Half-ton pickups are very popular, especially among newbie customers who only need a truck to haul plywood and mulch home from The Home Depot. Manufacturers have responded with larger, more luxurious cabs that reduce the traditional tradeoffs. Many of these customers don't need to haul heavy loads or tow large trailers--they just want to handle light suburban chores and tow the occasional small trailer. In addition to making today's half-ton pickups more comfortable and luxurious to appeal to car owners, manufacturers have also been making them stronger and tougher, and, as a consequence, heavier. That means they're also thirstier, and, in today's era of $2/gallon of gasoline, some of those capabilities may not be worth the cost to the casual customer.
Solution? A six-cylinder engine. Entry-level sixes used to be relegated to the plain-vanilla, vinyl-seat, roll-up-window work trucks. But today's six-cylinder engines have grown in horsepower alongside the eight-cylinders, so they're similar to V-8s we drove in the 1990s. They make this power while returning gas mileage that's a couple mpg better. That might not sound like much, but it means a lot compared with the mid-teens mileage of V-8 models.
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Estimating a $50-a-week fuel bill for the V-8, V-6 trucks could save $500 a year in gas. And unlike the costly diesels or hybrids that might also improve fuel economy, the six-cylinder engines cost less up front, so consumers save money at the dealer and at the gas pump. Manufacturers say that sixes account for about 10 percent of pickup sales.
"For people who want a truck for everyday use, the V-6 is a perfect engine with real value," says Mark Grueber, Ford's F-150 marketing manager. "We're talking about 200 horsepower--that was a high performer 10 years back." Of course, people with heavy trailers will need more power, but that's a relatively small portion of truck owners. "At the top of the line, we go up to a 9900-pound towing capacity, but a lot of people don't need that much," Grueber continues. "The V-6 will give them what they need for jet skis or small cargo trailers."
Dodge and Ford have made useful upgrades to their V-6 truck engines for 2005, while GM's V-6 is carried over for another year. All three companies' engines have 90-degree V-angles, an ideal layout for a V-8, but inherently unbalanced in a six-cylinder, making these engines less smooth than straight-sixes or 60-degree V-6s. The advantage to the manufacturer is that not only is the engine basically the same design as that of the existing V-8, it can be built on the same assembly line with the same machine tools, which saves money.
That doesn't mean these engines have been neglected. The Dodge engine uses the newest architecture of the three, is the strongest, with 215 horsepower, and, at 3.7 liters, is the smallest. Its overhead-cam design is derived from the 4.7-liter V-8 that was introduced in the 1990s. For 2005, this engine features significant upgrades to the valve lash adjusters, camshafts, and piston rings, and has a higher compression ratio. These changes target improved fuel economy, smoother idle quality, and increased low-end torque. A thicker plastic intake manifold and improvements to the airbox and intake system also quiet intake noise for 2005.
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The V-6-equipped Ram gains a new manual Getrag 238 six-speed manual transmission that lets drivers have some fun, even with the base powerplant. The Dodge has the lowest maximum towing capacity of any of the Big Three's sixes (at 3850 pounds). But few owners would be happy with any of these trucks regularly towing that much weight. If you tow anything bigger than motorcycles or personal watercraft, you want the V-8.
Ford's 4.2-liter OHV V-6 is derived from the previous 3.8-liter engine, with critical improvements for better durability. "At the bottom end, we changed the thrust bearing to give us a better surface finish," explains Frank Davis, vehicle programs director for pickup trucks at Ford. "Improved cleanliness in the manufacturing plant has eliminated most of our internal contamination issues." Testing shows that engine durability improved by 40 percent over the old engine, according to Davis.
General Motors possesses one of the best six-cylinder truck engines in the business--but it's not available in the Silverado or Sierra. The engine: the Vortec 4200 inline-six. It's a tribute to modern technology, with a rigid aluminum block with deep skirted casting, double overhead camshafts, and class-leading 275 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque. Unfortunately, the current generation of full-size trucks on the GMT800 platform was designed with only a shorter V-6 engine in mind. While it might be possible to shoehorn the longer Vortec 4200 into the engine bay, doing so would compromise the necessary crush space for front crash safety, according to GM product communications spokeswoman Sharon Basel.
So Chevy and GMC soldier on with the old--er, proven--4.3-liter pushrod V-6, an engine which produces only 195 horsepower. But being the biggest engine has the advantage of tieing the Ford for first place in torque, but at an engine speed that's nearly 1000 rpm lower. The GM engine will give you a satisfactory launch from the stoplight and feel plenty peppy around town (it helps that GM's trucks are the lightest full-size pickups of the group), but it won't have a lot of passing power at 70 mph.
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Truck shoppers definitely shouldn't dismiss today's generation of V-6 engines based on past experience with underpowered, underequipped work trucks. Today's sixes produce more than enough power for most uses. They save you money at the dealer and every time you stop at the gas pump. Take one for a test drive before signing on the bottom line.
| ||Chevy Silverado||Dodge Ram||Ford F-150|
|Horsepower, hp @ rpm||195 @ 4600||215 @ 5200||202 @ 4350|
|Torque, lb-ft @ rpm||260 @ 2800||235 @ 4000||260 @ 3750|
|Transmission||4-speed auto/5-speed manual||4-speed auto/6-speed manual||4-speed auto/5-speed manual|
|Curb weight (shortbed), lb||4225||4459||4615|
|Max towing cap, lb||5100||3800||5600|
|Max GCWR, lb||9300||8500||10,500|
|EPA (manual), city/hwy, mpg||17/23||16/21||15/20|
|EPA (auto), city/hwy, mpg||16/20||16/21||16/20|
|Available drive||4x2, 4x4||4x2||4x2|
|Available configurations||Regular cab shortbed and longbed; extended cab shortbed and longbed||Regular cab shortbed and longbed; Quad Cab shortbed||Regular cab shortbed and longbed|Quick Look: Dodge Ram 1500 ST V-6by Dan Carney
Recently, the regular-cab Dodge Ram 1500 V-6 served as a great reminder of what trucks are all about--this authentic truck, with window cranks that raise and lower glass quickly and easily. Driving an honest truck like this Ram makes many new pickups seem like the proverbial lipstick on the pig.
We like the metallic-silver painted steel wheels, especially since they carry no-compromise P245/70R17 all-season tires--tough truck tires, perfect for driving on pavement and carrying heavy loads. There's an element of pose factor in the Ram: its tall faux 4x4 stance. Some may prefer their 4x2 trucks closer to the ground.
The 3.7-liter SOHC V-6 (with the automatic) wouldn't be the ideal engine for pulling heavy loads at altitude, but for around-town commuting and runs to the lumber yard, the engine won't call attention to itself. Its 215 horsepower is as good as what many V-8 trucks had a decade ago. But that horsepower evidently comes at a price. We recorded 14.5 mpg while driving around town (mostly unladen) and 18.5 mpg on the highway. It would've been more fun to sample the Getrag six-speed manual, and we're guessing that would've helped fuel economy. In addition, it saves $1095, has two more gears, and provides a greater fun factor.
The base AM/FM cassette stereo won't win any contests, but who really uses a tape deck? If you want satellite radio, though, you can get a Sirius stereo from the factory on SLT trim-level trucks.
One option we recommend is central locking. Reaching across to unlock the passenger door in a Mazda Miata is no problem, but even people with long arms will have trouble reaching the passenger's door lock from the Ram's command chair. Bottom line: don't forget about the smaller engines. The Ram's V-6 has good low-end and doesn't mind working hard.