Trail Trek Tour: Mid-Size Trucks
Words and Images by Jeff Zurschmeide
The mid-size truck market is hotter than ever, and almost every manufacturer offers some kind of special off-road package. With the help of the Trail Trek Tour, we put four of the leading mid-size pickups head-to-head on a grueling off-road course built on top of an old coal mine in Pennsylvania’s gritty backcountry.
Decades of strip mining left huge mountains of shattered rock, steep cuts, and narrow pathways through the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area in Coal Township, Pennsylvania. It was the perfect place to challenge any off-road package.
The trucks we came to drive included these models:
Both the Ranger and the Gladiator are new this year, so this was our first chance to drive these vehicles back-to-back. Chevy’s Colorado ZR2 came out a couple years ago, and the up-armored Bison accessory package came out in 2018.
Of the four, the Tacoma was both the veteran contender and the truck to beat. Across the United States, the Tacoma outsells the second place Colorado by 2:1 and the Ranger by 4:1. The Gladiator is still too new for a valid sales comparison.
The Trail Trek Tour
Designed to give automotive critics a good look at each vehicle, the Trail Trek Tour placed each journalist behind the wheel of each truck for about half an hour of varied off-road driving. We each got an additional half-hour riding shotgun in each truck, which allowed us to observe performance a bit more objectively.
All of the off-road driving was undertaken in low-range, with differentials mostly locked and all driver assistance features active. Of all the contenders, only the Tacoma was equipped with a manual transmission, which means no hill descent control was available for this model.
To state the obvious, all four trucks made it through all available challenges, including steep climbing and scrambling up loose surfaces, steep hill descent, stair-climbing over obstacles, and through standing water. For the most part, all the trucks accomplished these feats with ease. That being stated, what’s left for our rankings is mostly subjective; how easily the trucks met the challenges and the confidence of the off-road experience.
2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison
The Colorado ZR2 model includes all the important parts for off-road capability. There are special shocks, increased ride height, redesigned control arms, front and rear electronic locking diffs, and the truck is set up for a winch on the front. The Bison package adds five protective skid plates, special bumpers, and unique 17-inch wheels. There is also an optional snorkel air intake that we didn’t have, and most drivers would never need. Outfitted as we drove it, the Bison retails for $49,745.
The Bison made short work of every challenge, and its 3.6-liter gas V6 engine with 8-speed automatic transmission was more than up to the task. We also drove the Bison to and from the event, and its on-road manners make this truck a good all-around choice. The weakest point of the Colorado is that the interior is made mostly of hard plastic, and we thought a truck pushing $50,000 could do better.
2019 Ford Ranger FX4
Ford’s Ranger was introduced early in 2019, and represents a bold step in mid-size trucks. The Ranger is powered by a 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine and mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission. This gives the smaller EcoBoost engine the perceived power of a big V6, while still delivering EPA-estimated mileage of up to 24 MPG on the highway. In real-world road trip tests, we’ve achieved over 28 MPG out of a Ranger.
The FX4 off-road package includes off-road shocks, locking rear differential, skid plates, and a lot of driver assistance from a pitch-and-roll meter to Ford’s Terrain Management System, which includes automatic crawling control for major obstacles. The FX4 also had the best interior, with high-quality materials and soft-touch surfaces, all for $44,960.
2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Just released this summer, the Gladiator was the new kid at the party. As expected, the Gladiator laughed off anything we could throw at it. Honestly, we think it could have handled this course in 2WD mode. But we still played with all the toys, including the separately locking front and rear diffs, disconnecting sway bar, and the forward-facing bumper camera. The Jeep’s 3.6-liter gas-powered Pentastar V6 offers plenty of power mated to the eight-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission.
It’s been ballyhooed all over, but the unique thing about the Gladiator is the ability to remove all the roof and side cabin panels. This is more than a sunroof; it’s freedom. You don’t have to remove the doors or fold down the windshield, but you can if you want to. The only downside to the Gladiator is that outfitted with the Rubicon off-road package, this truck will set you back $61,170, making it by far the most expensive of the contenders.
2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro
As we mentioned, the Tacoma far outsells all other mid-size trucks on the market. Toyota has built the mystique of the Tacoma to near-legendary status, but it was also the oldest design at our challenge. With the technical advancements of the last few years missing, the Tacoma gave us the feeling of a truck just a bit past its prime.
Of course, with a retail price of $42,660, the Tacoma was also the most affordable option at the challenge, and that counts for a lot. More importantly, the Tacoma easily handled every obstacle as well as (or better than) the other trucks. Toyota gives the Tacoma its long-proven 3.5-liter V6 engine, and we had a six-speed manual transmission. Driving that off-road was more a test of the journalist than the truck, and even without hill descent control, careful brake modulation got us down the steep places as well as the tech could have.
Our only complaint about the Tacoma is its design. The TRD Pro designers went for a badass trophy truck look, with a big bulge in the hood and wide fenders over the front wheels. It looks great, but forward visibility is seriously compromised. Just when you need to carefully avoid a tire-ripping rock, the hazard disappears from view. We wished for a set of cameras to show us the view from the front bumper and one for each front wheel.
The Bottom Line
The Trail Trek Tour wasn’t designed as a contest, but everyone left with a favorite and a clear sense of how these four trucks stacked up. When it comes to off-road performance, there were no surprises. All the trucks were capable, but no one is going to beat Jeep on its home turf. The Gladiator was outstanding. Second place in our opinion went to the Colorado, then the Tacoma and finally the Ranger.
However, if you also consider price and real-world use, the trucks stack up quite differently. For the average owner, on-road manners are vastly more important than rock-crawling ability. Plus, when you’re spending your own money on a truck, budget matters. If we were spending our own money for a daily-driven truck, the Ranger comes in first, followed by the Gladiator, the Colorado, and then the Tacoma.
As we head into the 2020 model year, both the best-selling Tacoma and the Colorado have been maintained without major changes. Why mess with success, right? But we think that as the newer offerings from Ford and Jeep gain acceptance in the market, they could make a serious challenge to the accepted order in the mid-size truck market.