Roll on to any work site where there's trailered equipment and odds are great you'll see three-quarter-ton diesel 4x4s, mostly crew cabs, handling the towing tasks. Many of those same pickups can be found hooked to toy haulers or recreational vehicles at camping areas on weekends. Those driving the upper trim levels of these favored trailer toters are likely upper-tier executives in the building and construction trades, owners of farms and ranches, or they run some other substantial business.
For our 2017 3/4-Ton Premium Truck Challenge, we had a diverse mix of trim levels and price tags, but each of the competitors were high-end, crew-cab diesel 4x4s. The 2017 Nissan Titan XD Platinum Reserve held down the low end of the price spectrum at $63,905 (prices include destination) and the 2017 Ford Super Duty F-250 King Ranch topped the range at $76,545. Right in the middle sat the 2017 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 LTZ Midnight Edition at $67,940 and the 2017 Ram 2500 Laramie Longhorn at $71,300.
The question we had — despite the price differences, trim levels and on-paper capabilities — was how they handle towing a factory gooseneck hitch setup. Each of the four trucks was hooked to identical gooseneck-style, hydraulic-dump Load Trail trailers carrying five 1,100-pound industrial-size bags of sand that brought the trailered load weight to an even 10,000 pounds. That weight is about the same load a contractor would have when towing a small skid-steer loader or mini-excavator on an equipment trailer.
The trailered weight was also a good compromise test of the four trucks; it was just less than 2,000 pounds shy of the Nissan's maximum gooseneck towing capacity of 11,890 pounds and about two-thirds of the capacity for the heaviest hauler in the group, the Chevy with a max rating of 14,800 pounds. The Ford followed closely with 14,700 pounds, and the Ram checked in with a 13,070-pound rating.
All four trucks handled the trailer without any drama, which is why goosenecks are an excellent choice when towing loads that weigh 10,000 pounds or more; goosenecks spread loads out more evenly across the rear of the chassis with a bed hitch.
The Bad News
Driven by itself, without any back-to-back time in the other three trucks, the Nissan powered by the smallest engine of the group — a 5.0-liter V-8 Cummins — would feel like a nice tow rig. It was relatively stable towing near its maximum capacity; it moved the load along fine on level terrain, had excellent braking, and its all-around visibility and driving comfort were quite conventional for a truck of this size. It's power, however, was most disappointing. Even with the 3.92:1 axle ratio (the steepest of our group), the Cummins was quite slow to spool up, and when the power finally did arrive, the 310 horsepower and 555 pounds-feet of torque left the truck feeling underpowered with the 5-ton load; this was especially noticeable when going up any kind of grade. We also found a few situations (such as pulling into traffic or rolling up inclines) where the six-speed had some harsh upshifts and downshifts, sometimes giving us an unsettling lurch or clunk during shifts. Additionally, although the Nissan achieved the when empty (19.3 mpg), it had the worst fuel consumption when towing, recording just 11.5 mpg. If you do a lot of towing, that difference in fuel economy can add up quickly.
The old racer's adage, "There's no replacement for displacement," holds true when comparing these four HD 4×4 diesels. The Nissan's 5.0-liter just didn't have the muscle compared with the 6.6- and 6.7-liter turbo-diesels of the others; it needed to work a little harder under load to achieve similar results.
The Good News: Davis Dam
As for the Chevrolet, Ford and Ram — what we called the Big Three — they had enough torque on tap to flatten the steepest grades with a trailer in tow. We took each of our competitors to the Davis Dam grade outside Kingman, Ariz., to see how well they could pull up the steeper parts of the grade. If you can maintain speeds exceeding 75 mph (or more) pulling 10,000 pounds of trailer up a 6 percent-plus grade, you know there's a boatload of power at your disposal — and likely a little more if needed. These three trucks did that during our Davis Dam runs, with the Silverado clipping 83 mph at the end of our 1.25-mile test section.
The Duramax, Power Stroke and Cummins inline-six turbo-diesels also did a commendable job coming down the same grade. Maintaining a constant 50 mph on cruise control, their built-in engine exhaust brake and four-wheel braking systems smoothly adjusted without any driver input to hold. The Nissan required one manual tap of the brakes and a transmission downshift to maintain the selected speed, showing it was being taxed more and was less capable of maintaining a speed than the others.
Handling While Towing
In terms of overall handling while trailering, we found the Ford to feel the most confident and most capable with a heavy load; it's a true long-distance towing machine. It was stable on the twistier bits, it didn't feel the least bit taxed with 10,000 pounds trailing behind it, and everything packed into the King Ranch trim helped the driver relax.
The Chevrolet, although not nearly as well appointed as the others, was a towing brute with quick low-end throttle response and acceleration. Part of its superior performance was no doubt because it had the lowest (numerically highest) axle gear of the Big Three at 3.73:1 when compared to the Ram (3.42:1) and Ford (3.55:1). That same gearing, however, put it at a slight disadvantage in our fuel-economy testing, both towing and empty. The handling of this LTZ Midnight Edition with the Z71 Off-Road Package was an evenly balanced dance between steering, suspension and brakes; each was a lot more responsive and nimble feeling.
The Ram 2500 Laramie Longhorn also sported an off-road package (as well as a live front axle), which made it one of the best handling on the twisty sections of highway, where dips and off-camber corners could catch a driver by surprise while towing. We found the suspension nicely damped for such encounters, keeping the truck and trailer feeling stable and smooth. A key trait of the 6.7-liter Cummins was how well the two-stage exhaust brake worked to control vehicle speeds. The full-on Manual mode made the Ram sound like a big-rig jake brake system any time our foot was off the throttle; the more flexible Auto mode had a similar, yet less intense effect when removing our foot from the throttle or touching the brake.
In the end, we could probably live with any one of the Big Three tow monsters. The Ford was the most relaxing to drive with the most technology, the Chevy's gearing made it the strongest mover up any grade, and the Ram's low-end torque and exhaust brake made it the most controlled. But for towing, you need big mirrors, a good exhaust brake, the right gears, maybe a surround-view camera and a good deal of "just-in-case" capacity. Although that doesn't make the winner of this Challenge the best choice for towing, it should give you a good idea of what stood out to us.
Cars.com photos by Angela Conners