After years of neglect, the mid-size truck market is finally getting the love it deserves thanks to great new entries from Chevrolet, Ford, and Jeep, which join familiar players from Nissan and Toyota.
Off-road enthusiasts are always excited for new toys, so the arrival of the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, and Jeep Gladiator, each of which boasts a rough-and-tumble trim, have them ready to hit the trails.
With so much change happening in this segment, we just had to know how the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison, Ford Ranger FX4, and Jeep Gladiator Rubicon compare to one another, as well as to the class elder: the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro.
Our friends Phil and Karla Van der Vossen were kind enough to facilitate the opportunity to answer this question by way of the third annual “Trail Trek Tour” off-road media drive at the 6,500-acre Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) off-road course in Coal Township, Pennsylvania. Here, we safely and responsibly put the trucks to the test on the site’s tough trails, hill climbs, and rock crawls.
Fourth Place: Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro
Toyota happily points out that the Tacoma is America’s best-selling mid-size truck for 12 years in a row. Of course, the Tacoma also feels 12 years older than its competitors, despite a redesign in 2016.
The Tacoma has an uncomfortable high-floor, low-roof design that forces occupants to sit flat on the floor with their legs stretched out ahead of them. In contrast, all the other trucks have more comfortable, upright seating positions. The Toyota enjoys a half inch more ground clearance than the Ford and Chevy, which, in turn, makes it more difficult to get in and out of.
While our test truck’s running boards help ingress and egress, the low-hanging steps also eliminate the Toyota’s ground-clearance advantage. A colleague tore off one of the Tacoma’s steps entirely on a rock, and striking the opposite side later nearly ends in the same result. Self-defeating add-on running board steps make the Tacoma hard to cheer for in this competition.
From the low-sitting driver’s seat, the Tacoma’s hood looms huge ahead of the cabin, blotting out the forward view in a way that significantly compromises off-road capability. For model year 2020, Toyota adds a forward video system like the Jeep’s, which helps provide some idea of what’s ahead on the trail.
The Tacoma is the only truck tested with a manual transmission.
In the Jeep’s case, this is a nice bonus. In Toyota's case, it is an insufficient band-aid to a problem that makes the truck fundamentally handicapped in trail driving.
It’s a shame, because Toyota Racing Development earned its keep in off-road truck racing, and the outfit provides some useful hardware for this Tacoma. There is an electronic transfer case and an electronically locking rear-differential. TRD also adds an aluminum skid plate up front. Additionally, there are Fox shock absorbers in the wheel wells and a set of Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain Kevlar tires. The part-time four-wheel drive system also includes a crawl control system.
The Tacoma is the only truck tested with a manual transmission, and when the transfer case is in four-low, the first two gears are all you need to to climb over obstacles at extremely low speeds without slipping the clutch or stalling the engine. Hill-start assist also takes away any concerns about rolling backwards after stopping on a hill to evaluate an obstacle.
The smooth power delivery of the 278-hp 3.5-liter V6 engine and the slick six-speed shifter contribute to the ease of DIY shifting on the trail and road. Cheers to Toyota for offering this option and executing it so well.
EPA fuel economy estimates for this drivetrain are 17 mpg city and 20 mpg highway, which is in line with that of the other V6s. The automatic transmission scores 18/22, putting it ahead of the other six-cylinders and nearly on par with Ford’s turbo four-cylinder.
Toyota has earned its share of die-hard fans for its compact pickups in the off-road community over the years, but the current Tacoma comes up short in comparison to the newcomers in the category.
Base price for the Tacoma TRD Pro is $42,660. Our test truck’s smattering of options brought the as-tested bottom line to $47,240, but most of this equipment would be easy to live without. Feel free to pass on the TRD Pro graphics package, tailgate emblem, camera mount, bed extender, bed step and other similar items. Our tester also includes the Predator Tube Step running boards, which you’re better off without if actual off-roading is in the plan. The TRD air filter, paint protective film, and emergency first aid kit all seem like smart choices for anyone headed off road, however.
Third Place: Ford Ranger FX4
Ideally Ford would offer us Yanks a Ranger Raptor, which it sells in other countries (Ford Performance announced the day after our shootout that it will offer an dealer-installed $1,495 “leveling kit” that includes a two-inch front suspension lift and Fox shocks, which would help boost our FX4 tester closer to Raptor specification).
