Our expert judges spend a week driving and comparing vehicles in the best way anyone can evaluate competitors: back to back. Judges take each truck on identical routes to uncover the little idiosyncrasies that in some cases can determine the difference between a winner and a loser.
Our judges’ opinions account for a large portion of determining a contestant’s score, but depending on the class, we also include objective scoring for observed fuel economy, car-seat fitment, safety and driver-assistance features, cargo space, and measured acceleration and braking (with and without payload). Below is how we scored the trucks in our 2019 Mid-Size Truck Challenge. Each vehicle is evaluated as equipped and priced; our results cannot represent model lineups as a whole.
Subjective Scoring Categories
Legroom, headroom and knee room are all considered when determining front-seat comfort. So is whether the cushioning is comfortable and if the seat can be adjusted appropriately. Features we look for include heated and ventilated seats, the extent of passenger seat controls, and memory and massaging functions.
Along with dimensions, backseat comfort is determined by cushioning, support and whether there’s a large center floor hump that could crowd foot room, as well as whether it’s easy to get in and out of. Backseat feature considerations include whether the seats recline and if it has adjustable air vents, rear climate controls, and heated or ventilated rear seats.
Vehicle User Interface
This category covers the many ways a driver controls the vehicle beyond the steering wheel and pedals. What we used to call a “multimedia” system now frequently takes on some responsibility for controlling vehicle features that have nothing to do with audio and smartphones, so we’re avoiding categorizing the touchscreen that way. Judges consider ease of use for all controls — how logically grouped, visible and reachable they are. They also scrutinize the size and usability of touchscreens and their menus and navigation, head-up displays and virtual gauges, including display quality, responsiveness, supporting controls and how drivers configure and interact with these various systems, be it buttons on the steering wheel, dashboard or center console, or via voice control.
Media and Connectivity
In this category, we account for the different types of media supported, from CDs and Bluetooth to built-in streaming audio services, plus video capabilities, front and rear. We note the presence or absence of Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa and similar systems and how well they’re integrated and function. We also judge based on the inclusion of Wi-Fi, near-field communication and wireless smartphone charging, and record the number of USB ports and 120-volt household-style outlets present.
Interior quality considerations include whether it seems appropriately appointed, rating the appearance and feel of the surfaces, as well as overall craftsmanship. Judges note if the materials are well made and authentic or a cheap imitation. Another consideration is whether the quality drops from the front to rear seats.
As the size of our smartphones and other mobile devices grow, it’s important to have the space to accommodate them. We evaluate those and other storage options in the cabin, including open and covered storage, and if there are enough cupholders and a sunglasses holder.
Considerations for visibility include whether roof pillars or low roofs obstruct forward visibility, as well as if there are large blind spots to the side or rear. We look for features that can improve visibility, such as large side mirrors, rear head restraints that flip down manually or via remote control, and a full-time rearview camera mirror.
The powertrain score always reflects how well the engine and transmission work together. Judges look for whether there’s enough acceleration from a stop or for passing, if the transmission upshifts smoothly or downshifts without too much delay, and if the engine is smooth and refined or rough and unsophisticated.
Judges rate how strong and confidence-inspiring the brakes feel, how much pedal pressure is required and how linear the braking force is. Vehicles with mushy pedal feel or braking that is hard to modulate are scored lower.
Considerations for ride quality include how it contributes to the vehicle’s comfort level. Judges evaluate whether the ride is too firm, too soft, if it feels controlled over bumps and if it’s stable on rough roads.
Judges drive the vehicles on the same route to determine how well each one corners, determining if it rolls (i.e., leans) as well as whether it feels planted and confident or uneasy, requiring too much effort to drive cleanly through a corner. Steering and driveline execution also play a part.
Judges gauge how much wind, road, engine and external noise enter the cabin during all circumstances, including highway driving and acceleration.
Judges determine if each test vehicle is worth the retail price as equipped. Considerations apart from the categories above include warranties, free maintenance, and standard and optional features.
Objective Scoring Categories
Measured testing is logged with a Racelogic Vbox II GPS data logger. Testing takes place at a drag strip where we measure zero-to-60-mph and quarter-mile acceleration. In quarter-mile testing, we use the rollout method, which simulates a drag strip’s timing system and how a car is already moving when the timing light beams are triggered — it typically quickens the time by 0.2-0.3 of a second. Rollout is not considered in zero-to-60-mph measurements.
We measure panic-stop braking from 60 mph to simulate how many feet it takes to stop in an emergency at highway speeds.
Acceleration/Braking With Payload
We calculate maximum payload by subtracting measured curb weight from the gross vehicle weight rating on the doorjamb, giving us an accurate payload based on as-tested trim levels and options. We loaded each truck with 1,000 pounds of salt bags plus a driver to measure its effect on acceleration and braking.
Safety and Driver-Assistance Tech
The safety and driver-assistance component is scored according to the number and complexity of safety and driver-assistance features on the test vehicle. These include forward collision warning, forward automatic emergency braking (low versus high speed), reverse automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, lane-centering steering (low versus high speed), adaptive cruise control (higher speeds only or to a complete stop), blind spot warning, dynamic lines for the backup camera, 360-degree camera systems, rear cross-traffic detection, front parking sensors, automatic high beams and adaptive, pivoting headlights.
Rather than work exclusively from EPA fuel economy estimates, we embarked on a mileage test in which all four contestants caravanned for more than 200 miles, broken up by driver-change spots to balance out differences in driving style and weight. The route was a mix of city and highway driving. The most efficient vehicle earns 30 points to maintain consistency with the maximum score of other objective categories, and vehicles with lesser gas mileage results get the appropriate percentage below that number.
As disclosed in the results story, the 2019 Ford Ranger’s turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine is designed to make extra power if run on 91-octane premium gasoline rather than the required 87-octane regular, and the truck was delivered and mileage-tested on premium. Though neither Ford nor the EPA provide mpg estimates for premium fuel, it is possible that such an engine could achieve higher mpg than if it were running on regular. Though we typically score based on fuel costs, in cases where one or more contestants require premium we elected to stick with straight mpg here for consistency with the other testing, for which the Ranger used regular gasoline. The stated advantage of premium gasoline in the Ranger is power, not efficiency, and we don’t expect dramatic mpg differences between the two fuel types. The observed mpg translated to 30 points for the Ranger, 29 for the Ridgeline and the Gladiator, and the last-place Canyon earned 27 points, making this one of the least consequential contests in the Challenge.
When judging cargo box space, we conduct our own measurements — length, height and width between the wheel wells — to determine box size. The cargo box with the largest volume receives the full 20 points allocated to this test; the rest are awarded points on a proportional basis relative to the biggest cargo box. To get to 30 total points in order to be consistent with the other objective categories, we also consider associated features, like whether the box has sliding tie-down cleats, what kind of lighting is present, how the tailgate works, whether there’s a tonneau cover at the as-tested price, and whether there’s a household power outlet. We also account for usable space under the bed floor if applicable.
Cars.com’s staff includes certified car seat installers who test the fitment of various child-safety seats in our test vehicles. You can find more information on how we install and test child-safety seats in our Car Seat Check section.
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