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.

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

Safety
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.

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


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

Contender: Ford F-150

By: Allyson Harwood

We Like: Best-in-class capability, EcoBoost power, excellent ride.
We Don't Like: Pricey topline model, changes don't move the needle.

Ford did not rest on its laurels for 2013. The F-150 now has a new trim level -- Limited -- that tops the Platinum and King Ranch and starts at $50,175. It comes with a unique grille and 22-inch wheels, a red and black leather interior, and just about every option Ford offers as standard, with the EcoBoost engine and SuperCrew cab configuration. As for the rest of the line, there are changes inside and out. Exterior styling tweaks include LED headlights and taillights, and there are new options like power telescoping tow mirrors and MyFord Touch. In addition, the 3.7-liter, V-6-powered F-150 is now rated to tow 6700 pounds, up by 600 over last year.

That's a lot for a truck that was already an award-winner, but as we discovered, not all the changes were for the better. For example, this version of MyFord Touch is easy to use through the touch screen, and we like that there are real buttons underneath the screen. However, even though they're a decent size, we're concerned that using them is going to prove challenging for people with bigger fingers or who are wearing gloves. Aside from the Limited, the styling changes were not all that different. But the telescoping side mirrors were a terrific addition to the F-150. They make perfect sense and have logical controls.

During our towing run on Davis Dam, when lugging 75 percent of its 11,300-pound as-tested towing capacity (8475 pounds, almost 1000 more than the ram), the EcoBoost felt as if there wasn't a lot of reserve power on the climb. While it is impressive that this SuperCrew F-150 is rated to tow 11,300 pounds (as equipped), and towing on flatter land is terrific, for the folks who tow where things get really severe, the 5.0-liter may serve you better.

Yes, we know, the F-150 was the 2012 Truck of the Year. And we know why, too: It has best-in-class towing and payload; the EcoBoost is impressive; and ride and handling are crisp and responsive. There are four engines choices, all backed by six-speed automatics. The Ford was a great pickup last year, and continues to be. It deserved to be Truck of the Year. However, this year's changes do not move the bar enough to earn the F-150 a repeat win for 2013.


2013 Ford F-150
BASE PRICE $43,680
PRICE AS TESTED $52,720
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truck
ENGINE 3.5L/365-hp/420-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 5974 lb (56/44%)
WHEELBASE 144.5 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 231.9 x 79.2 x 76.7 in
0-60 MPH 6.6 sec; 15.7 sec*
QUARTER MILE 15.2 sec @ 91.7 mph; 20.5 sec @ 67.5 mph*
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 134 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.72 g (avg)
HILL TOWING AVAIL ACCEL 0.060 g
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 15/21 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 225/160 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.13 lb/mi
MT FUEL ECONOMY 13.7 mpg
* With 8475-lb trailer



Contender: Nissan NV 3500 Passenger Van

By: Jonny Lieberman

We Like: More performance than is necessary; looks mean in black.
We Don't Like: Sparse, Ryan Air-style interior; poor air conditioning.

What a difference a year makes! We don't do second place in any of our signature "of the Year" programs, but last year the Nissan NV work van lost by a single vote to the winning Ford F-150. We loved the NV's honest, utilitarian nature, saying, "It's not a lifestyle statement, nor an ego-inflator. It's just a really well-thought-out, heavy-duty van." For 2013, the NV is back, only this time it's filled with seats -- 12 of them, to be precise. And we didn't like it nearly as much just 12 months later.

The biggest problem is expectations. When you're talking about a stripped-down work truck, the NV gives you more than you'd expect. A back-up camera, tons of clever storage bins, and more performance -- in both acceleration and handling -- than you need. It comes across as special. Convert it into a passenger van, however, and it suddenly feels...dumpy. Too harsh? Perhaps "downmarket" is the more appropriate term. Consider the following:

Should you find yourself seated against the windows on the passenger side, you'll note there is literally no comfortable place to rest your elbow. Too nitpicky? How about the fact that the air conditioning was not at all up to the task of keeping the van cool in 90-degree Arizona heat? I remember once sitting in an idling Dodge Sprinter at VIR in the middle of summer, and that AC system worked well enough to age beef. The Nissan's under-your-leg cupholders come across as an afterthought. Moreover, at least two of us kicked our drinks over while simply climbing out.

There are some good things about the passenger-flavor NV. As Febbo explains, "There hasn't been a meaner-looking van since Hannibal, Murdock, and Face were being hauled around by BA Baracus."

We also loved the seat-integrated seatbelts, which mean you don't have to crawl through a nylon web to reach the rear sections. And, of course, like the work truck version, the acceleration and handling will put a smile on your face. But, as Febbo summarizes, "In the world of vans, the NV's personality is far more corporate logo than wizard mural."


2013 Nissan NV 3500 Passenger Van
BASE PRICE $38,385
PRICE AS TESTED $39,320
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, RWD, 12-pass, 3-door van
ENGINE 5.6L/317-hp/385-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 5-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 6841 lb (48/52%)
WHEELBASE 146.1 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 240.6 x 79.9 x 84.0 in
0-60 MPH 9.4 sec; 12.3 sec*
QUARTER MILE 17.1 sec @ 82.9 mph; 18.9 sec @ 75.9 mph*
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 139 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.71 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON Not rated
MT FUEL ECONOMY 13.4 mpg
* With 1942-lb passenger payload
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