2015 Midsize Challenge: Off-Road Aptitude

Toyota 34 II

In judging these V-6 midsize pickup trucks, we wanted to give the manufacturers a chance to show off how well they understand (or don't) what a good, capable four-wheel-drive system can be. We know most people don't need rock-climbing traction or a rut-pounding suspension, but as a versatile "just-in-case" feature it helps buyers see how multifunctional and adaptable a truck can be in changing terrain and/or weather.

For this Challenge, we added an off-road aptitude category for our judges, allowing them to experience each of the trucks on a closed dirt racetrack (the Lucas Oil track at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz.) with all sorts of uneven mounds and ruts in the infield, and then let them rate each competitor against the group. The judges rotated from one truck to the other and back again to calibrate their assessments.

But before we explain how each performed and how our judges ranked this midsize class, here's what each of the 4x4 packages offered:

What They Have

2015 Chevrolet Colorado Z71

Colorado V-6 12 II

Chevy has a long history with the Z71 name, but in the last several decades it has languished and never quite lived up to its potential. The Z71 trim offers uniquely tuned front and rear springs, specially tuned shocks, unique wheels and tires, and some extra skid plating. But the suspension is at stock height. The package does offer GM's G80 rear limited-slip differential that can fully lock (after a good amount of spin) in certain low-traction situations. GM also included a hill descent control feature, but that's only offered with the four-wheel-drive version (the Z71 trim can be ordered on two-wheel-drive Colorados). The low-range gear is 2.72:1, and the crawl ratio (multiply 1st gear by ring-and-pinion gear by low-range gear) is 37.8:1.


2015 GMC Canyon SLT

Canyon V-6 9 II

GMC chose not to send its best off-road package, the All-Terrain (which includes the same Z71 package offered on our test Colorado), but instead sent its volume player: the Canyon SLT 4x4. As a result, our 4x4 test Canyon came with the softer springs and shocks, and a pair of chrome tubular side steps. Additionally, the Canyon did not have the G80 locking rear differential or the hill descent control. The GMC pickup does offer an exclusive transfer case that is the only one in the segment with all-wheel-drive capability in the form of a separate "Auto" detent. The four-wheel-drive low-range ratio is 2.72:1, and the Canyon has a crawl ratio of 37.8:1.


2015 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X

Nissan 13 II

We've always like the PRO-4X trim because Nissan engineers have wrapped all the right parts and pieces together without going too wild or making it too expensive. The Frontier is a little smaller than the other players, which makes it feel more nimble and maneuverable — a good quality to have when navigating difficult terrain or negotiating trail ledges. To its credit, the V-6 engine feels peppy and responsive. Add to that a relatively aggressive off-road tire, Bilstein monotube shocks, extra skid plating and an electronically activated locking rear differential, and you can see why this trail machine (the least expensive our test trucks) was a nice surprise and hidden treasure for our judges. The low-range ratio is 2.63:1, and the crawl ratio is 33.9:1.


2015 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

Tacoma sideB II

New for the 2015 model year, this trim package is Toyota's attempt to inject one last syringe of adrenaline into the aging Tacoma. Underneath, the TRD Pro includes longer and stronger front coil springs to give the suspension 2 extra inches of compression travel, while the rear springs are relatively unchanged. Custom, remote-reservoir Bilstein shocks allow the TRD Pro to run at racing speeds through the desert without overheating. Likewise, the setup includes aggressively treaded and large all-terrain tires with stylish bead-lock-like wheels. The TRD Pro also offers a push-button locking rear differential, hill descent and sophisticated traction control mapping (called A-TRAC) to help the vehicle get all the traction it can handle at high or low speeds. The low-range ratio is 2.57:1, and the crawl ratio is 33.7:1.



What the Judges Thought

Our judges beat up each of the competitors and found both of the GM vehicles wanting, yet came away quite impressed with the imports. In alphabetical order:


Chevrolet Verdict: Almost, but Not There

Colorado V-6 16 A II

The Chevy's Z71 trim seemed to offer the bare minimum of off-road capability and left us wanting more. The fact it has a locking differential and more aggressive tires did not make it feel much more confident than its non-off-road packaged sibling: "This package seems to be more of an all-around pavement package rather than dirt dedicated … we'll keep hoping the ZR2 is on its way," said Mark Williams.


GMC Verdict: Soft and Cushy to a Fault

Canyon V-6 13 II

The GMC Canyon SLT was clearly the least prepared of our group to play seriously in the dirt. We liked that it has a transfer case with capabilities similar to what's found in the half-ton GM trucks, but it still smacks of an "all-weather" package rather than an all-terrain alternative: "I found the Canyon suspension allowed more jarring hits to the undercarriage and even felt unnerving vibrations through the steering wheel, and the tires often lost their grip," Aaron Bragman said.