That said, the FX4 package is solid. But when competing against the likes of the Jeep and AEV-equipped Colorado, “solid” is only good for third place. The Ranger does have an electronically selectable terrain management system that optimizes the powertrain settings for the conditions, an electronically shifted transfer case (both the Jeep and Toyota have manual transfer case shifters), Dana AdvanTEK axles front and rear, and unbranded off-road monotube shock absorbers.There’s 8.9 inches of ground clearance, like the ZR2 Bison, so it’s good that the FX4 package also includes steel bumpers, a heavy-gauge steel front bash plate, and underbody skid plates.
The Ranger is the only four-cylinder-powered truck in the test, with a turbocharged 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine that makes 270 hp and 310 lb-ft, but boasts better EPA fuel economy ratings (20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway) than its V6 competitors. A 10-speed automatic is the only available gearbox, although it’s so poor off-road it very nearly dropped the Ranger to last place.
The truck’s 10-speed automatic transmission clunks harshly into gear when shifting into “D,” and executes upshifts and downshifts with a universal joint-straining slam every time. It’s unsettling to experience and definitely saps any confidence that this truck might not strand us in the deepest, darkest forest with some broken driveline component.
Also, its vulnerable rear shock absorber mounts strike rocks that the truck otherwise clears easily. Unlike the similar mounts on the Chevy, the Ford has no shielding around its mounts, giving further concern that the Ranger is vulnerable to trail damage.
The Ranger's pillar-mounted seat belt height adjusters sits uncomfortably close to the driver’s head. When rocking side-to-side while traversing obstacles, it’s easy for the driver to whack their head against the adjuster or the pillar. We had no such problems with any of the other trucks.
As the least-serious off-road effort here, it’s no surprise the Ranger also has the lowest price, with an as-tested price of $44,960. That leaves room to have your dealer install Ford Performance’s available “leveling kit” while still undercutting the price of the second-cheapest truck in this test: the Tacoma.
Notably, the 2020 Ford Ranger Performance Pack Level 2 is listed as one of the Fastest Pickup Trucks For 2020-2021.
2nd Place: Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison
The souped-up ZR2 Bison lands in second place. What the Colorado lacks in off-road heritage, it makes up for by Chevy’s decision to turn to recognized experts in the field.
American Expedition Vehicles has an enviable reputation for the prowess of the trucks it builds, which is why Chevy turned to the company to provide real off-road credibility for the already capable Colorado ZR2. The “Bison” in this truck’s name represents AEV’s mascot and logo.
The most ostentatious of the available AEV hardware is an intake snorkel. Meant to increase water fording depth and provide fresh air when the engine bay is choking on dust kicked up by vehicles ahead, it’s a statement of extreme off-road fashion. Chevy, however, left the snorkel off of our red-hot test truck (it wouldn’t have done much to improve performance in our testing anyway).
Snorkel aside, this Chevy includes AEV’s 17-inch wheels with 32-inch Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires, five boron-steel skid plates to armor the Colorado’s underside, and sturdy stamped-steel front and rear bumpers. Chevy builds the Colorado with a slew of its own in-house hardware, as well, and includes goodies like front- and rear-locking differentials, an electronic shifting transfer case (dubbed Autotrac), rock sliders, and durable cast-iron control arms.
Chevy turned to off-road experts AEV to provide real credibility for the already capable Colorado ZR2.
The ZR2 also includes the world’s first off-road application of Multimatic’s Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve shock absorbers, which were first used on the 2014 Camaro Z/28 and originally developed for Formula 1 race cars. These shocks are more resistant to heat-related fade and afford a cushy highway ride from the truck’s capable long-travel off-road suspension. But the shocks give the Colorado a noticeably cushy ride over obstacles such as rocks and ruts, too.
This control of wheel movement makes it easy to climb slopes with impressively little drama, although the truck’s comparatively paltry 8.9 inches of ground clearance means that being a little cavalier about rocks on the trail presents a chance to test the skid plates.
The lowest point on the truck is the lower mount for the rear shocks, which are worrisome to have in harm’s way. Thankfully, those mounts are armored up with shielding to protect them, unlike the similarly low shocks on the Ford Ranger.
An electronic gadget worth mentioning is the Colorado’s 4G LTE wireless hotspot. Off-roading is generally done in places with sketchy cellular network coverage, so the vastly superior antenna and transceiver of the Chevy’s hotspot makes it more likely that you’ll stay connected in the outback than if you just rely on your phone’s hardware.
The Chevy’s 3.6-liter V6 engine makes 308 hp and 275 lb.-ft. torque, which is more than the Jeep. But it also drinks more fuel than the Gladiator, and the EPA rates the Bison at 16 mpg city and 18 mpg highway. An eight-speed automatic is the only available transmission, although it’s smart about choosing gears off-road, while a standard manual mode offers a DIY experience for drivers that desire it.
