America's Greatest Off-Road Pickups Tackle Canada's Punishing Trans-Labrador Highway
It’s never been a better time to be an off-road truck enthusiast. There are more choices than ever before, and American automakers produce three of the most capable trucks: the 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor, and 2017 Ram 2500 Power Wagon. But which one of these factory off-roaders is best? We took ’em to eastern Canada to find out.
I lay on the ground, defenseless. Blood dripped down my forehead. I knew the next assault was coming. I could hear the bastards coming before I could see them.
Minutes earlier, five words had just changed our—my—entire morning: “The Ram has a flat.” It was a Tuesday somewhere along a rutted two-lane gravel road in the remote Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. We were 75 miles (121 km) from our origin that day in Port Hope Simpson and 75 miles (and an hour and a half of driving) from the can’t-miss ferry from the Labrador mainland to the island of Newfoundland.
The timing of the flat was, to use polite language, really inconvenient. We pulled our Ram Power Wagon onto the shoulder, parked our companion vehicles next to it, and rushed our tire change. But we were not quick enough to avoid the merciless cloud of mosquitos, horse flies, and black flies that emerged from the undergrowth. To them, DEET was not repellant but perfume. And I was their lunch date.
Welcome to the Trans-Labrador Highway.
Fellow editors Scott Evans and Miguel Cortina, videographer Cory Lutz, photographers William and Jessica Walker, and I were taking the three baddest off-road pickups through some of the most grueling conditions in North America. And the TLH, as it’s called in shorthand, is our not-well-beaten path across this frontier.
To be clear, “highway” is a generous term. This road lays claim to some of the longest unpaved, pothole-laden stretches of road on the continent. Inclement weather is frequent, but traffic is scarce—save for the occasional moose or bear. Fuel stops at frontier villages pop up every 150 miles (241 km) or so, hospitals maybe twice that. There’s no cell coverage; the Mounties will loan you a satellite phone at each end of the road. In other words, you’re on your own.
Each is the most capable off-road truck its respective Detroit maker builds, and each brings unique capabilities. The Chevy is a Frankenstein’s monster of locking differentials for rock-crawling along with Baja-bred suspension wizardry. The high-flying Raptor is designed for going fast where things shouldn’t be able to. And the Ram—well, it’s got a freakin’ winch hanging off its front bumper. Our top pick would have to be unstoppable off-road, and because half of off-roading is getting to the trails in the first place, it would also have to be great on-road.
Our brutal testing across the Canadian wilderness would be the ultimate way to determine who deserved to be crowned King in the North. —-Christian Seabaugh
Jour 1: Québec City à Barrage Daniel-Johnson
About 380 miles (611 km) and eight hours separate us and our scheduled stop by the Daniel-Johnson Dam (formerly Manic-5) in northern Quebec, and I’m eager to get at it, so I snag the keys to the Colorado before we pull out of our hotel lot. I hadn’t driven the ZR2 before today, so I’m eager to see how it stacks up against the Z71.
Five minutes down the road, our engines not yet warm, Will gets on the radio. “Let’s stop at Starbucks.” Today was going to be a long day.
Five coffees and one tea later, we’re cruising along the St. Lawrence River. Its stormy blue waters stretch as far as we can see, like we’re on the edge of the world. As we leave the city farther behind, the flat terrain morphs into rolling hills and then bluffs as we follow the riverbank.
The easy driving gives me time to take stock of the ZR2. I miss the diesel our Z71 long-termer had; it was perfectly matched to the truck. Our ZR2’s V-6 is less refined. It fights with the eight-speed auto like an old married couple; the V-6 wants to sing, but the auto wants to keep it quiet.
Evening approaches as we pull into a gas station in Baie-Comeau. Soon we’d head north to our motel at Manic-5 in the middle of the Quebecois woods. That should be one of the few signs of active civilization we’ll see for the next 24 hours.
We gas up and swap trucks. As I turn the Power Wagon onto Route 389, we say au revoir to cell service and bonjour to dense woods and a beautiful, twisty ribbon of asphalt. The highway was built primarily to service the dam 136 miles (219 km) north, but tonight it’s ours. To my surprise, the Ram holds its own, easily keeping up with Scott in the ZR2 at the front of the pack. The Ram is surprisingly nimble, and its Bilstein-backed suspension helps keep body roll minimal, allowing me to carry far more speed through corners than I thought would be possible.
