2016 Midsize Pickup Challenge: Off-Road Performance


We believe that a pickup truck needs to be a multifaceted tool and that one of those parameters is off-road capability. So with that in mind, we took our five 2016 Midsize Pickup Challenge contenders to Bundy Hill Offroad park in Jerome, Mich., to see what they could do when the pavement ends.

We put these trucks through their paces in several different scenarios, including a hill climb, trails with a water crossing, and fast running on dirt. We weren't sure what to expect: The pickups had a wide mix of drivetrains, chassis and even tire treads. A few came with the latest off-road bells and whistles, while others opted for a more analog approach.

Our drivers included me and four of the judges for our Challenge:

  • Mark Williams, editor
  • Joe Bruzek, senior road test editor
  • Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief
  • Andy Mikonis, longtime automotive journalist

In alphabetical order, here's how the pickups did.

2016 Chevrolet Colorado Z71


  • Engine: 305-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6, 269 pounds-feet of torque
  • Transmission: six-speed automatic
  • Drivetrain: four-wheel drive; auto locking rear differential; 2-High, 4-High, 4-Low settings
  • Low-range ratio: 2.72:1
  • Other details: long-bed model; screaming bright orange paint
  • Tires: Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain Adventure 255/65R17 110T

The Colorado we tested was outfitted in its Z71 guise, the most aggressive off-road trim level offered. It features an off-road suspension, transfer case shield, Bilstein shocks and extra skid plating. It is also worth noting that the locking rear differential is automatic and can't be triggered by the driver — only by a spinning rear tire.

On the hill climb, both the Colorado and the 2016 GMC Canyon (which has the same engine and drivetrain) had smooth power delivery from the 3.6-liter V-6, with the computer handling the traction control when needed. The gearing was also dialed in correctly, even at low speeds and when shifted into 4-Low, which made it easy to access the right amount of power to get over and through obstacles. Williams was pleased by the Colorado's performance, saying "Good gearing from the trans, rear-end gear and transfer case really makes tough situations like hill climbs and rock crawls a no-drama event."

When running over dirt and trails, the longer wheelbase seemed to help the Colorado soak up bumps better than the Canyon. The added weight also helped the all-terrain tires grab more traction in both scenarios, especially on looser surfaces.

"The Z71 trim added to the Colorado's basic four-wheel-drive system offers some extra capability," Mikonis said, "without going overboard on high-tech off-road gadgets a lot of people won't use." While the Z71 won't be confused with more capable off-road trims, such as the Ram 1500 Rebel or Toyota's line of TRD Pro vehicles, it was plenty capable for the testing we did, which is above and beyond the daily use of most folks.

However, if you do happen to go off-road with the Z71, there is one annoyance: Chevrolet leaves a large front air dam attached to the bottom of the front bumper, which helps with fuel economy on roads but hurts the Colorado's approach angle and ground clearance.

2016 GMC Canyon SLE


  • Engine: 305-hp, 3.6-liter V-6, 269 pounds-feet of torque
  • Transmission: six-speed automatic
  • Drivetrain: four-wheel drive; auto locking rear differential; 2-High, Auto, 4-High, 4-Low settings
  • Low-range ratio: 2.72:1
  • Other details: Auto setting is unique to the Canyon in this class
  • Tires: Goodyear Fortitude HT 255/65R17 110T

Even though the Canyon and Colorado share an identical powertrain, there were some significant differences between the two. The SLE is not really an off-road-oriented trim with its street-oriented tires and suspension. And the Colorado was the long-bed version, which gave it about a foot longer wheelbase than the Canyon.

Our testing revealed that the Canyon actually missed the added length and stability the longer wheelbase provides when running on dirt; there was noticeably more wheel chatter and instability. Nothing that made the ride unbearable, but it was a less confident dirt runner than the Chevy.

Also compounding matters were the GMC's street-oriented tires. While the Canyon did make it to 90 percent of the places the other trucks did, it was the only one that did not make it over one of the hill climbs.

