For decades, the six-cylinder models of full-size trucks were there for the dealer starburst promos (the ubiquitous "One at this Price") -- refrigerator-white, vinyl-seat models with crank windows and AM-only radios. Their appeal was strictly based on price and economy for light-duty and fleet customers. The bulk of consumers flocked to the mid-level trims, almost always powered by V-8 engines.
The game changed in 2011 with Ford's all-new F-150 engine lineup, which included a surprisingly robust 302-hp, 3.7-liter DOHC V-6 as the base engine, and the V-8-rivaling EcoBoost V-6. Soon, the majority of F-150 sales were V-6 models, something that hadn't happened in this segment for years. Chrysler countered in 2013 with its new 3.6-liter, 305-hp Pentastar V-6 in the Ram, paired with a segment-first eight-speed automatic.
The six-pot engine had moved beyond its reputation as a bargain-basement compromise, becoming instead the choice of an increasing number of full-size truck buyers. The offering of mainstream trim levels with V-6 engines further emphasizes their growing popularity with consumers. To see if these new high-tech normally aspirated V-6 models could match the capability and performance of their V-8 predecessors (the 4.6-liter in the F-150 and the 4.7-liter in the Ram) while delivering on the claimed economy, we tested two V-6-powered F-150 specimens. We took them on city streets and highways, with and without payload, and evaluated them on SoCal's Cajon Pass, with an elevation change akin to that of the famous Grapevine. We considered performance, fuel economy, seat-of-the-pants evaluations, and value when comparing the pickups.
On paper, these trucks are closely matched: rear-drive V-6s with an intermediate cab/bed configuration, equipped with mid-grade trim: Ford's XLT and Ram's SLT. A mere $20 separates their final MSRPs. This was shaping up to be a tight battle, but attention to detail and thoughtful design gave one truck the edge.2nd Place:
Ford F-150 XLT SuperCab
The F-150 relies on a 3.7-liter DOHC V-6 for motivation, and the 1500 summons power from Chrysler's Pentastar 3.6-liter six-cylinder. Power numbers are close, with the Blue Oval's offering making 302 hp while crosstown rival Ram squeezes 305 hp out of its V-6.
On the road, we noted differences between the trucks almost immediately. Both were equipped with engines that produce practically identical power numbers, but the biggest differentiator was the Ram's new TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic. In performance and fuel economy, Ford's six-speed automatic was good, but not as good as the 1500's eight-speed. The Ram consistently bested the Ford's fuel economy by 2 mpg. The rearend axle ratios are different -- the Ram has a 3.55:1 and the Ford a 3.73:1 -- but that's not enough to explain the fuel economy difference.
Despite having two fewer gears to row through, whether on grades or around town, the 6R80 hunted for gears more frequently. We appreciate the traditional column shifter, but that wasn't enough to win us over.
The gap between the Ford and Ram continued to widen after we experienced the 1500's composed ride when carrying 1000 pounds of payload on the highway, and on the same route unloaded. The Ford bobbled around a bit and felt conspicuously more unsettled than the Ram.
On mountain roads, the Ford performed admirably. Its steering was pleasantly quick, and the truck's handling felt modern and taut. That combination made driving on twisty roads entertaining.
The Ford bested the Ram in braking, with a responsive and controlled pedal feel. It also stopped 4 feet shorter from 60 mph at the track, needing only 119 feet.
These aren't topline models by any means. We wanted to test trucks that offered a fair representation of what many pickup buyers would get. Even so, the value proposition wasn't quite as strong in the Ford. There were some interior amenities that came with the Ram with which the Ford wasn't equipped. Sync was the tougher of the two trucks' systems to use, and pairing a cellphone to it was an exercise in madness. Interacting with the Ram's 5-inch screen and Uconnect system was much easier. Sync wasn't the only feature holding the Ford back. Our Ram tester had some features, such as side steps, a 115-volt outlet, and a power-sliding rear window, that weren't offered on the F-150, for essentially the same as-tested price.