We reach the motel as the stars begin to light the inky sky. A photo diversion into a muddy meadow had eaten a huge chunk of our time—just as the local bugs had taken a huge chunk out of us. The lone restaurant is closed, so we gather in Miguel’s room for cold cuts. I’d bought a bottle of maple-flavored whisky from a provincial liquor store. It seemed authentically Canadian at the time, but it smells like a sad Denny’s. It tastes even worse. We drink it anyway.
Tomorrow we hit dirt. —Seabaugh
Jour 2: Barrage Daniel-Johnson à Labrador City
After last night’s inelegant repast, we need an early breakfast. It’s a good thing we don’t sleep in; two motorcyclists who’d just come over the TLH warn us that the stretch of highway between Labrador City and Happy Valley-Goose Bay is paved, but the gravel stretch afterward is brutal. Oh, and the bugs only get worse. Great.
Today is supposed to be the short day, just 230 miles (370 km) of gravel and five hours to Labrador. But we spot a pool-sized puddle across the road to splash in. Then we discover our voices echo off the Daniel-Johnson Dam’s massive concrete face. We giggle. Will lets out a scream. Two figures appear at the parapet. Time to go.
Canada’s Trans-Labrador Highway would test the mettle of our trio of tough trucks.
Rolling down the loose-packed gravel of Route 389, the Chevy and I are flying along. Off-Road mode and 4A allow just enough slip to get the ZR2 moving quickly down the long straights and tight switchbacks. Ahead of me, bare, gray mountains poke out from a sea of green. The panorama is beautiful, though the trucks behind me complain that my rooster tails are eating up the view. Suckers.
At the Manicouagan Reservoir, the ringworm-shaped lake that feeds the dam, we pull into an empty quarry to test off-road settings in a controlled environment. Miguel in the ZR2 and Scott in the Raptor set up an impromptu course for their Baja-bred trucks. They drift around obstacles and a sand bowl that wouldn’t be out of place in the desert. I try playing along in the Power Wagon, but it’s having none of it. It can drift a little, but it doesn’t like it. Locking the rear diff doesn’t help, either, because you have to be in 4Low to do so. It prefers to grip and go, so I make my own fun and spend the afternoon driving up and down steep rock walls and over boulders.
Once we’ve had our fill, we peel out and get back onto the road, which now alternates between short strips of pavement and long, wet stretches of dirt. As we approach the Quebec–Labrador border, Miguel calls out on the radio. “The Colorado’s tire is losing air.” The right front tire is down 10 psi, but it has no obvious puncture. We air it up, roll into Labrador City, and check again. Still losing air. We decide to deal with it in the morning. —Seabaugh
Day 3: Labrador City to Happy Valley-Goose Bay
The ZR2’s tire has lost 10 psi overnight. The air jack pops the truck up, and the spare tire rack in the bed makes for the quickest tire change I’ve ever done. No tire shops are open. We decide to press on, spareless, and hope for the best.
Route 389 follows what has to be an old mule trail, but the Trans-Labrador Highway is mostly straight with long, sweeping curves and pavement in good condition. I’m disappointed by that last part. It is, frankly, boring driving, so we seek out a dirt road heading into the trees. A few big puddles and a couple turns later, that dirt road opens up to the massive power lines that shadow the TLH and the clearing that cuts below the lines as far as we can see. The access road is a muddy mess. “The Power Wagon might make it, but …” Christian trails off. My money is on the lighter ZR2. We give up and head back.
Not long after, we catch up to a cop. To avoid hours of tedium following a police truck, we turn off at the first dirt road we see, a parallel access road to some hunting cabins and power lines. Less than a mile in, the road is washed out. We need spotters to get through safely. A few more miles on, we reach a fork. The low road continues, but it’s overgrown and unmapped. On the high road under the power lines, Christian nearly gets the Raptor stuck while fording a drainage ditch dug straight across the road. “Power Wagon might make it,” he suggests again, but we see a bigger ditch up the road. We once again turn back toward the TLH and the night’s destination.
