This is a helluva time to be in the truck business. Over the summer, speculators ramped gas through the $4-a-gallon barrier. Then came the Nightmare on Wall Street, the financial meltdown that froze credit and drove the vulnerable Detroit automakers to the very brink of bankruptcy. Trucks, once the engine-room of profits for the American auto industry, suddenly became toxic, and sales stalled. Here's how bad it got: Toyota shuttered the $1.3 billion plant it built in San Antonio, Texas, to manufacture the all-new Tundra, our 2008 Truck of the Year, for 90 days.

The relentless rise of the personal-use pickup truck in America was an entirely unexpected phenomenon that grew out of a market defined by cheap gas and CAFE. How? The first iteration of CAFE in the 1970s meant American cars, which had tougher mileage targets to meet, got worse as pickup trucks became more refined and carlike. As a result, pickups, which kept their lazy, torquey V-8s and rear drive, started being purchased as substitutes for what American cars had been, particularly with the introduction of extended-cab versions.

"The occasional imperative" is how Ford F-150 designer Pat Schiavone describes the key driver behind the decision to purchase a personal-use pickup: The capability is there if you need it. And no matter how tough the market gets, there will always be customers who really do need that capability: the construction business, ranchers, government agencies. Though the personal-use market is under stress, the pickup truck will remain the workhorse, the backbone of America.

Four trucks were eligible for evaluation this year: Dodge Ram, Ford F-150, Hummer H3T, and the Suzuki Equator. Both the Ram and F-150 need no introduction, and both trucks were careful evolutions of a tried-and-tested formula, with one notable exception-the new Ram is the first full-size pickup in history with rear coil springs. The Ram's coil rearend promised better ride and handling, but would its capability be compromised?

The chunky, off-road-biased H3T seemed a logical extension of the Hummer lineup, but the same couldn't be said of the Equator. Suzuki execs claimed a Suzuki pickup would give owners of Suzuki motorcycles, ATVs, and watercraft a reason to stay with the brand, but that seems a bit of a long shot, especially as the Equator is basically a recycled Nissan Frontier.

We tested two versions of each contender, with different engines, transmissions, and body configurations in order to better evaluate the breadth of capability of each nameplate. Our testing began at Chrysler's desert proving ground near Yucca, Arizona. This 3840-acre facility boasts an 18-acre "black lake," where we conducted the usual battery of Motor Trend performance tests and more than 50 miles of test roads, ranging from smooth tarmac to rough gravel washes. As a truck proving ground, the facility also enabled us to hook up the contenders to loaded trailers to test their towing performance.

We followed up the demanding proving-ground tests with real-world driving on a eight-mile loop out of nearby Kingman, Arizona, where judges could evaluate each contender in stop-start traffic, on winding mountain blacktop, and on the freeway. Then we sat down to discuss, debate, and decide. One judge, one vote.

We knew this one was never going to be easy; we knew there were a lot of good people dealing with desperate, dark times who'd welcome a quantum of solace and that we were going to disappoint a bunch of them. We knew it would be close. And it was. With just two remaining votes to count, two trucks were tied, each with a shot at becoming Motor Trend's 2009 Truck of the Year. But there can be only one winner. And this is how it happened.

THE CRITERIA

Superiority
We look at engineering excellence, advancement in design, utilization of resources, and safety. Vehicle concept and execution are important, as are use or materials, packaging, dynamics, styling, and fuel consumption.

Significance
How well does the vehicle do the job its maker intended it to do? And how does it impact or change its particular market segment, influence consumer perceptions, and transform product development trends?

Value
How does each truck compare against its direct rivals? A vehicle with a low sticker price might not be as good a value as a more expensive vehicle that delivers outstanding performance, quality, and functionality.

2009 Dodge Ram
A New Strategy Looking For More With Less

What They Did Right: Material choices and interior layout a stellar step up; RamBox will force the competition to step up, rearend ride sets the bar for daily driver.

Room For Improvement: Limited variations could hurt; non-Hemi engines are dogs, limited payload and towing will hurt overall sales; maybe the wrong time for a great personal-use pickup; steering still needs more weight and tuning.

