You could say trucks haven't changed much over the years. Slip under the skin of a new F-150, and you'll find its basic architecture isn't far removed from a Ford pickup built half a century ago. The reality, of course, is that everything has changed. Whether they're workhorses or personal transport, today's trucks are smoother, quieter, more powerful, more efficient, more comfortable, and--yes--tougher. More versatile, too: You can pick 'n' mix drivetrains, cabs, and beds to tailor most trucks to suit your personal duty cycle and your personality.

So the arrival of Honda's Ridgeline onto the U.S. truck market is an event of seismic significance. Honda has never built a truck before, and the Ridgeline doesn't so much break the rules of truck making, as blow them apart and drive over the bits. It's a unibody. It has a transverse-mounted engine. It has independent rear suspension. Can it really be a truck? Without a doubt, that was the key question to be answered during the 2006 Truck of the Year showdown.

There were others. Like whether DaimlerChrysler has continued its steady improvement of the Ram in its regular and heavy-duty iterations. Was Mitsubishi's Raider more than just a tasteful redesign of the Dodge Dakota? Could Isuzu spark consumer interest in its brand with a mildly remodeled and repackaged Chevy Colorado? And had the Lincoln Mark LT really turned one of America's great luxury marques into nothing more than a trim level on an F-150?

As usual, our evaluation began at the track, where each contender was run through the usual barrage of Motor Trend and Truck Trend performance tests. This year, though, we added a little extra. A lot extra, actually: The bed of each contender was filled to the manufacturer's specified MAXIMUM payload, and each truck was run again against the clock. The results, in terms of how much each of these trucks is rated to carry and how it performed with a full load, were revealing.

Track testing complete, we moved to the edge of the California high desert and a 27-mile road loop that combined freeway running, two-lane blacktop, town driving, and gnarly, corrugated dirt canyon road. Each judge was able to drive every truck over the same roads, noting performance, ride, handling, comfort, smoothness, and refinement. Only then did he vote, weighing up the raw data and subjective assessments against the three key criteria that define Truck of the Year: superiority, significance, and value.

So, how did our contenders do?

Maximum Payload Numbers Are a Lie
By Mark Willams

Pickup makers have been cheating, and we've been misled. For years, manufacturers have given their vehicles a maximum payload number, meaning the total amount of weight it can carry. This number is calculated by taking the actual weight of the truck and subtracting it from the manufacturer's specified gross vehicle weight rating. By calculating this simple math problem, the unibody Honda Ridgeline ends up having more payload capacity (1510 pounds) than the heavy-duty Dodge Ram Mega Cab (1500 pounds).

However, this does need some explanation. Honda engineers knew they had to submit the maximum payload number specification, so they tested for maximum carrying capacity and certified the results. The problem is that it ignores the commonly understood (yet unspoken) practice of understating the maximum payload number. Pickup experts know that truck buyers will use the "maximum" number only as a starting point and most likely add more (if not a few full-size passengers as well). The result is that our Ram Mega Cab, with its maximum payload of 1500 pounds, didn't show much strain when fully loaded; however, with the Ridgeline at its 1510-pound limit, the rear coil springs were almost fully compressed, and we were shooting the headlights at the sky. Without specific definitions for "maximum," manufacturers can name the number they'd like. Right now, especially with heavy-duty pickups, the onus is on the truck buyer to figure out how far over or under they can go when loading their truck.


How Fast, How Short--What Our Testing Told Us
By Mark Willams

In the interest of full disclosure, it's important to find out not only how our test pickups perform when empty, but also at full capacity. We tested each vehicle's acceleration, braking, and quarter-mile times empty and loaded--to the truck's full capacity, according to the manufacturer's own specifications. Each truck was loaded with the appropriate number of bags of salt in 50-pound increments. This helped demonstrate which engines and braking systems degrade least when carrying a heavy load, presumably what these vehicles were designed to do. Worth noting is how much trouble the Ridgeline had carrying its load and how much shorter the stopping distance was in the Mega Cab when the heavy-duty truck had its load.

2006 Dodge Ram 1500
A Familiar Face Masks an All-New Personality

You're probably wondering why we included the Ram 1500 in our 2006 Truck of the Year competition, especially since it looks nearly identical to the 2005 model. How different could it be from the previous year? A lot, to say the least. Besides minor alterations to the exterior--new headlights, a full chrome grille, revised bumpers, and a tailgate spoiler--the 2006 Ram has received significant upgrades under the skin, namely a fresh frame. While still hydroformed, the new architecture is stiffer--17 percent in bending, 5.5 percent in torsion--features a larger front crush zone and offers replaceable rail tips, similar to the Dakota's frame, for easier fender-bender repair. Bolted to the Ram's stronger bones is a heavily revised suspension, which sports retuned springs, bushings, and monotube dampers, as well as a new front control-arm, coil-over-shock setup on 4WD trims, which replaces the 2005's torsion bars. On-road, the benefits are immediately evident.