Nearing Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a rainbow appears ahead. We consider driving to the end of it, but it’s getting late, and the few restaurants in these small towns close well before the 9:30 sunset.
As we leave dinner, our trucks are blocked in by a woman whose husband is a Motor Trend fan. He’d been following #MTonTLH while working on helicopters in the Arctic Circle and had dispatched her to find us. Then some teenage fans roll up. After photos and tours of the trucks, they wish us the best. —Scott Evans
Day 4: Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Port Hope Simpson
We start the morning at Tim Hortons then prowl three stores looking for stronger bug spray. The brand that worked for me while visiting Cambodia doesn’t make much difference in the Canadian wilderness. We also take the ZR2’s tire to a shop for a diagnosis (dirt packed in the bead, an easy fix). While we wait, a trucker chats us up. “It’s pretty smooth at first,” he says of the road ahead, “but it gets worse the closer you get to Port Hope Simpson. You gotta go slow. I know some guys who go through there at 110 km/h and end up with blown tires or broken tie rods.”
With the tire remounted, we turn south on Route 510, the eastern half of the TLH. I’m confident we’ll hit dirt as soon as we cross the bridge. We don’t.
The pavement finally ends about 60 miles (97 km) later, and like the man said, it’s smooth. The gravel is hard-packed, but it’s loose on top, so we cruise at 60 mph. Above that, the air suspension on our support vehicle, the Ram Rebel, can’t deal with the bumps. It’s still well above the speed limit, but there’s no one here to care.
Two hours in, Jess thinks she saw a moose, so she heads back to investigate. Turns out it’s a very convincing log. At this point, we’ve seen almost no wildlife the whole trip despite assurances from locals we’ll be up to our armpits in moose, bears, wolves, and beavers. I’m half-convinced it’s a province-wide joke they pull on tourists. Then I see the bear on the side of the road. We’re enthralled. The bear takes a nap.
Soon the trucker’s words ring true. The road gets worse, and the sky opens up. Luckily, the road doesn’t turn to mud, but the bumps get bigger the farther we drive. The potholes fill with water as dark as the wet gravel around them, hiding them until it’s too late. The road is too wet to swerve hard, and there’s scarcely anywhere to go anyway. Our speed drops by half.
We’ve only had a couple of healthy meals on this trip; our bodies are full of Timbits and poutine.
I’m running point in the ZR2, and it’s wild. The truck is eating up the potholes, turning what would be suspension-snapping impacts in other vehicles into a bouncy ride. I’m driving on whichever side of the road is least terrible, weaving slowly across the highway while calling out the worst of it to the crew behind. The bumps cause the rear end to oversteer slightly, but the motions are slow and predictable.
It’s a completely different situation in the Raptor. The truck can’t find any grip at the rear end, and every bump sends it skittering. Miguel has it in 4Hi and is trying every off-road mode it has. Weather mode seems to help the most, but barely.
I nail a nasty pothole. I call back to the Raptor to check up. “Almost lost the Timbits!” Cory hollers over the radio, concerned about Canada’s ubiquitous deep-fried dough. He’s had our box of 50 donut holes displayed proudly on the dash since we accidentally ordered them that morning. The Timbits’ plight understated the situation; that hole tossed the Raptor sideways into the next lane.
The Power Wagon, meanwhile, was steady through it all. —Evans
Day 5: Port Hope Simpson to Deer Lake
We’re on the road at sunrise. We need to catch the Newfoundland ferry, and it doesn’t care how little sleep we got. Halfway through the three-hour drive to Blanc-Sablon, just over the border in Quebec, the Power Wagon gets its flat.
We pull over next to a lake. That’s when the mosquitos press their attack, homing in on the heat signatures and emissions of our trucks and ourselves. As we swat and wave ineffectively at the airborne menace, we discover that no matter where we position the exhaust air jack, it just can’t seem to lift the right rear tire, so we give up and use the truck’s bottle jack. Finally, the wheel is off, and a spare is going on, but we have a problem. The spare is only inflated to 35 psi. It should be 65. We have a pump, but it lacks the urgency of the mosquitos. We pass the time dousing each other with DEET while Christian calls the ferry office on the satellite phone. The compressor stalls at 55 psi, and it starts to smoke. That’ll have to do.