Bet You Didn't Know: Powertrains are likely to get more diverse with a smaller 5.0L V-8 Cummins due out next year, and a two-mode hybrid expected the year after that.

From the outset of our Truck of the Year competition (in fact, even before that), we had a pretty good idea the real match-up was going to be between the two big boys, Dodge and Ford. It doesn't happen often that two new half-ton pickup trucks come out in the same year, but this classic confrontation between our two half-tons seemed inevitable.

The new Dodge Ram now offers three different cab configurations, with the addition of an all-new Crew Cab model. In the past, Ram 1500s offered only a Regular Cab and Quad Cab model (the MegaCabs were available only on the heavy-duty platform), and the Quads were often criticized for lack of space. Now Dodge has a true crew cab in its lineup to better compete. Also, this Ram offers a segment-first RamBox option to go along with the Crew Cab model with lockable, weatherproof, illuminated in-bed storage bins that essentially provide a small trunk on each side of the bed. The unique bed comes only on Crew Cab models as a $1295 option. The RamBox solution means bed width is slightly compromised, but the option does include a unique bed-extender that can be used as a bed divider.

The three cab configurations offer two wheelbases (120.5 and 140.5 inches), short (six feet, four inches) and long bed (eight feet) lengths in Regular and Quad Cab models, with a choice of the RamBox or standard shorter-bed length (five feet, seven inches) in all Crew Cab models. Dodge offers five different trim levels (ST, SLT, TRX, Sport, and the topline Laramie), with two specialty packages, Lone Star and Big Horn trims, to satisfy other upper-end buyers.

The three engine choices include a 3.7-liter V-6 (210 horsepower, 235 pound-feet of torque), a 4.7-liter V-8 (310 horse, 330 pound-feet), and newly modified 5.7-liter Hemi (390 horse, 407 pound-feet). Neither of the first two engine choices are changed much from last year's model; however, the Hemi offers new variable valve timing, a more aggressive multidisplacement system, an active short- and long-runner intake setup, and an increased compression ratio. Essentially, this allows the biggest and most powerful V-8 option for Ram to feature quicker response and better fuel economy than the previous 5.7-liter V-8.




Its new shape gives the Ram a much sleeker, more aerodynamic look with a 0.419 coefficient of drag (compared with the previous 0.463 Cd of the old Ram . The most significant feature of the truck is still the cross-haired wide-mouth grille, but designers canted it forward this time, much like the Dodge Charger's, to give it a more head-down look.

For our testing, Dodge loaned us two trucks that couldn't be more different: an ST regular cab, 4x2, V-6, listing under $24,000 and a fully loaded Laramie Crew Cab 4x4 with just about every bell and whistle possible, totaling out at over $50,000. Most judges commented on the hugely improved interior layout and material choices in the Ram, noting this could be the best Chrysler-originated interior ever. Materials, seams, touch-points, and overall function are hugely improved and competitive in the segment. Likewise, both Dodge powertrains drew praise from judges as the smallish V-6 held its own during our on- and off-road segments; while the throaty 5.7-liter Hemi tore up the test track with a blistering 6.9 seconds to 60 mph in fully loaded dress. (The R/T we tested did 0-to-60 mph in 5.7 seconds. Wow.) Also, as we test our trucks with a quantifiable load (75 percent of max towing capacity), it's worth noting the Hemi Crew Cab was slowed the least by its burden. Another area where the Rams stood out was on our Axle Hop Hill test section, where the coil springs, in both base and loaded models, absorbed and swallowed uneven humps and road irregularities with unusual dexterity.

So why didn't the Ram take home the Calipers? There's a strong value argument to make here. With a price range from $22,000 on up to $50,000, there's plenty of bang for the buck. For those buyers looking for as many accessory options or custom-look trucks, there are plenty of choices. And there's no question the new Ram is a significant player, possibly a bellwether for the entire full-size pickup-truck segment.

