This year we kept it simple. No mega cross-country trips and extravagant expenses to report to you, which makes the bean counters happy. Nope, this year we took a meat-and-potatoes approach to picking the Truck and SUV of the Year. We gathered our flock of candidates, rode them to and from work, and took care of personal and business errands with them. We also made a 300-mile round-trip trek to Auto Club Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield, California, to take the vehicles down the 1/4-mile with and without a trailer that weighed in the neighborhood of 3,000 pounds, and put them on the 2WD dyno at Westech in Mira Loma, California, or the AWD dyno at K&N Engineering in Riverside, California.
Another thing that was different this year was our selection of vehicles. Normally, we narrow the field of candidates to those trucks and SUVs that are either debuting or are significantly redesigned for the model year. Last year, we broke away from that rule because GM was the only company with new or redesigned trucks, so we allowed a few other brands to participate to make a more interesting story. Luckily, the field of SUVs was new or redesigned enough to allow us to stick with the usual requirements. This year, however, the only new truck was the redesigned Toyota Tundra, and there really wasn't anything going on in the mid- or fullsized-SUV side that we counted as new or redesigned. So, we were faced with the option of ditching the story entirely and having a kicked-back fall, or getting loose with the rules again.
We chose the latter, because it gave us an opportunity to see how most of the major players in the 1/2-ton market stack up against each other now that most of them have been significantly revamped in the last few years. As for the SUVs, well, we thought we would go with vehicles that we simply haven't talked about much before.
You will notice some obvious omissions. Chevrolet and GMC did not have a new pickup available in its press fleet for us to use for the test (please send all hate mail to GM), and Honda could not meet the long-term requirements for our story. That left us with the following vehicles:
In the truck corner, we had an '08 Ford F-150 Lariat Limited, an '08 Dodge Ram, an '08 Nissan Titan, and an '07 Toyota Tundra ('08s were not available yet). For SUVs, we had an '08 Dodge Durango, '08 Jeep Grand Cherokee with a diesel engine, and an '08 Nissan Armada. Read on for our thoughts about these vehicles.
It's the most truck-like of all the trucks we tested. This statement left all of our mouths after spending seat time in the Dodge Ram. What we meant by that is the raw, unmolested, and traction control-free power, the heavy steering, and a ride that is 100 percent all-truck. There is no question you are in a truck once you hop up into the driver seat. There's no real excitement inside, cloth seats, same-old Dodge dash and ergonomics, and a list of options that was shorter than the rear leg room.
A strong suit for the Dodge is the continual support the aftermarket provides the Ram: suspension kits, interior dress-up items, and of course, performance. That support comes mostly for the Hemi 5.7L V-8. Rated at 345 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque, we only managed to pull 247hp from the Ram on the chassis dyno. This low number surprised all of us and explains why every Dodge owner we know installs an intake, headers, exhaust, and programmer on them. We're expecting the 6.1 Hemi found in the SRT Grand Cherokee to find its way under the Ram hood soon. And if it doesn't, Dodge will have to step up with a better V-8 option.
Riding long distances in the Dodge really left much to be desired as the stiff rear leaf springs tended to pound occupants on freeways and uneven highways. Whereas these stiff springs help in hauling and towing, without any extra weight in the back, the ride is very harsh. Our particular tester was packaged as the Big Horn edition. This package included chrome tubular side steps, a chrome fuel door, a chrome exhaust tip, inner rear-fender liners, and "Big Horn" badging. This much chrome may sound like a good idea. But after looking at the exterior, when we opened the doors, we found it the most disappointing aspect.
Plain Jane is how most of the driver's characterized the interior and this nothing-special approach to design really hurt the Dodge's chance for winning our competition. The dash and instrument cluster layout was so basic, we wondered if Dodge was going after the nostalgic look. The Ram also suffers from a lack of amenities not typical of a truck pushing $40K. Cloth seats that were not labeled as comfortable, a radio as basic as they come, and an overall interior look that makes you wonder how many light-years Dodge is behind GM and Ford, and you get the point of why our Ram tester didn't excel. Coming in at $38,985, the Ram doesn't offer much value considering its max-tow rating is at the bottom of the pack; a person has to step up to the Mega Cab to have any real rear-seat room, and the Tundra outperforms it in every category for around a $1,000 less with Mega Cab-like rear room. Despite the lack of frills, we all seemed to enjoy the Dodge for its good exterior looks and the support the aftermarket provides, but found that it fell short in value and technology.