The Colorado ZR2 Bison’s as-tested price of $49,745 is the second-highest of the vehicles in our test, which is no surprise given its high-end AEV-supplied hardware. Generally, in this comparison, price is a reliable indicator of off-road prowess.
Notably, the 2020 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 is on our list of the Fastest Trucks in the world.
1st Place: Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Despite its five-foot cargo bed, it’s better to think of the Jeep Gladiator as a long-wheelbase Wrangler. In an off-road competition, this amounts to an unfair advantage, because the Wrangler is quite possibly the best off-road vehicle available today, save maybe the Mercedes-Benz G550 and the upcoming Land Rover Defender.
So, here we are, in first place, with the Gladiator. The tight trails and precarious rock scrambles of the AOAA park are similar to the conditions of California's Rubicon Trail, so it’s no surprise the Gladiator Rubicon is completely at home in this environment.
Because it’s basically a stretched Wrangler Unlimited, the Gladiator is longer overall (about six inches), has a longer wheelbase (about ten inches), and has a correspondingly worse breakover angle compared to the Chevy, Ford, and Toyota. Predictably, the Jeep is a little tougher to maneuver between trees and through tight turns because of its length. But in every other respect, the Gladiator is far and away the superior off-roader. If length really is a problem, get a Wrangler instead.
It’s better to think of the Jeep Gladiator as a long-wheelbase Wrangler.
This sort of low-speed four-wheeling is perfect for taking advantage of the Gladiator’s removable roof and doors. On a perfect, sunny, 70-degree day, removing just the Jeep’s front roof panels make it feel far more airy than its seemingly claustrophobic competitors.
The Jeep’s Rubicon-tested off-road hardware is an embarrassment of riches. It includes Jeep’s Rock-Trac 4x4 system with Tru-Lok front and rear locking axles, a bevy of skid plates, rock rails, chunky 33-inch tires, electronically disconnecting sway bars, and a forward-facing off-road camera for peering past the hood when cresting climbs. Fox Racing shocks round out the package, although they take a backseat to the other enhancements in the low-speed conditions around AOAA.
The Gladiator’s impressive 11.1 inches of ground clearance allows it to climb over rocks that require some consideration in the other trucks, the Jeep can also drive through up to 30 inches of water. Driving with the diffs locked and the front swaybar disconnected, the rough conditions barely challenge the Gladiator.
The Gladiator’s 3.6-liter V6, which produces 285 horsepower and 260 pound-foot of torque, and eight-speed automatic transmission are well-suited to the truck’s off-road mission. As with the other mid-size trucks in this test, there is a conventional sliding shifter for the transmission rather than one of the pushbutton/joystick/rotary abominations plaguing full-size pickups these days. The drivetrain combination yields a fuel economy rating of 17 miles per gallon city and 22 highway from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Gladiator Rubicon’s ability doesn’t come cheap. It is by far the most expensive truck in the test, with an as-tested price $61,170. But as the long-running Preference by L’Oreal ad campaign said, it costs more “because I’m worth it.” That said, the Gladiator Rubicon’s base price is $43,545, so it’s possible to keep the price closer to that of the other trucks if you are more sparing with the options list.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that the Ford Ranger was around 10 inches wider than the competition. This is incorrect. The information provided at the event listed the Ranger's width including its exterior mirrors, while the specs for the Jeep, Chevrolet, and Toyota excluded the exterior mirrors. We've edited the story accordingly and regret the mistake.
|2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon||2019 Chevrolet Blazer ZR2 Bison|
|Engine:||3.6-liter V6||3.6-liter V6|
|Output:||285 Horsepower / 260 Pound-Feet||308 Horsepower / 275 Pound-Feet|
|Transmission:||8-Speed Automatc||8-Speed Automatic|
|Drive Type:||Four-Wheel Drive||Four-Wheel Drive|
|17 City / 22 Highway||16 City / 18 Highway|
|Weight:||4,742 Pounds||4,749 Pounds|
|Towing Capacity:||7,650 Pounds||5,000 Pounds|
|2019 Ford Ranger FX4||2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro|
|Engine:||Turbocharged 2.3-liter I4||3.5-liter V6|
|Output:||270 Horsepower / 310 Pound-Feet||278 Horsepower / 265 Pound-Feet|
|Transmission:||10-Speed Automatic||6-Speed Manual|
|Drive Type:||Four-Wheel Drive||Four-Wheel Drive|
|Fuel Economy:||20 City / 24 Highway||17 City / 20 Highway|
|Weight:||4,354 Pounds||4,425 Pounds|
|Towing Capacity:||7,500 Pounds||