We hit the highway, our time cushion long gone. The dried-out TLH covers every truck but the leader in impenetrable dust. I decide to speed ahead in the Raptor to try to stall the ferry until the rest catch up. The road has smoothed back out, and the Ford is finally behaving like it ought to, but I’ve got it in Weather mode, just in case. The Raptor is flying in its element, and we’re exceeding the speed limit in ways I won’t describe lest Canada seek extradition. At Red Bay, the pavement begins again. I switch to Sport mode, and the Raptor handles like a 5,800-pound (2,631-kg) sport sedan. The pockmarked pavement is in worse shape than the recently graded gravel, but the extra grip makes up for it. I barely notice the spruce forest has given way to a rocky coastline and meadows.
The terrain has alternated between endless miles of forest so dense and dark it would scare The Brothers Grimm, massive meadows, swamps, and bogs right out of Middle-earth, and rocky fields thin with evergreens. Every few minutes, we pass another nameless lake, each with at least one island so crowded with trees you’d swear the copse could shift at any moment and push one into the water.
Despite my speed run in the Raptor, I’m a half-hour late, and our reservations are forfeit. The group arrives 15 minutes later. There’s no room on the wait list. All we can do is watch the ferry load and depart.
We eat the last of our stale Timbits and look for trails to fill the unplanned delay. We find a reservoir replete with hillocks perfect for jumping the trucks. They are in their element, and it’s awesome. Even the 7,000-pound (3,175-kg) Ram catches air, though the Raptor seems to land the softest. A pair of icebergs float on the watery horizon. “Berg-y bits,” a local calls them, assuring us we just missed the big ones.
Several hours later, finally in Newfoundland, Will spots another old quarry. A steep downward slope of loose, sharp rocks separates us from the best parts, but the trucks make short work of it. By the time we leave, night has begun to fall, and rain is lashing us in sideways fits.
We’ve seen countless signs warning about moose crossings since the first day, and now, finally, we see one on the side of the road. It looks like a young male—definitely not felled timber. Christian and Miguel drive past it and decide to walk back for a closer look (moose are deadly). Christian picks up a rock “for protection,” but thankfully, the moose is having none of it and bolts. Later, as we drive through the darkest night I’ve ever not seen, I hope like crazy we don’t see another.
We make Deer Lake just before midnight. Christian insists we fuel up, but I just want to sleep. We have another ferry to catch in the morning. —Evans
Day 6: Deer Lake to Sydney
The cliffs of Gros Morne National Park are ready for their Imax close-up as they fill our rearview mirrors. The speed limit—62 mph—is the highest we’ve seen so far. We’re on our way to Channel-Port aux Basques, a town three hours away on the southwest end of Newfoundland, where we’re scheduled to take a seven-hour ferry to Sydney, Nova Scotia.
To the west, the pristine waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence shine in the morning sunlight; to the east, the rising hills remind me of Jurassic Park, but the snow corrects me—tropical Isla Nublar is nowhere near.
We arrive with what we thought was plenty of time—then realize we had to be here two hours prior to departure, not one. In a moment of typical Canadian politeness, the agent checks us in anyway and directs us to a line of cars waiting to get washed. Newfoundland’s soil could carry nematodes, and all vehicles that head to the mainland must be clean. Sadly, our proudly caked layers of mud are gone.
Upon completing our sail of the calm Atlantic, we find a service road next to the highway. It leads into what seems a deserted trail, the perfect spot to give the Power Wagon’s electric winch a workout. It can pull up to 12,000 pounds (5,443 kg), and its operation is simple, thanks to a controller plugged in behind the front bumper. We anchor a strap to a couple of birch, and Scott unlocks the winch and hooks it to a shackle. Winch relocked, the Ram creeps toward the tree. Although this was only a test, it was good to know the Ram could’ve gotten us out of trouble had we found it.