FORD F150 LIMITED
New for 2008 is the Ford F-150 Lariat Limited 4x4 catering to the truck owner who wants to ride in style and arrive to the golf course with darn-near every option available for a fullsize truck. This Limited package is strictly a cosmetic package and includes 22-inch aluminum wheels with painted accents, Limited badging, two-toned leather seats, and polished tubular running boards. Combine this, with the F-150 Lariat 4x4 MSRP of $38,160 and the Limited will cost you $45,040. This staggering price tag provides amenities more commonly associated with a luxury SUV, but fails to deliver comparable fullsize truck performance.
Certain characteristics of the new F-150, however, are segment leaders; such as the overall ride quality, quietness inside the cab, and the ability to tow 11,000 pounds. Those are important attributes for America's best-selling truck; however, once those factors are overlooked, the Ford begins to fall behind the fullsize pack. Its Triton 5.4L rated at 300 hp, only laid down 263 hp on the all-wheel-drive dyno. If you're curious as to why it was tested on the all-wheel-drive dyno, the Limited is only available in full-time AWD mode. Another sore spot is the older four-speed automatic transmission that literally feels as if it is sucking horsepower from the V-8 and expelling it into thin air. Driving the F-150 required patience as the horsepower and acceleration weren't close to its competitors that have stepped up with bigger and better engines with transmissions featuring at least five speeds.
Areas where the F-150 was praised came mostly from the interior. Very comfortable, heated, two-tone leather seats look like custom additions; and the look and feel of the materials used inside are in a class all of their own. The overall look of the truck, with its white-sand metallic paint scheme--albeit the only available color--billet-like grille, black headlights, and 22-inch wheels were received with mixed feelings. Most of us couldn't believe the size of the Limited badges located on the rear of the bed sides, and we were all very curious how our Limited placard inside read 8,334 of 5,000 vehicles. Perhaps we had a super-limited-edition Limited?
The F-150 Limited we tested is $100 less than a similarly-equipped Lincoln Mark LT, and we think it is no coincidence the Limited was released the same year Lincoln announced the demise of the LT. If performance comes second to pomp and circumstance, perhaps the Limited is just the truck for you. But we can't overlook a truck that hasn't received any new technologies since 2004.
Nissan Titan LE
This wasn't the first time we had driven a Titan. We have given it criticism and accolades in the past that apply to this year's Of the Year contender. Still, the tester we drove did offer some new features we hadn't experienced before.
The first time we tested a Titan's interior no one was impressed. Three years later, it looks like Nissan has drastically improved the looks of the interior plastics. The interior, represented by the LE trim level, was the best-looking we have seen in a Titan. We don't see the interior of the Titan aging well, and it has nothing to do with its style. The hard plastic over the gauge cluster and the textured plastic that make up most of the dash are both soft enough to scratch with a thumbnail. We haven't seen this problem in any other truck interior so far. Another gripe is the position of the power-window switches. On the Titan, they are on the top of the doorsills, which are just not convenient; meanwhile, the switches on the Armada are lower and placed towards the front of the arm rests, just like they are in 95 percent of vehicles sold today. Compared to the rest of our field, the Titan competes--at best--with the Tundra in regards to the apparent quality and design of its interior elements and beats the Ram as far as the visual presentation. But for nearly $45,000 we had expected more. Ford is way ahead of of its competitors when it comes to the interior's fit, finish, perceived quality, and visual interest. Other than that, the truck offers a very competent, practical, and comfortable interior.
Giving the truck a longer wheelbase was a nice move for a utility-oriented market. Bigger will likely always be better for pickups, and the extended wheelbase keeps the Titan in the game by giving its customers more functionality and the press something fresh to talk about. It has a great towing capability and a longer bed, and the cab accommodates cargo well enough. It's a decent truck in these areas. On the highway, the Titan doesn't feel as refined as the Tundra, and the steering feels heavy, but not overbearing. Actually, the steering feels solid enough to remind you that you're not driving a car. The truck has always been pretty good around town, but the longer wheelbase, which should help tame unruly pavement, now makes it feel as bouncy as a Ram, thanks to it's heavier springs. Another obvious trade-off is parking. Parallel parking the Titan, like any large truck, is a chore; but once you get used to the convex mirrors, it's not impossible.
The 5.6L in the Nissan feels strong off the line, with Ford and GM trucks you can feel that the engine is tuned to not go wide-open throttle right away, or to retard the timing for a few seconds; not so with the Nissan. Granted, with the added weight of the crew cab and long bed, a lot of the fun was taken out of the equation that we were used to with the lighter Titans we've tested. What's left is still a strong performer and more than enough power for a work truck.
