When the Great Recession hit, not only did casual truck buyers vanish, but automakers were forced to do some serious belt-tightening. The result: When it came to pickups, the goal was to appeal to core truck people, listen to customer input, and use resources wisely to keep loyalists happy and win over new buyers. That is precisely what has happened in this Truck of the Year. Model-year 2012 is more punctuated by pointed improvements than dramatic change.

There are four contenders, starting with the Ford F-150, a line that has numerous trim levels, cab options, and bed variants. One weakness of past F-150s was the engine lineup, which felt behind the times. As recently as 2010, one engine was still backed by a four-speed automatic. That has all changed, as Ford wiped the engine slate clean and introduced four new engines, all with more power and more fuel economy than the comparable engines they replaced--there's a 3.7-liter V-6, a 5.0-liter V-8, a 6.2-liter V-8, and the engine that has gotten the most buzz, the twin-turbo EcoBoost 3.5-liter V-6. All four come standard with a six-speed automatic.

Next is the Nissan NV. This is Nissan's first foray into the full-size van market in the U.S., a category that was ripe for improvement. The NV was originally going to be based on the half-ton Titan platform, but by the time the engineering team was done, very little was shared with the Titan, and the team had essentially created a new heavy-duty platform. We tested a cargo van, as the passenger van hadn't gone into production in time for this test.

We also brought along the Ram Laramie Longhorn, a new model that competes most directly with the Ford King Ranch edition and GMC's Sierra Denali. Also new for the Ram is the High-Output Cummins turbodiesel, with 150 lb-ft more torque, bringing the total to 800. The truck we received also came with the Max Tow package.

Rounding out the group is the Toyota Tacoma, far and away the best-selling compact/midsize, even before the Ranger was discontinued. The Tacoma was redesigned with a new front end and upgraded interior.

All manufacturers were invited to provide variants, but only Ford accepted, sending us two F-150s powered by the volume V-8 and V-6. That brought the total number of trucks tested to five. After completing unloaded acceleration and braking tests in Fontana, California, we hit the road. Judges drove the pickups unloaded on a loop in town and up the Grapevine (a grade with a nearly 3000-foot elevation change, on a major interstate in Southern California), on twisty mountain roads, and on the highway from Los Angeles to outside of Phoenix, Arizona. We used Nissan's top-notch Arizona Test Center to complete our testing. The facility provided trailers, payload, and a variety of road surfaces in a safe, controlled environment for the rest of our evaluation. The test team performed acceleration testing with trailers and payload, and judges drove loops with all vehicles loaded with 75 percent of payload capacity (GVWR minus as-tested curb weight), then with trailers at 75 percent capacity.

As is almost always the case (last year's TOTY was an exception to the rule), this is not a comparison story. The Ram doesn't get higher marks than the Tacoma because it can tow more; that would make this event incredibly unfair. Instead, we evaluated each truck based on how it did what it was designed to do, based on six specific criteria shown below. We took extensive notes, spent long hours driving, and had some fairly heated discussions. By the time the voting was over, we had selected Motor Trend's 2012 Truck of the Year.

THE CRITERIA
Each TOTY contender is evaluated against six key criteria. They are:

DESIGN ADVANCEMENT
Quality execution of exterior and interior styling; innovation in vehicle packaging; good selection and use of materials.

ENGINEERING EXCELLENCE
Integrity of total vehicle concept and execution; clever solutions to packaging, manufacturing, and dynamics issues; use of cost-effective technologies that benefit the consumer.

PERFORMANCE OF INTENDED FUNCTION
How well the vehicle does the job its designer and product planners intended.

EFFICIENCY
Low fuel consumption and carbon footprint, relative to the vehicle's competitive set.

SAFETY
Primary safety -- the vehicle's ability to help the driver avoid a crash -- as well as secondary safety measure that protect occupants from harm during a crash.

VALUE
Price and equipment levels measured against those of vehicles in the same market segment.

THE JUDGES
Mike Febbo Associate Editor
Allyson Harwood Executive Editor, Truck Trend
Ron KiinoEditor At Large
Jonny Lieberman Senior Editor
Scott Mortara Road Test Editor
Kim Reynolds Testing Director

The Testing Regimen...
Hills, cruising, loading, and towing -- we did it all
Written by Kim Reynolds

For this year's Truck of the Year program, we didn't settle on a mere one-prong -- nor even a two-prong -- but a full-blown three-prong assault to amass the hard data and subjective impressions we needed to select our winner.