Truck Trend just spent over than a year living with the F-150, and the truck is an excellent vehicle. When it comes to comparing six-cylinder with six-cylinder, though, we discovered that at the track and on the road, the Ford fell short of the Ram in a few essential categories. Its six-speed has been eclipsed by the new TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic. While the Ford doesn't offer the four-corner coil-spring suspension the Ram does, not everyone who buys a truck wants this feature. Nor does everyone want the same exact ride characteristics. The Ford's handling was better than the Ram's in turns; the Ram was more comfortable on the open road. In the case of this comparison story, our preference was the cushier highway ride.
The full-size truck market is fiercely competitive, and the F-Series continues to be the best-seller and benchmark. While the Ram 1500 wins this round, Ford is not a company to rest on its laurels. We predict Ford has something new in the works, as hinted at by the Atlas Concept. In the meantime, we expect improvements to come to the base powertrain in the F-150 sooner rather than later.
1st Place: Ram 1500 SLT Big Horn Quad Cab
At the beginning of this comparison, we thought it would be a close contest and that picking a winner would involve prolonged conversations and hair-splitting. As the evaluation progressed, well-planned details unanimously established the Ram as the victor.
Both models here are mid-grade trim levels -- neither the plumber's specials nor the full-boat, leather-lined, urban cowboy models. We were surprised at the near $36,000 price tags for both our testers, but didn't felt cheated or shortchanged on equipment, for the most part. Just $20 separated the MSRPs of the Ford and the Ram, but for the price of a nice sit-down lunch, the Ram was simply better equipped. Among the items the Ram had that the Ford did not have were a touch-screen head unit (sans nav), driver-side power seat recliner, and a locking tailgate.
But it was not merely the Ram's abundance of goodies that won us over. The truck's efficiency, comfort, driveability, and attention to detail showed a laser-like focus by the Ram product development and engineering teams to create the ideal truck for the weekend suburban landscaper/fisherman/family man.
The Ram's engine was notably quieter, and paired well with the new eight-speed automatic. The dial-operated shifter takes some getting used to, especially in a three-point turn. We were also impressed with the eight-speed's performance -- it held gears when appropriate, but used its broad range of ratios to good effect. This revealed itself in quick off-the-line acceleration, as well as relaxed freeway cruising, where the Ram held a consistent 2-mpg advantage over the Ford in average fuel economy. The Ram was also faster to 60 mph, where it took 7.4 seconds -- the F-150 needed 7.6.
The Ram's four-corner coil-spring suspension also resulted in a more relaxed ride, loaded with 1000 pounds of payload and unloaded, than that of the F-150. (The factory-recommended inflation pressure for the Ram's tires is 40 psi, 4-5 psi higher than the F-150's, but its ride did not seem to suffer for it.) Its 17-inch wheels and tires compared with the Ford's 18-inchers also probably contributed to the smooth ride. That's something we hope Ram addresses in the near future.
The F-150 can be equipped with accessory side steps, which would have made entry easier, but even without the steps, the 1500 had an edge. In our eyeball calculations, the Ram's vertical door opening is about an
inch larger than the Ford's, and the seating height is lower, helping to ease entry and exit. In the Ford, we had to hunch over slightly to avoid bumping our heads on the door opening.
The cabins and dashboards of both trucks are handsome and functional, but once again, Ram's attention to detail stood out. Its 5-inch Uconnect touch screen display is snappy and intuitive, allowing for quick, simple pairing, as well as displaying wireless metadata in Bluetooth music mode.
Though Ram has won this battle, the competition will get even tougher, even at the once-ignored V-6 level, as the new Silverado and Sierra are ready to take on the Ram's Pentastar and Ford with an all-new 4.3-iter V-6. We also hear that an all-new 2015 F-150 is around the corner, and we expect that to have new V-6 innovations as well.
Ram shouldn't get too comfortable resting on its laurels. General Motors' all-new full-size twins will be on sale in a few months, and we hear an all-new 2015 F-150 is around the corner and promises to be a major game-changer in the full-size segment.
Yet, for now and for this target market, the Ram hits the bull's eye.