Fun Trucks Five Ways (with a twist!)

Fun Trucks Five Ways (with a twist!)

Story and photos by Dan Heyman

As hard as it is to believe, the pickup is actually going through a bit of a resurgence as of late.

It’s hard to believe because when you’re selling this much of a model (the Ford F-150 continues to be the bestselling vehicle in Canada, as it has done for decades), what room for “resurgence” is there?

Well, look no further than the small truck segment to see what we mean. For years, the Japanese had it all to themselves with the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tundra, the latter almost cult-like in its following. First the Dodge Dakota dies, then the Ford Ranger and the final nail in the coffin: the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon twins delivered their last load after the 2012 model year.

Now, however, the GMs have returned, and they’re doing rather well, even providing a diesel option. The Ranger name as lived on in other markets, but only recently did Ford announce its return to Canada and the U.S. There’s no sign of the “Dakota” nameplate returning at Ram, and it seems Mopar lovers are going to have to wait a little longer for that Wrangler pickup we keep hearing about; when the latest Wrangler rolled on to the stage at this year’s LA Auto Show, there was no pickup version in sight.

Amidst all this, Toyota released an all-new Tacoma. Much to their chagrin, however, they no longer had the segment all to themselves. What all this competition has done, you see, is asked manufacturers to think out of the box a little, which is great for us consumers. Pretty much every pickup, now, has a special, more lifestyle-y trim that puts a little more focus on something other than the utilitarian aspects. Perhaps the uniqueness will pull buyers away from other brands; perhaps it will even have crossover and SUV buyers thinking more about a truck for their everyday needs. Either way, we consumers benefit, and with these five trucks, you’ll see why.


Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

There have been TRD Tacomas before, but never quite like this. The TRD Pro gets all manner of off-roading additions, including standard fitment of rock-crawl mode, chunky Kevlar-reinforced tires, raised suspension and unique styling to separate it from other Tacomas.

The engine remains the same; it’s a 3.5L with variable valve timing good for 278 hp and 265 ft-lb of torque. With the exception of rock-crawl, transmission’s the same six-speed auto, too. It’s not the most powerful motor here – we found it straining under tough loads, such as uphill highway climbs – but it is a fuel-efficient one, making about 14L/10 km during our test.

The real difference comes underneath; the special Fox internal-bypass dampers have been tuned for more rigorous off-road use, but manage to stay composed during everyday driving. We didn’t get the sense that the softer shocks or higher ride height made four overly bouncy progress.

While we didn’t get the opportunity to actually crawl any rocks, we did get the chance to try the Tacoma’s hill-descent control, which works in a similar way: computers manage gearchanges and throttle input, allowing us to just focus on steering. It’s an eerie feeling to be pitched down a hill with no feet on the pedals, but the system works as advertised.

Like the other trucks on this list, though, what’s great about the Tacoma TRD Pro is the sense of occasion it brings. From the cool battleship-grey exterior (the red “TRD Pro” badging really pops) and thick leather seats with contrasting red stitching to the blacked-out grille, this looks like the perfect aftermarket truck.


Toyota Tundra TRD Pro

While the Tundra isn’t as new as the Tacoma is (it was refreshed in 2014), Toyota wasn’t about to let the smaller truck’s bigger sibling go without.

Having said that: likely because Toyota as still stuck with a decade-old platform with which to work (same 5.7L iForce V8 engine, same six-speed BorgWarner automatic), “TRD Pro-ing” the Tacoma amounts to little more than a similar (but not quite) graphics treatment to the Tacoma, some mouthier exhaust, upgraded Bilstein shocks and special wheels and tires. No rock crawling or internal-bypass trickery here.

Still, though; the Tundra is not the best-looking truck to start and the TRD Pro transformation does a tonne to change that. The grey paint is even more imposing when there’s more of it; same goes for the enormous blacked-out grille that really only gets eclipsed on this list by the Raptor’s gaudy number; truck still looks a little dopey straight on, though, thanks to the small headlamp lenses. It’s a shame you lose the cool red badging seen on the Tacoma, though. At least the seats get it; they’re the same items found in the smaller truck, which is a good thing.

Of all the trucks here, though, the Tundra is the most workmanlike of the bunch. It’s got the biggest bed, the smallest cab and is neck-and-neck with the Raptor when it comes to seating position height. It also has acres of cheap plastics; doors, dash, infotainment – close your eyes, and just feeling the various cabin surfaces will leave very little to the imagination.