Phase One commenced just north of our El Segundo offices, taking advantage of the steep climb over the geological obstacle we locally call "the Grapevine." After a 6.4-mile grind up the Interstate 5 grade -- checking downshift response in particular -- we descended along the windy ridge route for a bit of handling evaluation.

Next was our standard battery of acceleration, braking, and figure-eight handling tests at California Speedway in Fontana, highlighted by the entertaining sight of the Nissan NV lifting its inside rear wheel during hard cornering.

The most novel phase began with a 320-mile highway cruise out to Nissan's splendid Arizona Proving Ground, during which we gathered highway fuel-economy numbers (to compare their efficiency to our previous results taken while scaling the strenuous Grapevine). Once there, we loaded each truck with 75 percent of its max payload (giant crates filled with bags of lead shot) and performed acceleration, braking, and drivetrain-flexibility tests (initiated with a throttle tromp at 45 mph and ending at 65 mph). The acceleration and flexibility tests were then repeated towing trailers loaded to 75 percent of each truck's maximum tow rating, except for the Ram's hitch-limited 63 percent.

Then we traced a stitched-together sequence of varied road challenges including part of the high-speed bowl, a mix of road surface roughnesses, and a twisty handling loop.

Nissan NV3500
By Jonny Lieberman

WE LIKE: Honest, utilitarian, refreshing. Nissan redefines the full-size van market.

WE DON'T LIKE: No diesel and appalling gas mileage. Perhaps too niche for its own good.

As long as I've been alive, there's been a full-size van non-aggression pact in effect among the Big Three. It's as if Ford said to Chevy, "We won't spend any money on research and development, and you won't have to either." Think I'm kidding? The same trailer hitch that fits a new Ford E-Series also fits one from 1975. Dodge, under Daimler's "tutelage," dropped its full-size van altogether in 2003 after over 30 years of production without much innovation. The seriously better Mercedes-Benz Sprinter replaced the B-Series Ram Van on paper, but a huge asking price put the diesel German van into another class altogether. Nissan saw a hole in the marketplace and took its best shot. With a howitzer.

When we finally get to sit down and discuss the candidates of any of the Year competition, one of the phrases most frequently bandied about is "moving the needle." As in: Yes, that Ram could tow Teddy Roosevelt off of Mt. Rushmore, but I don't think it moves the needle in the HD segment. Meaning that the big Ram is just another torque-monster dually that with more grunt than you're ever likely to need. But it's not new; it's not novel. Ford and GM make trucks that can more or less do exactly the same thing. The segment's needle stays exactly where it is.

On the other hand, the Nissan NV rips the needle off the dial.

"This feels almost like a whole new category of vehicle," says Febbo of Nissan's first ever full-size van. Says Jurnecka, "This thing is shockingly good! It's quick and ridiculously nimble and easy to drive, despite its hugely intimidating stature." Adds Kiino, "Feels seriously smaller than it is [i.e., it feels like a full-size SUV as opposed to a gargantuan van]." Harwood brings up an interesting point about our tall-boy version: "Surprisingly easy to drive, though I worry I'd forget about the high roof in an instant. That could put some low-lying tree branches (or the NV's roof) in jeopardy."

We also appreciated just how well thought out the NV's ergonomics are. Says Kiino, "Nissan spent years developing the NV and it shows -- it really nailed the details: huge center console, outer vinyl strip on seats (less apt to wear), visor clips for paperwork, wide-opening rear doors with door-hold magnets." The 6-foot, 2-inch Febbo noted that he was able to stand up inside the vehicle, "So if I bought this to tow a race car, the NV could be a workshop." However, he might not want to haul anything too heavy. "The thing that really worries me is that the NV seems to have a higher load capacity [3500 pounds] than what can safely be tied down. The only attachment points are on the floor, and I have a bigger hook for my bathrobe."

I worry that people might lash items to the van's skeleton -- bypassing the tiedowns altogether -- and damage the structure. There are racks and shelves available, but at an extra cost to the NV's already high-ish list price.