Nissan's huge SUV comes at you like a, well...Armada. The Titan's platform mate borrows a lot of that architecture's truck-like capability and wraps it up with techno gadgetry.
We liked the textured, wrap-around dash. It had some cushion to it, which helped make it feel better than the "plasticy" plastic of the Tundra. The center stack looked really busy and could have been laid out more intuitively. For example, there are buttons for zooming in and out on the map that are only used when the map is displayed, so why not just add a plus and minus soft button on the map screen the way Ford and GM do? Another example, the volume knob is in easy reach of the driver, but the tuning knob is a foot away, definitely in the realm of the passenger. After having to lean forward to change the channels, you're all but forced into programming the audio presets to every channel that you might be inclined to listen to. That said, the steering wheel controls worked well, but we prefer the back of the steering wheel controls of Dodge and Jeep vehicles. As far as interior space goes, the center console is big, and takes up what could have been front passenger knee room, but the space that is left is still pretty good. Second-row legroom is excellent, and third row seats are actually fairly easy to access with fold-forward second row seats. Once you're in the third row, the stadium seating makes for a comfortable experience, for all but the tallest passengers. To sum it up, it has comfortable seating for six, but the surfaces just don't look compelling enough to justify $52K. Granted, the interior is OK, and there is a lot of functionality inside there, but we would rather pocket the cash and sit in the Grand Cherokee or the Durango.
We have always liked the front sheetmetal and grilles of both the Titan and the Armada, and the updates take what was already good and keeps them fresh. If there's one gripe about the styling, it's that the C-pillar doesn't quite look right. The curving roofline and glass above the rear doors meeting the flat roofline over the rear greenhouse still looks like two different designers merged concepts. Although, the rear fender flares make up for it and give the Armada an imposing stance.
When you compare it to the Durango and Grand Cherokee, its pricing looks bloated, but its ability to haul and tow is impressive. Still, the Durango comes close enough to the Armada in towing and passenger capacity, exceeds it in cargo volume, but costs 10K less. For the upmarket customer looking for high-end features at a higher price, the Armada is just fine. Otherwise, the Durango may be the better bet.
The best way to describe the Armada's driving experience is solid. We described the Titan's steering as heavy, and the Armada's is nearly identical, but we definitely don't want it to come off sounding clunky or unrefined. In fact, it's just the opposite. There's slightly more effort required to turn the wheel than in most of the trucks we drove, but it contributes to the overall stable feel of the vehicle, as do the quiet interior, smooth suspension, and ever-present engine power. The vehicle is large, but the driving dynamics don't leave you feeling like you're piloting a barge down the highway. In fact, parallel parking the Armada is a cakewalk. The backup camera includes on-screen distance guide and makes backing up easy. Combine that with front-mounted parking sensors and you've got a ticket to the smallest parking spaces possible. At first, the thought of front parking sensors seemed ridiculous, that's what our eyes are for, right? Well, after fitting the Armada into a tiny parking spot that would have previously required either ninja-like skill, or minor body damage, someone ask us how on Earth we managed to get the Armada to fit into such a tiny space.
Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel
Jeep has been expanding its product lineup for the last couple of years, but with mixed results. Non-trail-rated models, such as the Compass, or barely trail-rated vehicles like the Patriot, have softened Jeep's craggy, weathered image typified by the Wrangler. However, the latter, iconic off-roader doesn't have as much appeal for the moneyed classes, who are more concerned about trundling over potholes than boulders and willing to pay a premium for comfort. Hence, the venerable Grand Cherokee, which was rolled out as an evolution of the popular Cherokee SUV. The Grand Cherokee has gone through a number of changes since its debut in 1992, with its most recent major redesign for the 2005 model year when it most notably went to an all independent suspension. (It won our SUV of the Year accolade for that model year, by the way). Its sibling, the Commander, is built on the same platform, but is targeted at suburban soccer moms. That vehicle won SUV of the Year for 2006. So, the strength of the platform is well established.