For many, the issue boils down to superiority. The Ram doesn't offer the breadth and depth in the model lineup Ford or GM does. The steering feel is less responsive and precise than they should be, making the truck feel and respond like a larger truck-certainly when compared with the new F-150's. While there's plenty of significance and value here, but in the final computations, the Ram is just a tad less superior than the Ford.



2009 Dodge Ram
Base price range $18,200-$29,900
Models tested 1500 ST Reg Cab 1500 Laramie Crew Cab
Price as tested $23,875 $50,425
Vehicle layout Front engine, RWD, 3-pass, 2-door pickup Front engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door pickup
Engine 3.7L/210-hp/235-lb-ft SOHC 12V V-6 5.7L/390-hp/407-lb-ft OHV 16V V-8
Transmission 4-speed automatic 5-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4567 lb (55/45%) 5851 lb (56/44%)
Wheelbase 120.5 in 140.5 in
Length x width x height 209.0 x 79.4 x 74.6 in 229.0 x 79.4 x 75.7 in
Actual payload capacity 1458 lb 949 lb
Max towing capacity 3800 lb 7300 lb
0-60 mph 9.8/17.7 sec* 6.9/14.8 sec*
Quarter mile 17.2 sec @ 80.3 mph/21.1 sec @ 64.9 mph* 15.2 sec @ 88.7 mph/20.2 sec @ 71.1 mph*
Braking, 60-0 mph 138 ft 134 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.72 g (avg) 0.68 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 14/20 mpg 13/18 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.20 lb/mile 1.31 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering ****
Design *****
Interior ****
Performance ****
Hauling ***
Safety ****
Value ****
BOTTOM LINE
Amazing for the segment, but steering away from work-truck capability puts shot off target.
*Towing 2800-lb (ST) or 5500-lb (Laramie) trailer

Film star Arnold Schwarzenegger was the first civilian to buy one, in 1992. Credit or blame him for making AM General's HMMWV the post-Desert Storm macho superhero. Governor Schwarzenegger was perhaps the last Californian to repudiate the brand, in 2006. General Motors' Hummer division went from Operation Desert Storm hero to tree-huggers' zero about the time its armored capabilities lost credibility in the early days of the Iraq War. Did GM think that Hummer could transcend its short-term macho fashion statement status? That its big-on-the-outside, small-on-the-inside gas hogs would survive oil price spikes?

It did, long enough to foist possibly the last, and by default the best Chevy-based Hummer on the consumer, the H3T. It rides on the crude Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon crew cab architecture (with a wheelbase stretched nearly eight inches) and available with those pickups' 3.7-liter I-5 or 5.3-liter V-8 engines.

The "T" turns the H3's useless cargo area into a useful pickup bed, good for mountain bikes and other outdoor gear you can throw in back to mitigate the emissions-spewing image. That's something you can't get in the bigger H2T, which has a useless bed for the truck's size.

Forget the V-8-powered Alpha, which comes only with a four-speed automatic. Ours also came with an as-tested sticker price of $45,195, making it the antithesis of value. It's no quicker to 60 mph and only slightly more refined than the I-5, which, at least, is available with a five-speed manual. Markus prefers the Alpha's 4x4 system, which engages 4H Lock and 4L Lock easily, and it goes where you point it through deep sand and ruts. The H3T can equal most Jeeps off-road, except that its long chassis translates into a poor breakover angle. "Beyond that, I find no redeeming features to this vehicle," Markus continues. "The passenger seat rocked so violently on the axle-hop hill that I wondered if it was missing a mounting bolt or two."

Williams will tell you that its off-road capabilities are reason enough. "Wow! The sand wash section, in the Alpha, was like running Baja, with a wide-open throttle. Just guide the big, fat tires in a general direction, then steer with the throttle. Almost felt like it was tuned for desert running. Does a nice job of high-speed smooth-dirt floating and drifting as well."




Its off-road capabilities are as good as the best out there; Jeep and Land Rover and maybe the 2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. Except that the Hummer's long wheelbase means it can't handle severe breakover angles as well as a Wrangler. Like the Jeep, the H3T gets better the farther away you are from any pavement.