The NV is fast, too. Or at least, that big, free-breathing 5.6-liter V-8 seems fast. "Good power and responsive tranny; I like the throttle blips," notes Kiino. "It feels like the fastest thing here," observes Febbo. I fully concur with them, as for such a towering vehicle, the NV came across as decidedly quick. The actual numbers tell a different story, as the high-roofed 3500 took 8.5 seconds to reach 60 mph. Only Torquemada, the diesel Ram with six tires, was slower. Why did it feel so fast? We're guessing a lack of sound insulation. Says the guy with the engineering degree [Febbo], "The perception of speed might just be the exhaust echoing around in the huge, empty cabin." Very true, and Kiino counters, "What do you expect with a big hollow tin box?" Harwood points out, "The panels on the inside of the cargo area seem cheap."

Which brings us to what we found most endearing about the NV: its honesty. Ford offers an F-150 variant for each of the Village People (XL, King Ranch, Harley-Davidson, Lariat), and we all felt the Laramie Longhorn's rubber barbed-wire floormats and tribal tattoo motifs were pandering, at best. The NV, on the other hand, is a large van that you use to haul stuff. It's not a lifestyle statement, or an ego-inflator, or a way of warning others that you're tough/anti-social. It's just a really well thought out, heavy-duty van. "So honest and utilitarian-feeling. I'm very impressed," says Jurnecka. In a world full of MBA-researched lifestyle vehicles, the NV's honesty shines through as a real virtue. However, as Febbo warns, "Yes, I like this thing. But do I really know what a plumber wants in a vehicle?"

More important, does Nissan? Sad to say, the name of this game will always be moving metal. While we all appreciated the NV's honesty and no-frills ways, will consumers? And will those same potential consumers want to spend their hard-earned money on something so freakish looking? Again, I can intellectually appreciate the exposed hinges and how the form follows function (by a mile if not more), but I'm not the target demo. And where's the diesel? Nissan is slow to admit, but for the NV to really be a competitive product it needs the economy that only a diesel motor can provide. The good news is that one's on the way, but when?

Bottom line: The NV is a wonderful work truck, but just a touch too specialized to bring home our award.


2012 Nissan NV
MODEL TESTED 3500 SV
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, RWD, 2-pass, 3-door van
BASE PRICE $25,930
PRICE AS TESTED $35,765
ENGINE 5.6L/317-hp/385-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 5-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 6223 lb (51/49%)
PAYLOAD CAPACITY 3582 lb
TOWING CAPACITY 9500 lb
0-60 MPH 8.5, 11.7*, 18.6** sec
QUARTER MILE 16.5 sec @ 85.5 mph, 18.6 sec @ 76.3 mph*, 22.1 sec @ 64.9 mph**
30-70 MPH 7.4*, 12.2** sec
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 127, 140 ft*
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.69 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 29.8 sec @ 0.53 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON Not rated
ENERGY CONs, CITY/HWY 267 kW-hrs/100 mi (MT obs)
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.54 lb/mi (MT obs)
MT OBSERVED FUEL ECON 12.6 mpg
TOWING KEY *With 2758-lb payload, **With 7125-lb trailer

Ram 3500 Heavy-Duty Laramie Longhorn
By Rory Jurnecka

WE LIKE: Massive towing and hauling capacity, bold exterior styling, quiet turbodiesel engine.

WE DON'T LIKE: Choppy ride and the gaudy Longhorn interior theme.

Back when we voted the Ram HD our 2010 Truck of the Year, we had plenty of good things to say. We were impressed with the Ram's improved interior quality, massive payload and towing capacity, and perhaps most of all, its new 6.7-liter inline-six turbodiesel engine that cranks out 350 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque. That's impressive, but for 2012, Ram has upped its game, introducing the new upscale Laramie Longhorn trim package and a new high-output engine package that brings torque up to a simply staggering 800 lb-ft and includes an uprated torque converter. Our truck also featured the Max Tow package, bumping the maximum trailer weight rating to 22,700 pounds.

Those facts and figures all sound mighty impressive, but do they really make the Ram a barnstormer when the rubber meets the road? When it came to our standard performance testing, the answer was a resounding "no." With the heaviest curb weight of the group by nearly a ton, the 8020-pound Ram recorded the slowest acceleration run, with a 9.1-second 0-60-mph sprint and a 17-second quarter-mile run.

Per Febbo, "Even with all this torque, it doesn't feel that powerful. When you are talking about ginormous numbers like this, if you aren't feeling big acceleration and earth-mantle-shearing force, you should still be feeling the structure of the truck loading up. There should be strain somewhere. The torque just kind of disappears, and evaporates."