This year we revisit the Grand Cherokee, which got some improvements for 2008 that wouldn't necessarily stand out from the usual spate of mid-cycle automotive freshenings except for one thing: It now has a diesel engine. The Grand Cherokee is the second SUV in its class; any class really, in recent history, aside from the Hummer H1 to offer a diesel engine. The diesel Jeep Liberty got pulled from the market last year after a short stint. Jeep's 3.0L V-6 common rail diesel is the same powerplant made by Mercedes-Benz that Jeep offers to the European market where diesel-fueled cars and SUVs take about half of the automobile market. Here in the good-ol' USA, the diesel Grand is not 50-state legal (neither was the diesel Liberty) because of the more stringent emissions standards imposed by California and other states who follow the Golden State's lead as far as air quality is concerned (New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, and New Jersey). When emissions standards become even more stringent in a couple years, Jeep may go with the Bluetec 3.0 V-6 currently in the Mercedes-Benz ML320. The current Jeep diesel generates 215 hp and 376 lb-ft, and while the EPA fuel economy estimate is already impressive at 17/22, we got an astounding, real-world, combined fuel economy of 20 mpg from the diesel after towing with it, roadtripping, commuting. And it did well on the track, too.
So, what else is new with the Grand Cherokee? Uh, not a whole lot for the 2008 model year, aside from a little nip here, a tuck there, and a new 4.7L V-8 gasoline engine (for a grand total of five powerplants available to buyers).
The Jeep and other Chrysler products offer a first: the Sirius backseat TV with its three channels of kid's television programming. We didn't experience that feature, but we did get to play with the touchscreen MyGIG multimedia head unit that we had already written about for in our last issue, "Truck Tronics," Truckin' Volume 33, Issue 1. Our tester was equipped with a Sirius Satellite Radio, navigation, and the capability to cram around 10GB of music or videos onto the unit's 20GB hard drive, which we didn't take advantage of this time around. The MyGIG with navigation is definitely a step up from the navigation head that we have used in Chrysler vehicles before. A rearview camera is a nice and increasingly indispensable touch. Bright HID headlights offer auto-leveling, which keeps the headlights shining at the right height; even when the vehicle is pitched forward, backward, or hunkered down from carrying a heavy load. Three safety features--hill descent control, hill start assist and trailer sway control--are new for 2008, as well. Cosmetically, the front was tweaked a little and the interior was spiced up a bit with new accents and materials and improved styling. The white, glowing instrument gauges look nice.
What's it like to drive this thing? Two words: Turbo lag! Certainly when you stomp on it and particularly when you let off the throttle. It's almost like driving a Dodge Ram 2500 diesel in that regard; except the engine feels like its winding out higher, but you don't get the bouncy suspension. The Grand's small size makes it quite nimble, but also requires you to be somewhat nimble to get in and out of it. But, hey, that's just how Jeeps are. And because it is a Jeep, it has the nifty Quadra-Drive II that is as easy to activate as pulling a switch. It's a very capable 4WD system that is more than adequate for the latte-swilling crowd who are likely to buy it. Maybe we're getting spoiled by the increasingly out-there design we're seeing from the automakers, but the Grand Cherokee's exterior design looks a little too refined to us. Too restrained. Some people didn't like the Commander's aggressive looks, which could be why there are still so many unsold models parked on the lots; but we did. We say make it look a little more Commander and a little less Compass. The grand Cherokee presents a lot of refinement and features, proven off-road ability, comfortable street manners, decent towing, small interior cargo and passenger capacity, and a fascinating new engine. And you pay quite a bit for that package, too. Our tester came almost fully loaded at $43,605. This was the second-strongest contender for SUV of the Year.
And the winners are...Toyota Tundra Crew Max
We were at the Chicago Auto Show in 2006 when Toyota unveiled the redesigned Tundra. What captured our attention, aside from the truck, was the response from some of the other manufacturers who had slipped into the room to see it right after the press conference ended. The GM and Ford staffs maintained their professional aplomb, while the Dodge folks appeared genuinely and objectively curious. The Nissan fellas, however, seemed particularly attentive to what the new Tundra was bringing to the table. As were we.
Toyota released the truck in early 2007 with great fanfare and a marketing budget that allows it to put the Tundra name all over the place, such as the Tundra Parking Pavillion in downtown Houston. Even so, it's been a tough row to hoe for Toyota so far, as the company has learned that the domestics aren't giving up without a fight, and part of that fight requires laying money on the hood for buyer incentives. Still, the Tundra unit sales seem to be meeting the company's stated expectations.