Several of our judges also noted the awkward placement of the four-wheel-drive shift knob in both of the GM trucks. It's placed to the left side of the steering wheel in an awkward spot that's hard to see and operate. And the Canyon also had the same front air dam found on the Colorado, which meant that ground clearance and approach angles had to be carefully monitored.

It is fair to say that the Canyon SLE was not really built for off-roading, which led Bruzek to quip that it "gets a participation ribbon off-road but is far from a trophy finish." Williams was a bit more magnanimous with his conclusion, saying the Canyon was "a solid middle player; think of it as a downsized Sierra 1500 with less room, capability and better fuel economy."

2017 Honda Ridgeline RTL-E


  • Engine: 280-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, 262 pounds-feet of torque
  • Transmission: six-speed automatic
  • Drivetrain: full-time all-wheel-drive system with Intelligent Traction Management settings
  • Low-range ratio: not applicable
  • Other details: only unibody truck in the group; all-wheel-drive system is full time
  • Tires: Firestone Destination LE2 245/60R18 105H

The biggest surprise of the day was the Ridgeline, the only truck in this Challenge to use a carlike unibody chassis instead of the more traditional body-on-frame construction. But don't go telling the Ridgeline it's not a real truck — it might get angry. And you wouldn't like it when it's angry.

The Ridgeline was also the only truck outfitted with all-wheel drive only instead of the four-wheel-drive systems found in each of the other trucks that can be shifted into different gearing modes. The Ridgeline's system is sophisticated, using sensors at all four tires to detect slippage, then shifting power to wheels with traction. The system can move torque front and rear, and left to right on the rear axle as well. The Intelligent Traction Management system has four different settings to choose from: Normal, Snow, Mud and Sand.

As impressive as the system seemed, there were some noteworthy features missing that made us skeptical of the Ridgeline's ability to make it through the day unscathed. It didn't have a low range and its ground clearance was not impressive, with much of the unibody exposed underneath to rocks and other obstacles.

So it was with some unease that I accompanied Williams as he drove the first run on the hill climb. As we discussed the best way to tackle the loose sand and steep incline, Williams' solution was to punch it and see if the computers were good enough to get it up the hill. The next thing we knew, the truck was atop the hill with nary a bobble. It was impressive to see the computer take control of the throttle modulation, traction sensitivity and transmission shifting to keep the driver heading in the right direction, be it up a hill or over loose terrain.

All of our judges were impressed by the Ridgeline's traction software; all the driver had to do was stand on the gas and steer. The truck took care of the rest. This was also true on our drag races over the dirt; the system quickly found traction and took off down the course at speed where others were hunting for traction.

Williams liked the torque-vectoring rear differential, calling it "amazing to watch; it will detect and stop any rear-wheel slip that could rob the vehicle of forward momentum." At one point, the Ridgeline was tilted up on three wheels while the fourth wheel, hanging in the air, stopped instantly the moment it lifted off the ground. It didn't move again until it was back on the dirt.

However, there are shortcomings to the Ridgeline: Its all-wheel-drive system, while impressive, is more suited for all-weather conditions than all-terrain obstacles. Williams said that, "As surprising as the system was when compared to other, more traditional hill and rock climbers, the Ridgeline will always be a risky choice if you go anywhere further than a dirt road or smooth sand dune. Any rutted or off-camber terrain or rocks will seriously threaten the exposed underbelly."

But Bruzek and Mikonis didn't view this as a big negative for Ridgeline shoppers, with the former saying that he doesn't "really see that as a huge detriment unless your driveway is entirely made up of basketball-sized rocks," while the latter said, "It has plenty of capability for any imaginable Ridgeline buyer."

