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2019 Pickup Truck of the Year: How We Test #PTOTY19

Running the Gauntlet

Dec 10, 2018
Photographers: Robert Guio, Amir Saidi
Looking from the outside in, our annual Pickup Truck of the Year test may appear as if we’re just a bunch of hooligans doing burnouts and donuts in brand-new pickups for a week. The reality is that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, some adolescent shenanigans take place, usually for the sake of photography, but what isn’t seen are the many hundreds of hours of work that go on behind the scenes. We’ll spare you the details of the thousands of pages of paperwork, hundreds of emails, and many hours on the phone with various state, federal, and private organizations and get right to the nitty gritty.
By now you should have noticed that there’s something different about this year’s test. For the first time, we have invited a pair of trucks from each eligible manufacturer. We requested both a luxury and an off-road trim, since all of the current pickup manufacturers have both in their lineup. Each truck went through the battery of tests prescribed individually, and at the end, the scores received by both the luxury and off-road variant from a particular manufacturer were combined. This provided the ultimate score and the overall winner.
Before the pickups hit the highway, they are first logged in, stickered up, photographed, and fully refueled. First thing on day 1, prior to the start of testing, our staff weighs each vehicle with a full tank of fuel and nothing else. We utilize a set of ProForm precision digital vehicle scales from Summit Racing that are capable of accurately weighing pickups in excess of 7,000 pounds. We do this for several reasons, the first being that manufacturer-published curb weights typically don’t account for trim-level variants. For the most accurate testing possible, we calculate available payload based on the published gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) and our determined actual curb weight, and check tow ratings against the vehicle’s gross combined weight rating (GCWR). While we’ve found in the past that most of the pickups tested actually have less available payload and towing than published accounting for their particular GVWRs and GCWRs, this is beginning to turn the opposite direction. Still, we check each vehicle anyway.
With the full judging staff assembled for a week of intense testing, the team headed to the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, for a day of instrumented testing. The field of eight was subjected to 0-60 mph and quarter-mile acceleration testing, as well as 60-0 mph braking while unladen. Each truck was then loaded up with its maximum payload and retested from 0-60, for quarter-mile elapsed time and speed, and 60-0 braking. The final instrumented test involved each truck accelerating from 0-60 mph and through a quarter-mile while towing a weighted trailer. Because of last year’s change in how we weight the trailer for tow testing and our field being comprised of all ½-ton pickups, all of the competitors towed the same 7,500-pound load.
For our instrumented testing, we use asphalt pavement that most closely simulates what you would find in the real world, not a competition-prepped dragstrip. Payload is replicated using rubber mats that weigh 100 pounds apiece, loaded and secured in the bed of each pickup. We load the trucks 200 pounds short of our calculated maximum payload to account for the driver’s weight. The trailer is weighted in the same fashion with our rubber ballast mats, set with approximately 10 percent of weight on the tongue. To ensure consistency, a single driver conducted the instrumented testing, while each of the other judges had the opportunity to drive each pickup with its full payload on a closed course. This allowed for testing vehicle handling with maneuvers that would otherwise be dangerous on public roads, such as panic-braking and emergency lane changes. We also took this time to arrange the vehicles in such a way as to demonstrate and test available self-parking and trailer-backing technology, if so equipped. Each judge had the opportunity to sample Ram’s parallel-parking ability, along with Ford’s parallel and perpendicular park assist and Pro Trailer Backup Assist features. Lastly, we tested the vehicles’ low-speed pedestrian detection and automatic braking functions.
Day 2 was spent with trailer in tow. Using the same parameters as the instrumented testing, the trucks were again hitched up to our test trailer and driven on a 12-mile loop up and down the infamous Cajon Pass of Interstate 15 in Southern California. The Cajon Pass features an impressive 6 percent grade, which tested each pickup to the max. Our expert judges spent the day rotating through the driver seat of each of the pickups involved. This allowed our judges to evaluate every vehicle with a loaded trailer driving both up and down the grade. Our chosen grade allowed us to test merging and passing power, vehicle stability, downhill control, and available features such as towing mirrors, integrated trailer brake controllers, and integrated exhaust brakes. Transmission function, both up and down the grade, along with the vehicle’s service brakes and cruise-control systems were also put to the test. Testers also got well acquainted with how easy (or difficult) each truck was to hitch a trailer to and how each truck’s backup camera and sensor systems either helped or hindered the process.
New for this year, we also ran each truck up the grade with its maximum payload. While one truck towed up the grade, a second payload-laden pickup followed. This allowed our judges to experience full payload at highway speeds and on a grade, testing handling, stability, acceleration, and braking.
Halfway through tow testing, we experienced a minor setback when a leaf-spring shackle on our test trailer decided to let go. Ever the scrappy bunch, we quickly rented a trailer from the local U-Haul, loaded it back to the test weight, and continued with our program. A mobile repair service had our trailer fixed and good as new in time to return the rental, leaving our test schedule on track.
With load and instrumented testing complete, on day 3 the vehicles were pointed north from the Truck Trend world headquarters toward the quiet Central California coastal town of Pismo Beach for a 400-mile highway slog designed to test maximum real-world fuel efficiency. Our convoy drove at the stated speed limit in a lead-follow formation, rotating both drivers and vehicle positions at designated intervals. This method produces the most accurate representation of real-world highway fuel economy possible. While all fuel used during the test is logged to get an overall average, this allows us to see what each vehicle is capable of producing under nearly ideal real-world circumstances.
Finally, the team headed to the mountain town of Big Bear Lake, California, where the field completed extensive off-highway testing over miles of diverse terrain over the course of two days. Through rough, graded roads; rocky climbs; tight trails; and sandy washes, judges were able to evaluate tires, gearing, traction aids, electronic traction controls, ground clearance, suspension tuning, four-wheel-drive systems, thermal management, and overall vehicle dynamics. While it’s true that most truck owners won’t use their pickup as strictly an off-road toy, the fact still remains that most are marketed toward those who lead an active outdoor lifestyle. And while some may not consider themselves off-roaders, they still use their four-wheel-drive pickup to get to their favorite hunting, fishing, camping, biking, surfing, skiing, or boarding spot. And if it’s not for recreation, then it’s used on the farm, in muddy fields, rural construction sites, or mines.
While all of the test vehicles were taken off-road, we concentrated the most intense testing on our cadre of four off-road specific models. Our judges thoroughly examined the available skidplates, rocker protection, shock and spring packages, ground clearance, and tires. Because of the popularity of off-road–specific pickup models and the lengths the manufacturers are going to satisfy consumer desire, we felt it was our duty to include them in this year’s competition.
Over the course of the five-day, 1,200-mile test, our experts had ample time with each vehicle to form qualified opinions regarding important factors such as interior ergonomics, seat comfort, technology usability, build quality, and features and benefits of each truck. Each judge then took this knowledge and applied it while blind-ranking each pickup on a sliding scale in each of 60 different criteria in 6 different categories.
In the end, there can be only one winner. Continue on to see how the story unfolds.