"The extra weight of the wheel-and-tire combo that works so well at high speeds on the sand wash are just the opposite on pavement," Williams says, speaking again of the Alpha, "especially with any speed that involves cornering. Steering is also vague and slow to respond, much more than I'd expect."

Every staffer preferred the I-5 stick to the Alpha automatic. Even with its less sophisticated 4x4 system, the base I-5 "feels, and is, lighter than the Alpha," Kiino says. "Engine is anemic and course; GM's 3.6-liter V-6 would be a big improvement."

Markus says, "The I-5 engine seriously sounds like it might explode at the redline. Some horrible vibration at that frequency renders the redline on the tach unnecessary. Nobody could tolerate driving with that noise."

The general feel and quality of the cabin didn't help, much. While we like the white contrasting double stitching on the leather seats of the overpriced Alpha, the blocky, chopped-top look of the Hummer brand works no better on the H3 than on the H1 or H2.

Our biggest complaint is outward visibility. Its low, wide windshield is the kind that requires most drivers to crane their necks to see stoplights. The A-pillars and blind spots seem blown out of proportion, just right for those "get out of my way, I've got a Hummer" drivers, not for those of us who want to be kind to other traffic.

It might seem like we're piling on, but turning the HMWWV civilian is one idea some of us didn't take to in the first place. It was too easy to predict that Hummer would develop into an environmental pariah, overcoming its popularity as a war hero. GM has come around to the same thinking, and wants to find a buyer for the whole division. And so, this is likely to be the last new Hummer you'll see for quite some time.
- Todd Lassa



2009 Hummer H3T
Base price range $31,495-$36,760
Models tested H3T H3T Alpha
Price as tested $32,340 $45,195
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door pickup Front engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door pickup
Engine 3.7L/239-hp*/241-lb-ft* DOHC 20-valve I-5 5.3L/300-hp*/320-lb-ft* OHV 16-valve V-8
Transmission 5-speed manual 4-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4833 (55/45%) 5139 (55/45%)
Wheelbase 134.2 in 134.2 in
Length x width x height 212.7 x 78.3 x 72.1 in 212.7 x 78.3 x 72.1 in
Actual payload capacity 1168 lb 961 lb
Max towing capacity 4400 lb 5900 lb
0-60 mph 8.8/23.2 sec** 8.8/21.4 sec**
Quarter mile 16.7 sec @ 81.8 mph/22.0 sec @ 59.0 mph** 16.7 sec @ 83.5 mph/22.4 sec @ 61.0 mph**
Braking, 60-0 mph 151 ft 143 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.69 g (avg) 0.67 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 14/18 mpg 13/16 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.25 lb/mile 1.37 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering **
Design **
Interior **
Performance *
Hauling **
Safety ***
Value *
BOTTOM LINE
Like its military couterpart, it's an overpriced, overweight Jeep substitute.
*SAE Certified
**Towing 3300-lb (H3T) or 4400-lb (Alpha) trailer

2009 Suzuki Equator
Unlatered Ego

What They Did Right: Suzuki chose the reputable, solid, and proven Nissan Frontier on which to base the Equator and was wise to offer a diverse lineup that includes two engines, two bed lengths, two cab configurations, plus rear- and four-wheel drive.

Room For Improvement: Differentiation, anyone? The Frontier is arguably a handsome truck, but Suzuki could have done more than simply modifying the grille and slapping on some fresh badges. GM's four Lambda SUVs are essentially one and the same, but at least they're all distinctive.

Bet You Didn't Know: For the U.S. market, Suzuki sold its first motorcycle, the 250TC, in 1963; its first ATV, the QuadRunner LT125, in 1983, and its first car, the Samurai, in 1985.

When is a Suzuki not a Suzuki? When it's a Nissan, of course. Say hello to the Equator, Suzuki's new compact truck, which is essentially a rebadged Nissan Frontier, a pickup that bowed in the 2005 model year.