2016 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X


  • Engine: 261-hp, 4.0-liter V-6, 281 pounds-feet of torque
  • Transmission: five-speed automatic
  • Drivetrain: four-wheel drive; manual locking rear differential; 2-High, 4-High, 4-Low settings
  • Low-range ratio: 2.63:1
  • Other details: oldest powertrain and chassis
  • Tires: Hankook Dynapro ATM 265/75R16 114T

The Frontier is the old fogey of this group. A new Frontier is likely coming for the 2018 model year, but the 2016 version we had has been sold in roughly the same form since 2004. Both its powertrain and part-time four-wheel-drive system are the most rudimentary of the group, with a separate manual locking rear differential and hill descent control buttons but not much else in the way of smart traction control. The Frontier did, however, come with the most aggressive off-road tires of this group, which gave it a bit of an advantage for this portion of our testing.

The Frontier clawed up both hill climbs easily, barely pausing in ruts or in loose sand. On the dirt drag strip, it faltered a bit off the line with its less advanced traction control but was stable at speed. We found the throttle to be a bit jumpy but the steering to be really well weighted. Bruzek said, "The great steering feel perfectly communicates front-tire grip and when they're in the groove with traction."

After running the Frontier through its paces, Williams said, "It's not pretty or fancy, but you can have a lot of fun with the basics," and that sentiment that was echoed by the rest of our judges. Mikonis said, "I really appreciated the Frontier's old-school, low-frills 4×4 formula." While the Frontier didn't have the technology of the Ridgeline or anything close to the Tacoma's Crawl Control and Multi-Terrain selection feature, it had consistent power, good tires and communicative steering. And let's be frank — sometimes it's more fun to do things yourself.

Bragman also echoed that sentiment, saying, "The Frontier is a blast, with an eagerness to go quickly over the rough stuff that is highly entertaining." It felt at home when off-road; there's no other way to put it. We'll miss this old Frontier when it's gone.

2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road


  • Engine: 278-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, 265 pounds-feet of torque
  • Transmission: six-speed automatic
  • Drivetrain: four-wheel drive; manual locking rear differential; 2-High, 4-High, 4-Low settings
  • Low-range ratio: 2.57:1
  • Other details: Bilstein shocks; equipped with Toyota's Multi-Terrain Select and Crawl Control technologies
  • Tires: Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain Adventure 265/70R16 112T

The TRD Off-Road we tested is currently Toyota's most off-road-oriented Tacoma. And it was no surprise that the Tacoma was the most "out-of-the-box" off-road-ready member of this group, possessing stronger technology and components than the rest of the competition. On paper, it had the suspension (with Bilstein shocks), wheel travel, all-terrain tires and ground clearance to perform well in an off-road park, and it delivered.

There are three drivetrain settings: two-wheel drive, 4-High and 4-Low. The real fun begins when you shift the Tacoma into 4-Low and use the knob controller, which is mounted above the center stack on the ceiling. The knobs are used to switch through the Multi-Terrain Select and Crawl Control settings.

Multi-Terrain Select allows the driver to choose between five different terrain settings: Mud and Sand, Loose Rock, Mogul, Rock and Dirt, or Rock. The computer will allow a different level of slip for each terrain type that is suitable for the surface. For example, on a sandy surface, a bit of slip is actually better but when crawling on rock, you want no slip.

The same knob also adjusts the five Crawl Control speed settings. The Crawl Control is astounding: During our first run up the hill climb, we set the Tacoma at the bottom of the hill, activated Crawl Control and the computer took over from there. When the Tacoma starts to lose traction, the computer will "pulse" through each of the wheels to find tire grip and keep you moving forward. It's truly impressive technology, which makes scaling loose surfaces a breeze — all you have to do is steer. Williams said that the button should really be called "Hero mode" and Bragman echoed this, saying, "The Tacoma is the off-road champ, with its advanced four-wheel-drive system performing astonishing feats of hill-climbing prowess."

If we had one nit to pick with the Tacoma, it would be the engine. Keeping it in its power band is a bit more difficult than with the other V-6s in this competition and the Tacoma was the slowest in the dirt drag-racing runs. But as Bruzek said, "The Tacoma is clearly the most well-suited for the off-road trail part." For serious off-roading, it's the one we'd choose out of this bunch by a good margin. photos by Angela Conners




| Acceleration and Braking | Off-Road Performance | | | Results


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