Anyone who follows the ups and downs of the pickup-truck industry knows that the last five years have been brutal. When the Great Recession hit, it put a major damper on research and development spending on new trucks. That isn't to say that nothing happened in the last five years -- far from it, actually. What it does mean is that instead of having the funds to build trucks and vans that are all-new from the ground up, truckmakers' priorities shifted to improving and building upon already existing vehicles.

Which brings us to the 2013 Truck of the Year event. There are three contenders this year. We saw the Nissan NV Passenger Van in its Cargo Van form last year, and for 2013 it offers 12-passenger capacity and a people-friendly cabin. Then there's the Ford F-150. For 2013, the company added a new trim level; all F-150s benefit from new styling and new interior technology; and those powered by the 3.7-liter V-6 now have increased towing capacity. The third of the group is the Ram 1500. This is the newest and most improved of the trio, with a new engine, transmission, air suspension, and technology, as well as an all-new interior.

Yes, technically none of this trio is truly all-new, but all are significantly updated for 2013, so we tested them to see how they fared based on Motor Trend's "of the Year" criteria. Read on to see which truck took home the Golden Calipers, and how it earned the big award.

Pulling our weight: The Test Procedures
By: Allyson Harwood

For the 2013 Truck of the Year event, we tested these trucks in several ways to get a feel for how they do the jobs they're designed to do. After evaluating the ride, comfort, amenities, and fuel economy on the highway as we drove to the Chrysler Automotive Proving Ground in Arizona, our test team set up shop there and tested each truck's performance, starting with acceleration, braking, and maximum lateral grip at the proving ground while unloaded. Once performance testing was complete, the judges drove a course at the APG that included high-speed cornering, a gravel road section, and areas that duplicate city traffic.

For the next phase of our evaluation, we tested the four with a load, keeping everything at 75 percent of the as-equipped maximum. Three of the vehicles were equipped with the manufacturer's towing package, and one was not. Since the Nissan NV Passenger Van we tested didn't have a hitch, the team did acceleration testing with 75 percent of its payload capacity. Its as-tested Gross Vehicle Weight Rating is 9430 pounds minus the 6840-pound curb weight, leaving a payload capacity of 2590 pounds. Judges and staffers stood on the truck scale until we reached 75 percent of payload (1942), and our "payload" sat in the van for the acceleration runs.

The F-150 was rated to tow 11,300 pounds as tested, so we hooked a trailer weighing 8475 pounds (including ballast) to the rear bumper. The V-6 Ram's as-tested towing capacity was rated 4350 pounds; its trailer weighed 3262. Ram Truck hasn't announced official tow ratings for the V-8 Ram with the eight-speed automatic, but gave us an estimate of 10,000 pounds, so that trailer weighed 7500.

After testing at the proving ground, we took the three trucks and trailers to Davis Dam on Highway 68. This is an industry standard for evaluating towing on a grade -- it's even employed in SAE standard J2807 for tow-testing evaluation. The grade begins at an elevation of about 500 feet at Bullhead City, rising to 3563 feet during its 12-mile climb to summit at Union Pass. However, our focus was an 8.5-mile section offering a particularly relentless 5-degree grade. With our trucks and trailers in a train, we powered up the hill at 55 mph (the posted speed is 65), while simultaneously nailing their throttles eight separate times and recording whatever reserve acceleration they were capable of. Numerically, the differences between the trucks appear small (they're tiny fractions of a g), but it was enough to noticeably change the gaps between them.

Which pulled hardest? Read on.

The Criteria

Design Advancement
The judges are looking for well-executed exterior and interior styling, innovative vehicle packaging, and good selection and use of materials.

Engineering Excellence
The parameters are total vehicle concept and execution; clever solutions to packaging, manufacturing, and dynamics issues; and cost-effective technology that benefits consumers.

Performance of Intended Function
How well the vehicle does the job its planners, designers, and engineers intended it to do.

The criteria are low fuel consumption and carbon footprint size relative to the vehicle's competitive set.

The judges take into account each vehicle's ability to help the driver avoid a crash, as well as the secondary safety measures that help protect its occupants survive an accident.

Each vehicle's price and equipment levels are compared with those of vehicles in the same market segment.

Edward LohEditor-in-Chief
Allyson HarwoodEditor, Truck Trend
Kim ReynoldsTesting Director
Jonny Lieberman Senior Editor
Mike FebboAssociate Editor