Where that torque does come in handy is in hauling and towing. The Ram made fairly easy work of the substantial 3200-pound payload strapped in its bed. That number, of course, represents 75 percent of the maximum-rated 4330-pound payload. While there was no mistaking that the Ram was hauling the weight equivalent of our Toyota Tacoma tester, as Kiino noted, it did so without struggling. "The Ram made it known it was hauling thousands of pounds but basically said, 'I'm gonna be a little slower but I'll get there and I won't be sweating,'" said Kiino.

Kiino, and most of the other judges, also liked the Ram's steering feel and cornering stability, both excellent for such huge truck. Like the NV, the Ram makes it easy to forget just how much mass is being shuttled around.

"Handles surprisingly well for a huge dually. I suppose this is partly due to all that rear grip coming from four rear tires," Kiino noted.

What we were completely unimpressed with was the Ram's ride comfort, with complaints coming from every judge. As a dually with very high payload and towing capacities, it's expected that the ride will be somewhat compromised for normal, unloaded driving duty. A truck suspension must be set up for heavy loads or light loads, and the presumption Chrysler appears to make with this package is that the truck will be used mostly for hauling or towing heavy loads. As such, constant up-and-down, jarring ride quality was standard behavior.

Unfortunately, the Ram's ride didn't seem to improve much with the bed loaded, like we noticed with the Fords. With a 12,000-pounds trailer locked to the hitch (the maximum allowed for our setup -- full towing capacity is only available with a gooseneck or fifth-wheel), the Ram did settle down some, but even then, it still fell short of the other contenders. Simply put, loaded or unloaded, riding in the Ram was akin to a entering a rodeo with plenty of bucking, jumping, and jittering, even on relatively smooth pavement.

"The ride is very firm, as is to be expected in a truck that's built to carry over 4000 pounds of stuff in the bed," said Harwood. "However, I'm not sure the ride was as improved by adding payload as I'd hoped (it may have even been a little worse!). According to Scott, the ride smoothed out when the trailer was hooked up, and the truck was clearly capable of handling more weight."

And about that upmarket Laramie Longhorn trim package? Well, "over the top" was the way most described it. It is apparent Chrysler tried hard, with comfortable leather front seats, plenty of rear-seat room, and all the modern amenities expected of a $61,000 truck. But the Western Longhorn motif was a bit tacky for most of us.

Lieberman says it best: "I can't get past the silly interior. Fake rubber barbed-wire on the floormats, tribal tats on the gauges and above the glovebox. Big, horrible badges and belt buckle-looking clasps are just pandering. I know they're optional, but who spends this much money on a pickup and wants to be surrounded by that sort of schlock?"

Still, the exterior certainly looks the part. "Badass," "menacing," and "gargantuan," were some of the adjectives used, usually with exclamation points immediately following. Those huge rear box fenders covering dually wheels, the stout, big-rig-style front end, and row of roof-mounted clearance marker lights all make for huge intimidation factor. Who wouldn't move out of the fast lane for one of these moving up quick from behind?

In the end, the Ram seemed to demand too much compromise in day-to-day use for its massive capability as a hauler of, well, nearly anything. And let's face it, day-to-day driving is what most trucks are used for, especially a leather-lined "gentleman's truck" such as this one.


2012 Ram Laramie Longhorn
MODEL TESTED Laramie Longhorn DRW
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truck
BASE PRICE $37,145
PRICE AS TESTED $61,085
ENGINE 6.7L/350-hp/800-lb-ft turbodiesel OHV 24-valve I-6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 8020 lb (60/40%)
PAYLOAD CAPACITY 4330 lb
TOWING CAPACITY 19,050 lb
0-60 MPH 9.1, 11.0*, 22.1** sec
QUARTER MILE 17.0 sec @ 80.3 mph, 17.9 sec @ 76.3 mph*, 23.4 sec @ 61.9 mph**
30-70 MPH 7.7*, 13.3** sec
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 150, 156* ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.65 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 30.0 sec @ 0.52 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON Not rated
ENERGY CONs, CITY/HWY 314 kW-hrs/100 mi (MT obs)
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.82 lb/mi (MT obs)
MT OBSERVED FUEL ECON 12.2 mpg
TOWING KEY *With 3248-lb payload, **With 12,000-lb trailer

Toyota Tacoma
By Ron Kiino

WE LIKE: The modernized cabin and Entune infotainment system.