The 2006 Ram feels "more responsive and locked down around the high-speed turns," as one editor noted. Another opined, "Handling is quite good (dare I say fun?) in the tight road course." The ride, even with the huge 20-inch wheels and low-profile Goodyears, was compliant, making the reworked cabin--now with more insulation, thicker glass, triple door seals, and a new instrument panel with an available nav system--an even more enjoyable and quieter space to occupy. Off the blacktop, however, the Ram bounced over the bumps: More body control, please. Power for our tester came from Dodge's renowned 5.7-liter Hemi pushrod V-8, but the 2006 iteration now boasts improved fuel economy--14/18 versus 13/17--thanks to an integrated Multi-Displace-ment System, which deactivates four cylinders under light-throttle applications. With 345 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque channeled through a seamless five-speed automatic, the Ram delivered strong, immediate power as well as impressive numbers--0 to 60 in 8.6 seconds and the quarter mile in 16.5 at 83.8 mph. The 2006 Ram is the undoubtedly the best Ram ever and will keep Dodge in the run against all-new entries from GM and Toyota next year.


2006 Dodge Ram 1500
Base price range $21,800-$41,075
As-tested price $42,975 (Laramie)
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 5-passenger,4-door pickup
Engine 5.7L/345-hp/375 lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight, lb, f/r dist % 5660 (58/42)
Wheelbase, in 140.5
Length x width x height, in 227.7 x 79.5 x 75.9
Max payload capacity, lb 1040
0-60 mph, sec 8.6/9.8*
Quarter mile, sec @ mph 16.5 @ 83.8/17.3 @ 81.4*
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 139/140*
Lateral acceleration, g 0.71
600-foot slalom, mph 55.9
MT figure eight, sec @ g 29.8 @ 0.54
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy 14/18
*tested at curb weight/fully loaded
Ratings
Engineering• • •
Design • • • •
Interior • • • •
Performance • • • •
Towing • • •
Safety • • • • •
Value • • •
To Sum Up
Subtle improvements that make a big change.

2005 Dodge Ram Mega Cab
More Evidence That Bigger Is Better

While it's not often the common truck buyer needs one vehicle to tow nearly 16,000 pounds, pamper rear-seat passengers with more legroom than in a Maybach, or rumble from 0 to 60 in under 10 seconds, it doesn't hurt that Dodge now offers just such a hauler. With the Ram Mega Cab--available in the regular 1500 as well as the 2500 and 3500 heavy-duty configurations, with either a 5.7-liter Hemi or a 5.9-liter Cummins diesel (2500 and 3500 only)--Dodge has invented a new category, one that's ideal for big families with big needs or Shaq and four of his teammates. Compared with the Ram 1500 Quad Cab 4x4 in this competition, our Mega Cab 2500 4x4 tester overshadowed its little brother by 20 inches in length and nearly three inches in height. Most of that 20-inch spread goes to the rear-seat legroom, a remarkable 44.2 inches, four more inches than in a Maybach 62 limo. Dodge doesn't distinguish between its regular-duty Rams and its bigger, tougher, industrial-strength models as Ford does.

The Ram 2500s and 3500s might look just like Ram 1500s, but they're different trucks under the skin. So perhaps more impressive than the Mega Cab's prom potential is the ability of the biggest Ram to quickly and adeptly gobble asphalt. With 325 horses on tap, not to mention a staggering 610 pound-feet of torque, from its 5.9-liter Cummins turbodiesel, the Mega Cab 2500 hit 60 in 9.7 seconds on the way to a quarter-mile time of 17.3 at 79.3 mph. Not too shabby for a rig that dents the scales with nearly four tons. Despite its size and weight, a wheelbase that spans over 13 feet, and relatively small 265 tires, the Mega Cab surprisingly pulled 0.71 g on the skidpad (matching the Ram 1500 with 20-inch rubber) and a 29.9-second time on the figure-eight course, just a tenth behind the 1500. Granted, the Mega Cab required an additional 21 feet to stop from 60 compared with the 1500, but otherwise, there's not much of a performance trade-off, especially in light of the 2500 model's towing (12,300 pounds) and payload (1500 pounds) prowess. Unfortunately, our Mega Cab also packed a mega hit to the wallet--$54,250--which was just too mega to take the trophy.