Nissan Verdict: The Little Package That Could

Nissan 21 II

The Nissan Frontier PRO-4X was probably the biggest surprise of the group, delivering on the promise its wheels, tires and decals make. The bigger BF Goodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires and lively throttle response had us smiling all the way around the track, especially when taking all four wheels off the ground: "While the Toyota may not look like a mini-Ford Raptor, it's the Nissan that plays in the dirt like a mini-Raptor, and the off-road ability doesn't seem to come with an on-road penalty," Bragman said.


Toyota Verdict: Catches Air Like a Pro

Toyota 16 II

Although the Toyota Tacoma is adequate on pavement, the TRD Pro is engineered and designed for the nastiest dirt destinations. The Tacoma TRD Pro swallowed every bump and jump like a champion without any nose dives or smashing bump stops. Unfortunately, the engine is just too weak to keep up with the suspension, and the TRD exhaust tries to make spectators think you're going faster than you really are: "Washes, gullies and uneven terrain are no match for this truck, but the aging chassis and interior noise is a problem … proof positive that solid off-road prowess comes at a cost — you just have to be willing to pay for it," Joe Bruzek said.

To see how the judges scored the off-road test, click here to go to the results story where you'll find the judges' scoring charts at the very end.

Cars.com photos by Evan Sears

Overview | Acceleration | Braking | Mileage Drive | Off-Road | Judges | Results


V-6 Group mountains II



The Canyon SLT 4x4 actually comes with the Z71 built in standard, at least here in Canada. It has the skid plates, hill descent control, and off road tires. Shocks are also the HD off road shocks. Again, here in Canada that is the case, maybe it is different down south?

@ jonnyd84 -- In fact, the Canada Canyon does have all the parts and pieces you list standard with the 4x4, unfortunately (or thankfully), here in the states they can be pieced separately. As a consequence, our truck did not have the Z71 package, the better springs and shocks, nor the more aggressive treads.

Here is a B.D.S. Colorado,


The G80 is actually standard on all SLT Canyon's, 2WD or 4WD. So the Canyon you tested had the same automatic locking diff as the Colorado.

As I've stated if you want to off road, why pay for a sticker?

Go out and buy an after market setup from a reputable distributor. A good quality suspension kit generally will not affect you vehicles warranty.

Many buy these manufacturer off road packages to drive to the mall in and think they are cool. Essentially an el cheapo Raptor.

My take is different (what else is new Papa?). I believe that the average guy who buys a 4x4 in the lower 48 is looking for a hauler to drag his camper and boat trailer.

You can do both nicely enough with 4x2 but the tiebreaker is snow and ice. Once you get north of central Georgia the climate speaks loud and clear to truck owners.

My conclusion is that true off road enthusiasts are do serious mods on their truck for specific applications via the aftermarket anyway. GM is trying to sell to the largest number of potential buyers, in my opinion.

Extremely disappointing that GM doesn't offer the power takeoff transfer case in the Colorado. [the Auto setting]
Is that what makes the GMC "professional grade"

George_C - you can only get a PTO drive in HD's. Why would you want it in one of these?

@PapaJim - agreed. Anyone I know who does any hardcore offroading modifies their own truck since what you want/need varies based on where you live.

The Colorado/Canyon cover more bases than the other 2 trucks. I like the looks of the Colorado but I'd rather have the better interior of the Canyon.

I said TRANSFER CASE, not transmission.
The PTO transfer case has been with us for at least 20 years.
Ford had it in the mid '90s Explorer.
It works by driving the rear axle mechanically, and uses a computer regulated clutch pack to drive the front axle.
GM has been using it for at least 15 years in the 1/2 ton pickups.

It is far more versatile than the Rear/Lock system. You can't ever use Lock on pavement. It interferes with EBD/ABS/ESP.
For the normal person it is practically worthless.

The Tacoma destroyed these maul crawlers without fault. There is no competition for a TRD Pro. Subaru's have nice rides on pavement as well.

Add a factory supercharger which GM and Nissan cannot do and the Pro will destroy these maul crawlers on the street as well and beats them to 30mph regardless and the Pro beat the Colorado in the 1/4 mile on 4 wheeler magazine on another review where the Colorado took 4th place and the Pro came in 2nd to the Power Wagon which is a 3/4 ton and far too big for a lot of us.

George C - never heard of a transfer case described as a PTO T-case in the format you describe. I grew up around heavy machinery so PTO means something totally different to me.

Another point that should have been in the table is the Reverse gear ratio.
GM twin have 3.2
Toyota Tacoma has 3.224
Nissan Frontier has 2.764.
Couple that with axle ratio and tire size.
Toyota comes in 1st, Nissan comes in last.

When I read the spec's on the Canyon when they first came out and notice they had an all-wheel drive option, I knew that was the one I am going to buy. We leave the truck in the garage when it rains or roads have patches of snow/ice and drive our Grand Cherokee with all-wheel drive. I do a lot of hunting and have never needed to engage my locker to get to a camp site.

Who cares about paying an over priced factory outfitted offroad package for these trucks. Anyone who really uses these for offroad buys after market suspensions and other parts. I don't understand why GM trucks always get such a bad rep. It has the best crawl ratio, most torque, and the most solid build. Everything else can be done cheaper in the aftermarket.

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