The Tundra had previously been derided by some as being a 7/8-sized truck, not quite fullsized to play with the big dogs. Toyota may have overcompensated a bit, in our opinion, by giving the truck outsized proportions like a sumo wrestler ... flab and all. Still, you can't miss these trucks when they are rolling down the freeway. Inside, the truck we tested was the base trim level. It's cloth seats (powered for the driver) look jarringly functional and the colors on the dash (silver and piano) clash with each other. The HVAC and transfer-case knobs are close enough to each other to create a little confusion: "Man, I need to turn up the fan, it's hot in here. Oops!" It can feel awkward to peer into those coffee-can instrument gauges in the dash. The interior design of the Limited looks pretty good, almost as good as Ford's, and certainly beats the Ram and Titan. The Tundra offers that huge center console with the nifty laptop and file storage space. The included cold kit has the heavy-duty battery, heavy-duty starter, heavy-duty anti-corrosion protection, and wiper de-icer with timer. These were standad, as were the six-disc radio and a few other features. Options on our tester included an 18-inch alloy wheel and tire package, front and rear parking sensors, tow mirrors, deck rail system for the bed, a tiny flip-down backup camera, and carpeted floor mats with a doorsill protector. The CrewMax version we had was Toyota's answer to the Dodge Ram Mega Cab, and has mega--uh, max--legroom as well as reclining and sliding seats. The front seats are spacious, as well.
The available powertrains are the most noteworthy, with the horsepower and torque of all three engines beating the competition's engines of comparable displacement, with the exception being the Ram's 4.7L rating higher than the Tundra's. The 5.7L we drove surges like a beat mule and likes to rev high, and the brakes inspire confidence. That 10,000-pound tow rating is nothing to sneeze at, either, beat only by a couple of hundred pounds from the Ford. And the fuel economy of 15 mpg is better than anybody else's V-8.
The Tundra gives you a lot of legroom, tow capacity, payload, fuel economy, roomy beds, and gutsy engines, for the money; at least for the SR5 that we had that was priced with options and destination at $37,226. The Limited models all optioned out do push the truck's price significantly higher. Right now we feel that the Tundra presents the better value proposition compared to the other models that we tested. It's not a perfect pickup, but you do get a lot of truck for the money. The Tundra wins our Truck of the Year Award.
Our biggest surprise came when we drove the new '08 Dodge Durango SLT 4x4. Having tested the similar Chrysler Aspen last year and felt it lacked real soul, we were concerned the Durango wouldn't inspire us to take kindly to the almost fullsize SUV. Those fears were quickly squashed as the interior is nicely appointed and roomy, the freshened 4.7L provides ample power with smooth shifts from the five-speed auto, and the ride is not overly cushy, which was a big problem with the Chrysler. As with any truck or SUV, the real appreciation comes from long-term seat time and the Durango was ready to answer that call.
Driving the 4.7L equipped Durango, the 303hp and 320 lb-ft of torque were apparent, yet the throttle wasn't too sensitive for our driving styles. Its new five-speed automatic transmission provides smooth down-shifts, whereas the 13.63 MPG we received during our test wasn't the best, its sprite performance helps us overlook that fact. Steering is lighter than most large SUVs and the Durango's brakes were firm, thanks to the four-wheel discs. Its ride was soft and yet when towing felt very stable, which we're sure is in part due to the trailer sway control and electronic stability control. Full-time 4WD makes driving in any condition safer and provides confidence to the driver.
Starting at $33,065, the Durango is available with a fuel-friendly V-6 and a tow-ready 5.7L Hemi capable of towing 8,950 pounds and checking all of the options, which brings the price to $45,035. Our tester was well-equipped for an MSRP of $41,295. Options included the awesome MyGIG multimedia entertainment system, a backup camera, heated leather seats, power and key FOB-operated liftgate, a power moonroof, 20-inch chrome-clad wheels, a trailer towing package, and eight speaker Alpine sound system. These options, along with standard equipment like rear 115-volt outlet, power locks and windows, Sirius satellite radio, and all-rows supplemental airbags made the Durango an SUV with an impressive package of features.
An updated front fascia brings the traditional Dodge crosshair front grille and big-rig styled headlights to the Durango. Dual-round taillights add a little sportiness to the rear of the SUV and large wheel arches help make the 20-inch wheel package look proportioned. Dodge uses nicer materials inside the Durango, compared to its bigger Ram brother and the two-tones of neutral colors are pleasing to the eyes without being too boring. Controls are in logical places and are easy to use with features like steering wheel controls and the available UConnect hands-free communication system allowing you to program your Bluetooth cell phone into the integrated system and make calls safely and legally. Other improvements include second and third-row seats that fold flat and provide class-leading cargo space. Speaking of third-row seating, the Durango's third row is not as cramped as some of the other far rear seats we've tested, and was far more comfortable than the Jeep Commander we had for a year.
All in all, the Durango stood out from its competitors by providing what we consider to be the best value for its size and capabilities. Unique exterior styling, combined with logical interior design, and a drivetrain that feels solid, made this year's decision to name Dodge Durango as Truckin's SUV of the Year an easy one.