In an effort to lure motorcycle and all-terrain-vehicle owners into automotive showrooms, Suzuki deemed it a bright idea to add a truck to its lineup-not a bad thought, really, considering Suzuki's bike and ATV customers need to haul their toys to the asphalt and dirt playgrounds. And seeing that truck sales aren't exactly hot these days, Nissan had the capacity and means to supply Suzuki with plenty of Frontiers, er, Equators. But given that the Frontier failed to capture our Truck of the Year trophy in 2005, could it rewrite history in 2009 wearing a Suzuki badge? Not exactly.

To a man, our judges appreciated the Equator's towing prowess (up to 6300 pounds with the V-6), off-road abilities ("The RMZ is second in fun on the off-road, after the H3T." "On the dirt-loop run in the two-wheeler, this truck struck me as a better performer than I had expected."), nicely trimmed, functional interiors ("Clean, simple interior features 'tech' textures like appliances use. It's not trying to be posh or plush at all, as that's not the target buyer."), and brisk acceleration with the V-6 ("The 4.0-liter is a clear standout here. Responsive and ready to spin tires on the dirt. Ramped up to 100 mph on the first long dirt straightaway."). Still, they were not fond of the four-cylinder's lack of guts ("Had my foot on the floor for several miles just trying to catch the convoy against a headwind in the 2.5-liter."), the V-6's high-rpm thrash ("The V-6 makes impressive horsepower and torque, but it loses refinement as the tach needles swings upward."), and lack of manual mode with the automatic ("I wish the five-speed auto had a manual mode, especially for off-road excursions.").




This is not to say the Equator is not a capable and competent small truck. It is. With a range that includes extended- and crew-cab versions, short and long beds, four- and six-cylinder engines, five-speed manual and automatic trannnies, and noteworthy abilities both on- and off-road, the Equator is a solid option for compact-truck buyers. Case in point: the Crew Cab RMZ-4. With an electric rear locking differential, rugged Dana 44 axles, Bilstein high-performance dampers, skidplates, and BFGoodrich tires, this off-road-bent Equator is an outdoor enthusiast's dream rig.

On pavement? Not too shabby, either. The RMZ-4 romps from 0 to 60 in 7.8 seconds and through the quarter mile in 16.0 at 85.3 mph. Only V-8 versions of the Ram and F-150 were quicker. And if you can't fit the recreational toys in the bed, throw them on a trailer; the RMZ-4 tows up to 6100 pounds.

But are it and other Equators superior to today's lot of compact trucks? Not to the Frontier, at least, and not to the Tacoma, which won the title in 2005. Plus, in making an Equator out of the Frontier, Suzuki made only minor changes to the Nissan, swapping badges, grilles, and appliques rather than extensively tweaking sheetmetal, suspensions, interiors, or powertrains.

Significant? Perhaps to Suzuki as a brand, but not to the truck segment, as the Equator enters a class in which it more or less already existed. Value? Well, sort of. As this issue goes to bed, Suzuki hasn't released final pricing, but it's safe to assume it'll mirror that of the Frontier, which ranges from $18,240 for a two-wheel-drive, four-cylinder extended cab to $29,970 for a four-wheel-drive, V-6 crew cab. Frontiers are generally priced below comparable Toyota Tacomas, so, based on that logic, the Suzuki does represent a level of value. But, again, it won't throw around any more dirt for the dollar than the Frontier.

Resident guru, Truck Trend editor Mark Williams, sums up his views of the Equator: "I actually like the SX4 and what it says about Suzuki's new direction, but I don't quite see how this Equator fits. It can only be part of an expansion plan, but whose mind is it designed to change? Truck people aren't interested in Suzuki, and Suzuki's motorcycle buyers have chosen a pretty pricey and time-consuming hobby, so most will likely be shopping for a truck based on price, which means the Equator has to represent strong value. My hope would be that Suzuki can come up with a few creative paint schemes or option packages to separate its pickup from the crowd. Until that happens, I don't see what makes the Equator a more desirable purchase than the Frontier."

