hp, 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi; 410 pounds-feet of torque; eight-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy: 15/21/17 mpg
Tested fuel economy: 16.1 mpg (fourth)
Calculated payload: 840 pounds (fifth)
Max tow capacity (as equipped): 10,160 pounds (second)
The Rebel had my favorite interior, with extremely comfortable seats and better ergonomics than the two Nissans. From the driver's seat I could reach the controls on the far side of the touchscreen without leaning over, something I couldn't do in the Nissans or the 2016 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro, for that matter. Ram has done solid work on its interiors over the past few years and the Rebel was no exception; materials were great, the Uconnect entertainment system still feels modern and quick, and there was smart storage all over the front.
Underpinning the Rebel is an air suspension that adjusts the height of the truck at highway speeds to make it more aerodynamic. We had trouble with the suspension in its highest off-road setting where it made the ride almost unbearably harsh, but in its regular street settings (Normal and Aero), it offered a smoothness that wasn't really present in the ride of the other trucks. The Rebel was my favorite to drive on road; when given the option to drive one of the trucks during the week I chose this most of the time.
Williams and Bruzek both praised the performance of the eight-speed automatic on the road; it was responsive to throttle inputs and didn't get lost among its gear choices. Bruzek also went on to compliment the exhaust, saying "this is my favorite-sounding engine; it's so eager to rev with the eight-speed transmission."
The two big drawbacks for the Rebel were its payload, where it just beat the Raptor's paltry payload figure, and fuel economy. Our tested fuel economy was 16.1 mpg, which put it fourth among our trucks and below its EPA estimated combined figure, making it the only truck among our contenders to not match or beat that figure.
Drivetrain: 410-hp, 6.4-liter V-8 Hemi; 429 pounds-feet of torque; six-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy: N/A (heavy duty)
Tested fuel economy: 13.1 mpg (sixth)
Calculated payload: 1,028 pounds (fourth)
Max tow capacity (as equipped): 10,030 pounds (third)
The Power Wagon was not the biggest truck in our test (that distinction went to the Titan XD, which was longer and taller), but it definitely drove like it was the biggest of the bunch, with a ride and brake feel that screamed "HEAVY DUTY" at high volume. If the Titan XD's brakes made it feel lighter and more agile than it actually is, the Power Wagon's did the opposite.
Inside, the Power Wagon was similar to Rebel with its high-quality materials, a big bright display screen and good ergonomics. Whale also noted that the Power Wagon was "the only one with six seats in a pinch, further expanding versatility." It also had the most cupholders, so if you need space for 10 drinks up front, you're in luck.
However, there was one big problem in driving a Power Wagon every day: getting into it. The Power Wagon is a tall truck and it didn't have any running boards, which made climbing into it a challenge. I would actually back up and hop up into it each time and that got old quickly.
Also on the downside: fuel economy. There were no EPA ratings available for it since it is a heavy duty, but it did the worst of the group in our fuel-economy test at 13.1 mpg.
Williams referred to the Power Wagon as "the quintessential single-purpose pickup truck," and that held true in our testing. The Power Wagon was more at home on the dirt than anywhere else.
Drivetrain: 381-hp, 5.7-liter V-8; 401 pounds-feet of torque; six-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy: 13/17/15 mpg
Tested fuel economy: 15.7 mpg (fifth)
Calculated payload: 1,220 pounds (third)
Max tow capacity (as equipped): 9,800 pounds (fourth)
The Tundra lags behind the rest of the field when it comes to interior refinement. Whale said that "simplicity is always a bonus — see shifter and climate controls — but this feels a generation old." The rest of the competitors in this test were either brand new or redesigned in the past few years, and the Tundra is overdue for an update.
Everything from the switchgear to the multimedia system to the instrument panel is in need of an update. It's also missing a lot of the convenience features you'd expect from a $46,000 truck, such as automatic climate control, push-button start and modern safety technology. Lastly, it was also the noisiest of the trucks on the road, with lots of wind noise at highway speeds. Driving the Tundra after spending time in the Titans was a huge contrast.
There were positives to the Tundra, to be sure. It had the most comfortable rear seat with lots of room and supportive, comfortable cushioning. Our judges were also impressed by the engine's responsiveness, especially from a stop, and the easy, linear power delivery it offered at all speeds. I was a big fan of the Tundra's growly exhaust note from its TRD dual exhaust, but Bruzek said the noise "is nice at first but gets old after cruising on the highway." We'll agree to disagree on that point, Joe.
Fuel economy was a disappointment for the Tundra, as the only truck it beat with its tested mpg figure of 15.7 was the Power Wagon. Its payload and towing capacity figures placed it mid-pack in our group.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears