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2020 Pickup Truck of the Year: How We Test

Data-Driven Decision Making

Feb 6, 2020
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. 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 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.
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Before the pickups hit the highway, they are first logged in, stickered up, photographed, and fully refueled. First thing on day one, 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 some of the pickups tested actually have less available payload and towing than published, this is thankfully beginning to turn the opposite direction, and this year 10 of 11 pickups had more available payload than their published rating. Still, we check each vehicle to be sure.
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With the full judging staff assembled for a week of intense testing, the team headed to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, for a day of instrumented testing. The field of 11 was subjected to 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile acceleration testing, as well as 60-to-0-mph braking while unladen. Each truck was then loaded up with its maximum calculated payload and retested from 0 to 60, for quarter-mile elapsed time and speed, and 60-to-0 braking. The final instrumented test involved each truck accelerating from 0 to 60 mph and through a quarter-mile while towing a weighted trailer.
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For our instrumented testing, we use asphalt 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 in order to account for the weight of the driver. This year, we partnered with Big Tex for our trailer testing. Using a trio of trailers, we set the midsize segment trailer at 5,000 pounds and weighted it in the same fashion as payload with our rubber ballast mats, set with approximately 10 percent of the weight on the tongue. For our -ton trucks, we set a second trailer at 7,000 pounds, and the heavy-duty trucks towed the final trailer set at 10,000 pounds. The two heavier weights were achieved by strapping a pair of properly weighted pickups on the trailers, with any weight difference made up with rubber load mats in the bed of the pickup acting as ballast.
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To ensure consistency, a single driver conducted the instrumented testing, while 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.
Day two was spent with trailer in tow. Using the same parameters as the instrumented testing, the trucks were again hitched up to our test trailers 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 evaluated. 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.
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With load and instrumented testing complete, on day three the vehicles were pointed north from the Truck Trend world headquarters toward the quiet Central California coastal town of Pismo Beach for a 200-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.
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After an evening photo shoot on the edge of the Pacific Ocean at Pismo State Beach, we rolled out the next morning for a leisurely drive through the hill country of Central California. The caravan covered 150 miles of highway with 20 miles of dirt trails thrown in for fun. These picturesque ribbons of asphalt lead us to our final destination: Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area in Gorman, California.
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Utilizing the park's Off-Road Training Facility, the field completed extensive off-highway testing over incredibly diverse terrain. 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. Our judges also thoroughly examined the available skidplates, rocker protection, shock and spring packages, ground clearance, and tires. While it's true 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 someone may not consider themself an off-roader, 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.
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Over the course of the five-day, 1,000-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 60 different criteria in six different categories.
In the end, there can be only one winner. Continue reading to see how the story unfolds
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