Given that the Equator fails to move the needle within our criteria, the best it gets here is an honorable mention.
- Ron Kiino



2009 Suzuki Equator
Base price range $17,995-$29,900
Models tested Extended Cab Premium Crew Cab RMZ-4
Price as tested $21,000 (est) $31,494
Vehicle layout Front engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door pickup Front engine, 4WD, 4-pass, 4-door pickup
Engine 2.5L/152-hp/171-lb-ft DOHC 16V I-4 4.0L/261-hp/281-lb-ft DOHC 24V V-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic 5-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 3881 lb (54/46%) 4546 lb (56/44%)
Wheelbase 125.9 in 125.9 in
Length x width x height 206.6 x 72.8 x 68.7 in 206.6 x 72.8 x 70.1 in
Actual payload capacity 809 lb 1054 lb
Max towing capacity 3500 lb 6100 lb
0-60 mph 10.2/21.3 sec* 7.8/17.1 sec*
Quarter mile 17.5 sec @ 77.2 mph/21.9 sec @ 60.6 mph* 16.0 sec @ 85.3 mph/21.7 sec @ 65.6 mph*
Braking, 60-0 mph 137 ft ** 141 ft **
Lateral acceleration 0.71 g (avg) 0.65 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 17/22 mpg 15/19 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.02 lb/mile 1.17 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering ***
Design **
Interior ***
Performance ***
Hauling **
Safety ****
Value ****
BOTTOM LINE
Honest example of badge engineering, leads Suzuki into truck world - signifcant for Suzuki, not truck world.
*SAE Certified
**Towing 2600-lb (RWD) or 4600-lb (4WD) trailer

2009 Ford F-150

Ford claims it sells more of its F-150 half-ton pickups to work and commercial customers than its competitors do, and Ford predicts this segment will grow to 45 percent of F-150 sales.

Toward that end, the new 2009 Ford F-150's fully boxed chassis is further fortified to provide best-in-class rigidity, payload capacity (up to 3030 pounds), and tow ratings (up to 11,300 pounds). As such, the new F-150 is well positioned to capture contractors migrating down-market out of Super-Dutys to save money and gas (did we mention that a new six-speed automatic, a lighter, more aerodynamic cab, and other tweaks boost fuel economy by 12 percent with the 5.4-liter?).

Ford claims payload and towing numbers like that simply can't be had with a coil sprung rear axle, so it stuck with leafs but made them longer to smooth the ride and wider with new mounting hardware to improve lateral rigidity and roll control. Lateral grip of 0.70 g for both Fords bested all but the feathery base Dodge and Suzuki, and our rear-drive SXT scored the best stop at 133 feet from 60 mph (the three-ton Lariat needed 144 feet).

Status-conscious contractors will have eight F-150 models from which to choose (including the forthcoming SVT Raptor), which Detroit editor Todd Lassa reckons is "about four too many," adding, "If this Lariat is the third truck from the top, how much of a boudoir must the King Ranch and Platinum interiors be?" Judges praised the low noise levels and interior materials quality, though some found the design cartoonishly macho.

Still, handy features like the Tailgate Step, Box Side Step, a stowable bed-extender, and rear seats that fold up with one hand to reveal a broad, flat load floor help tally a strong superiority score. On the negative side of the ledger is Ford's aging all-V-8-engine lineup, which is composed of two- and three-valve 4.6-liters and a three-valve 5.4. SVT will bring a bigger 6.2 in the Raptor, and an EcoBoost V-6 is likely to join the lineup for folks who don't tow, but the diesel is on hold.

The base V-8 handily outruns and outhauls the V-6 Dodge, but sounds and feels strained doing so. Gearing that's a third shorter than the Dodge's kept our 5.4L 4x4 within 0.6 second of the big Dodge, but costs it at the pump, where both trucks averaged just 13.2 mpg over 500 miles of mixed driving. The new six-speed automatic features excellent tow/haul-mode programming (ordering downshifts with a tap of the brakes on downhill grades, holding lower gears, etc.), but in normal mode, it's lethargic to kick down, and there's no way to manually select the higher gears.

Both Fords tackled our off-road sand-loop with aplomb. The 4x4 transfer case engaged high-and low-range settings quickly and easily, with the message center confirming the shift was in process. We're disappointed, however, that there's no on-pavement AWD option as offered by Dodge and General Motors.




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