2006 Dodge Ram 2500 Mega Cab
Base price range $32,760-$48,645
As-tested price $54,250 (Laramie)
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 5-passenger, 4-door pickup
Engine 5.9L/325-hp/610 lb-ft turbodiesel OHV 24-valve I-6
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Curb weight, lb, f/r dist % 7500 (60/40)
Wheelbase, in 160.3
Length x width x height, in 247.7 x 79.5 x 78.5
Max payload capacity, lb 1500
0-60 mph, sec 9.7/11.2*
Quarter mile, sec @ mph 17.3 @ 79.3/17.9 @ 75.7*
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 160/158*
Lateral acceleration, g 0.71
600-foot slalom, mph 55.3
MT figure eight, sec @ g 29.9 @ 0.53
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy Not rated
*tested at curb weight/fully loaded
Ratings
Engineering • • • •
Design • • •
Interior • • • • •
Performance • • • •
Towing • • • • •
Safety • • • • •
Value • •
To Sum Up
Mega Cab packs mega utility and mega price.

2006 Isuzu i-350
Just Like Chevy's Colorado with a Better Warranty

The basis for Chevy's Colorado and GMC's Canyon midsize pickups, all-new models last year, was originally designed over 10 years ago by Isuzu's engineering team. General Motors took the project in-house to make the look more U.S.-market friendly. The 4WD transfer case, with the longest powertrain warranty in the segment (seven years/75,000 miles), and the buttons to engage it on the dash remained Isuzu designs--imagine what these trucks might've looked like if Isuzu had had more control over the finished product. Functionally and architecturally, these trucks are the same as the Chevy and GMC midsizers. Isuzu will get about 10,000 units of the i-280 (four-cylinder) and i-350 (five-cylinder) midsizers, split between extended and crew cab configurations. Our test unit was a fairly loaded LS Crew Cab with the "big" motor and four-speed auto. Most editors agreed that the i-350 rode like an honest truck (meaning the ladder-frame construction gives it a solid feel), but it offered nothing in particular to set it apart from the competitors in its class. The I-5, a version of the stout Vortec 4200 I-6 minus one cylinder, offers good throttle response off the line, but runs out of breath quickly. The four-speed auto is a GM unit that's been in service for two decades (the 4L60E) and should've been updated with a fifth gear. That the seats allow the driver to slide during energetic cornering isn't a pickup-truck strength.

A significant amount of attention went into seals and insulation, cutting out many of the high- and low-end road noises--this could be the quietest small truck in its class. The i-350 has a healthy 1120-pound payload (more than the half-ton Ram and V-8 Raider), but a meager towing capacity of 4000 pounds. Do they think nobody tows when shopping in this category? The beefy warranty is nice, but not enough to overcome the inconveniences caused by Isuzu's small dealer network and fewer model and equipment choices relative to its GM cousins. An obligatory price break most import clones offer when compared with their donor siblings should be expected--our unit's $28K price tag doesn't exactly up the ante in this category.

2006 Dodge Ram 2500 Mega Cab
Base price range $17,649-$28,018
As-tested price $28,296 (LS)
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD 5-passenger,4-door pickup
Engine 3.5L/220-hp/225 lb-ft DOHC 20-valve I-5
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Curb weight, lb, f/r dist % 4180 (56/44)
Wheelbase, in 126.0
Length x width x height, in 207.1 x 68.6 x 67.9
Max payload capacity, lb 1120
0-60 mph, sec 9.6/11.9*
Quarter mile, sec @ mph 17.1 @ 82.1/18.4 @ 75.9*
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 144/157*
Lateral acceleration, g 0.72
600-foot slalom, mph 57.5
MT figure eight, sec @ g 29.5 @ 0.53
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy 17/22
*tested at curb weight/fully loaded
Ratings
Engineering • • •
Design • •
Interior • • •
Performance • •
Towing • •
Safety • • •
Value • • • •
To Sum Up
Good value, but just another fighter in the clone wars.

2006 Lincoln Mark LT
All Dressed Up, and Now, Some Place To Go

Lincoln's second foray into the pickup market is a much better execution than its first. Remember the Blackwood? The Mark LT is a more down-to-earth design, with practical capabilities that allow it to work like a truck if needed, something the Blackwood wasn't able to offer. Based on a fully equipped Ford F-150 SuperCrew platform, the Mark LT is identical in structure. Included are the obligatory unique grille, badging, chrome accents, and wheel options--nice, but perhaps not differentiated enough to merit the Lincoln nameplate. There is enough interior opulence here to attract buyers wanting something other than a Cadillac Escalade EXT. Available in 2WD and 4WD, the Mark LT's most significant changes involve Ebony wood accents and a cream-color Nudo leather (black is available as well).