It also drives the most truck-like, here, all the way down to the hydraulically-assisted power steering, also circa 2006. Which is actually kind of refreshing; the Tundra is massively roomy inside (and can get roomier than what’s seen here; we had the smaller of two available cab sizes), the storage bin underneath the back seats is ample and the step in is huge…wait a minute. That’s last one’s not so great. Could’ve used a sideboard or at least a grab handle, there. Even at 6’3”, I feel like I need a running start to vault up into this thing.


Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk

Ahh, the “Black Jeep” of the bunch (see what I did, there?). No, there’s no pickup bed but unless you include the TRD Pro version of the 4Runner, there really isn’t anything quite like the Trailhawk out there. Nothing that provides quite the same flare, while at the same time being somewhat civilized; it’s the most comfortable vehicle here, bar none.

That’s shouldn’t be surprising considering its unibody, non-truck digs, but other aspects of it suggest it should be just as rough ‘round the edges as the other guys; off-road tires, tow hooks, plastic cladding, squared-off fenders — even the (optional) graphics all serve to show you that this ain’t yer average Cherokee.

In the practical sense, what all this does is have the Trailhawk trim provide almost 11 inches of ground clearance as well as adds – like the Tacoma – both crawl-control and hill-descent control. I’ve been rock-crawling with the Grand Cherokee and can safely say it performs a whole lot better than you’d think a mostly-luxury SUV should. Remember; “Trail Rated” still means something at Jeep, and they don’t stamp those badges on their products (in bright red, in the case of the Trailhawk) on just anything. They have to actually be able to tackle trails, from Moab to Mojave.

Our tester was fit with a Hemi V8; you can get it with a Pentastar V6, too, but you really need that V8 rumble to get the full effect of something with this much presence. Then again, the lighter V6 engine would likely help make for some more agile handling both on- and off-road, but that V8 growl is just so addictive. Makes the Tundra, special exhaust or no, seem almost pedestrian. It makes 360 hp and 390 lb-ft, by the way.

You do notice from time to time, however, that this is a little more hard core than the Summit or Overland versions of the truck. The noise generated by those knobby tires, for example, tends to reverberate through the cabin at surprisingly high decibels, especially as the tarmac gets choppy. That’s a bit of the problem, but the cushy seats, smooth 8-speed transmission and well-tuned dampers make for a ride that is, overall, a comfortable one.


Ford F-150 Raptor

It’s lost two cylinders for 2017, but has gained two turbochargers in their stead, and lost weight – and gained power (450 hp, 350 lb-ft of torque) – while it’s at it. It’s enough to have those big, developed-for-Raptor Bridgestone KO2 tires spinning on tarmac if you really put the boot into it. Sounds pretty good, too; there’s dual-exit exhausts for everyone’s listening pleasure, and digitally-enhanced noise for those riding inside. V8? What V8?

Well, not quite; the turbo does take some time to spool, meaning you’ll never get the same instantaneous belt of power you would have with last year’s 6.2L V8. Once you get those turbos spooling, however, hold on tight; the Raptor is a tall truck (330 extra cm of lift will do that), and it will squat a little on its hind legs as you set off. Once you’ve done so, however, the power continues to flow thick and fast, and with a little electronic boost for the engine note, you’ll forget the lack of a V8 right quickly.

While the Raptor may not be quote as practical as its standard F-150 siblings, you still get the flat load-floor in the cabin, 10-speed automatic transmission with tow-haul mode (you can lock out gears from top to bottom if you don’t want the transmission to constantly be hunting through 10 gears) and easy-access step for the bed. That last one’s even more important considering how tall the Raptor is overall.


Ram 1500 Rebel

The workhorse of the group has to be this baby. Based on the massively high-selling Ram 1500, the Rebel gets chunkier rubber, snarling front end, extra plastic cladding around the fenders, black/red seating and of course, the glorious HEMI V8 good for 395 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque, plus that great bellow through twin tailpipes. Still, when it comes to the drive, this one’s truck-like feel is second on this list only to the Tundra. It’s also second only to the Tundra when it comes to payload and towing capacity, providing a nice feather in the Rebel’s bonnet.

Not that it doesn’t get its fair share of creature comforts; the UConnect infotainment system remains one of the best in the business, though there’s still no support for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Still, though; at 8.4 inches, the screen is massive, the graphics displayed thereon on modern and it’s responsive, too.

You’ll likely forget all that once you start delving into the Rebel’s drive, though. Power from the naturally-aspirated V8 is rich an linear, and while the steering doesn’t really have much in the way of feel, the independent rear suspension does its part to both smooth out the ride and provide a bit of a handling boost.

It really is all about that engine, though, perhaps more here than anywhere else on this list.

Categories: Driver Plus, Road Tests