WE DON'T LIKE: What's with the subpar brake feel, lack of power, and so-so mpg?

Through October 2011, Toyota sold nearly 89,000 examples of its Tacoma compact pickup, making it far and away the hottest seller in its segment. The next hottest? The Ford Ranger, which, at 57,058 sold, seems comparably icy to the scalding Toyota. In fact, within the struggling, relatively diminutive compact-truck field, the Tacoma accounts for about 37 percent of all sales, which means Toyota is struggling the least. And consider this: The Honda Ridgeline, our 2006 Truck of the Year, sold just 7356 units through October. Ouch.

Let's not forget that the aforementioned Tacoma sales are not representative of the truck seen here, the freshened 2012 model that went on sale last fall. Although this updated 2012 appears very similar to the 2011, it nonetheless boasts new front styling, a reworked interior, and improved audio systems, including Toyota's Entune. So while Toyota didn't make monumental changes to its compact, the truth is, it didn't really need to, as the Tacoma has the sales to prove it's top in class. Still, to be Truck of the Year, to really raise the bar, even in a stagnant field of aged entries, the Tacoma needed to take major, not minor, action.

I'm referring mostly to the Tacoma's hardware. As in years past, the Tacoma soldiers on with a 2.7-liter, 159-horsepower I-4 paired to a five-speed manual or four-speed auto, and a 4.0-liter, 236-horse V-6 teamed to a six-speed manual or five-speed auto. Cab configurations remain regular, access, and double, and drive options stay two- or four-wheel drive. Nothing new here.

Our test example was a $34,635(as tested) Double Cab 4x4 V-6 with the $4145 TRD Off-Road Package, which added Bilstein dampers, an electronically controlled locking rear differential, BFGoodrich all-terrain tires, and such off-road wizardry as Hill Start Assist Control and Downhill Assist Control. During evaluation, the Tacoma was lauded for its manageable, easy-to-maneuver size as well as its excellent seating position and ergonomics. Sad to say, we didn't like much more. The great seating position failed to rub off on the seat comfort, which most deemed too soft and unsupportive. The interior, otherwise well-laid-out and attractive, was dinged for cheap-feeling materials that lent a "Corolla build at a Camry price" sensation.

While quick when given full throttle (0-60 in 7.4 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.9 at 85.7 mph), the Tacoma felt lethargic under normal driving. "You have to have the thing floored constantly to get it to go anywhere," says Febbo. And when we conducted payload and trailer testing, the Tacoma felt the most hampered and affected. Noted Lieberman, "Power feels like it's been halved and the vibrations seem to have increased fivefold." Jurnecka observed: "This is the only truck in the group that I feel like I need to drive very gingerly with payload in the bed."

The only participant with rear drum brakes, the Toyota also exhibited poor, grabby brake feel as well as the noise of stepping on a soaked sponge whenever applying initial pressure to the pedal. Then there's the Tacoma's fuel economy: Its EPA rating of 16/21 mpg city/highway is marginally worse than that of the F-150 EcoBoost, which weighs 1357 pounds more.

The current-generation Tacoma debuted for 2005 and won our coveted Truck of the Year prize. Seven years later, Toyota hasn't made any significant changes, save for a revised front end and interior that do little to save the day. Toyota's small trucks used to blow the competition away; now, they seem OK with simply being one of the best. Maybe when the Tacoma gets its swagger back, and nets livelier, more fuel-efficient powertrains, it'll fare better.


2012 Toyota Tacoma
MODEL TESTED 4WD Double Cab V-6
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truck
BASE PRICE $17,685
PRICE AS TESTED $34,635
ENGINE 4.0L/236-hp/266-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 5-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4292 lb (56/44%)
PAYLOAD CAPACITY 1315 lb
TOWING CAPACITY 6500 lb
0-60 MPH 7.4, 9.2*, 17.2** sec
QUARTER MILE 15.9 sec @ 85.7 mph, 17.1 sec @ 81.8 mph*, 21.4 sec @ 66.1 mph**
30-70 MPH 6.0*, 11.4** sec
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 128, 134 ft*
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.72 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.8 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 16/21 mpg
ENERGY CONs, CITY/HWY 211/160 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.08 lb/mi
MT OBSERVED FUEL ECON 17.5 mpg
TOWING KEY *With 906-lb payload, **With 4875-lb trailer
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