The interior layout is similar to the F-150's: split captain's chairs, flat-faced dash, center-console transmission shifter. Several testers, who hadn't driven the Mark LT before, expected a Navigator SUV-type interior, with its unique dash and satin-nickel finishes. Among this field of five-, six-, and eight-cylinder competitors, the Mark LT had the slowest 0-to-60 time of the bunch, although midrange power and passing abilities are fine. It's tuned for smooth highway driving.

Unfortunately, the Mark LT had trouble keeping composed, evidencing axle-hop and front-end wander on rougher pavement and rutted dirt-road stretches. And the Lincoln's not cheap, starting at around $40,000 and climbing quickly. Ford aims to sell around 15,000 units. Big question: If Ford is sure there's a market here--and Cadillac seems to be doing well with it--why not inject some distinction (and more power) into a luxury-branded product that's supposed to make its buyers feel special? The LT serves as an uplevel trim package for the F-150, but does little else to justify the badge and the price.

2006 Lincoln Mark LT
Base price range $39,555-$43,110
As-tested price $47,605
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 5-passenger, 4-door pickup
Engine 5.4L/300-hp/365 lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-8
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Curb weight, lb, f/r dist % 5920 (55/45)
Wheelbase, in 138.5
Length x width x height, in 223.8 x 78.9 x 76.0
Max payload capacity, lb 1280
0-60 mph, sec 9.9/11.2*
Quarter mile, sec @ mph 17.3 @ 79.9/18.0 @ 78.0*
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 139/145*
Lateral acceleration, g 0.72
600-foot slalom, mph 56.2
MT figure eight, sec @ g 30.2 @ 0.52
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy 14/18
*tested at curb weight/fully loaded
Ratings
Engineering • •
Design • •
Interior • • • •
Performance • • •
Towing • • • •
Safety • • •
Value • • •
To Sum Up
Add tax, and you have a really nice $50K F-150.

2006 Mitsubishi Raider
Back in the Game with a Fresh Face and Strong V-8

Mitsu is promoting the Raider as the only import V-8 alternative for buyers who don't want a full-size truck. It's offered in a number of configurations, thanks in large part to sharing its underthings with the Dodge Dakota. Another in this year's clone of-the-year competition (the others being the Lincoln LT and Isuzu i-280/i-350), the Raider 4.7-liter V-8 and five-speed combination didn't perform as its displacement and cylinder number had us expecting, matching the Lincoln's last-place quarter-mile time (17.3 seconds). Maybe this shouldn't have been a surprise, as the engine offers only 10 more horsepower than the Isuzu 3.5-liter I-5 and 17 horses less than the Ridgeline's DOHC 3.5-liter V-6. It wasn't the smallest or lightest truck in our test, but it had the smallest payload capacity at 970 pounds. That works out to be 220 pounds less than the Isuzu's and over 500 pounds less than the Ridgeline's.

All isn't doom and gloom for the Raider, however. The design surgery Mitsubishi performed to round the wheel arches and smooth the creases and corners, handsomely sets the Raider apart from the Dakota. Mitsubishi negotiated serious interior changes that resculpted the Dodge's blocky dash layout in favor of a more sloping, waterfall-type deck top. The result is more openness for the driver and front passenger. Our test unit came equipped with the DuroCross option package that includes upgraded shocks, fender flares, big wheels and tires, and a host of stickers and labels. Ride balance and suspension tuning are well equipped to handle the higher-speed pavement twists as well as the Baja-style washboard ruts on our test loops.

Although the five-speed tranny likes to hunt on long hillclimbs, the dual upshift/kickdown second-gear strategy works well, technically turning this five-speed into a six-speed. Among the brand-engineered competitors, this execution was our favorite, injecting enough unique personality to distinguish it from the donor platform, while maintaining, or even improving on, the strengths of the original powertrain and chassis. This type of execution--solid, if not outstanding--will help Mitsu get back on track.

2006 Mitsubishi Raider
Base price range $19,825-$34,565
As-tested price $33,155 (DuroCross)
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 5-passenger, 4-door pickup
Engine 4.7L/230-hp/290 lb-ft SOHC 16-valve V-8
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight, lb, f/r dist % 5040 lb (58/42)
Wheelbase, in 131.3
Length x width x height, in 219.9 x 71.9 x 68.6
Max payload capacity, lb 970
0-60 mph, sec 9.6/11.2*
Quarter mile, sec @ mph 17.3 @ 77.9/18.2 @ 74.7*
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 139/140*
Lateral acceleration, g 0.72
600-foot slalom, mph 56.7
MT figure eight, sec @ g 29.9 @ 0.53
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy 15/20
*tested at curb weight/fully loaded
Ratings
Engineering • • •
Design • • • •
Interior • • •
Performance • • •
Towing • • •
Safety • • •
Value • • •
To Sum Up
Sexier inside and out, but all Dakota underneath.

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