In an abandoned parking lot near our hotel, we thought trouble had found us. “Cop, cop, cop!” Christian alerts. A pair of police cars pull in right behind us. They’re fans. The friendly policemen have been following us on Instagram and are eager to check out the trucks; from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Sydney, we couldn’t outrun the hashtag.
It’s 8:40 p.m., and the Nova Scotian sunset transforms the sky to an astonishing salmon pink, a color we’ve never seen in California. —Miguel Cortina
Day 7: Sydney to Woodstock
A morning run along Sydney’s boardwalk has me up to an early start. We’ve only had a couple of healthy meals on this trip; our bodies are full of Timbits and poutine. We’ve had potatoes for breakfast, potatoes for lunch, and potatoes for dinner. We start the seventh day with more potatoes.
We have 450 miles (724 km) of ground to cover today but decide on a longer, more scenic drive. We get on Route 4 for a peek at the primeval waters of Bras d’Or Lake and the Atlantic Ocean before getting to the Canadian mainland through the Canso Canal. The natural gateways we see along the way and the Lobsterfest celebration in the charming town of St. Peter’s make up for the time lost, but it seems like an eternity before we reach the mainland. Merging onto the Trans-Canada Highway, we rejoice; speed limits have risen to nearly 70 mph (113 km/h). Many miles lie ahead, but we’re also eager to get the trucks dirty again. A mud-encrusted trail deep in the woods between New Glasgow and Truro is as good a spot as any to redress the trucks in clay. Surrounded by tall pine and deer flies, we stop watching the clock and turn the trucks brown. Rain over the New Brunswick border threatens another cleansing, but the storm passes and preserves some of the dirt.
They roll up the sidewalks early in Woodstock, so we make an early stop in Fredericton. There’s a warm feeling about this cozy, vibrant town, replete with runners, cyclists, and Frederictonians enjoying evening strolls along the St. John River. Our exquisite supper is a welcome relief from our weeklong diet of starch. —Cortina
Jour 8: Woodstock à Québec City
It takes me a minute to figure out where I am when my alarm goes off. I’m exhausted—we all are—but it’s time to roll. Another round of Timbits and over-roasted coffee gets us going. We must make it to Quebec City before noon. The trucks are due back Stateside.
Our schedule allowed for little else than reflection—no time for off-roading or even pictures, but the sun shining over a thick layer of fog while cresting some hills makes that hard. Just before we enter the French-speaking province, Christian assures us the U.S. border is close. “You see those trees to our left?” he says. “That’s home.” But after our week of off-road excursions, I’m not sure I had ever left. —Cortina
Crowning the King
Third place goes to the mighty Ford F-150 Raptor. “The Raptor was my odds-on favorite before we got to Canada,” Scott said. “The biggest problem with the Raptor is its failure to perform the one job we brought it for: going fast off-road.” We know the Raptor is capable of going fast on the dunes of the West Coast, but on the loose-packed gravel and the mud and dirt trails of northeastern Canada, the Ford is out of its element.
Nothing was more telling than its performance on the TLH proper. “On the off-road sections, the Raptor’s rear end kept moving dramatically from side to side on the dry gravel, but things got even worse when the rain started coming down and the road deteriorated,” Miguel said. Its drive modes only made it marginally more stable, but even with four-wheel drive engaged or in Sand/Mud or Weather modes, the Raptor handled the brutal TLH far worse than the other trucks. “At speed off-road, the rear end was never settled, never confident,” Scott said. “Isn’t that what this truck is designed for?”
As disappointed as we were with the Raptor, there’s still plenty to love. Its powertrain is easily the best of this group, with effortless power and seamless shifts. It rides phenomenally, and even more impressive is that it drives like a big sport sedan on pavement. Still, we expected more from the Ford.
It’s the opposite story with our second-place pick, the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2. Off-road, the Colorado is like a puppy in the park. It excitedly bounds over any terrain you throw at it. The ZR2 is small and nimble enough to fit down tight trails that’d leave pinstripes on the other two while still packing the hardware to get itself out of trouble if it gets stuck. “It’s the perfect scout vehicle,” Scott said.
Its suspension tuning is phenomenal. Its DSSV dampers happily eat up abuse from roads, trails, and, yes, jumps while still keeping the truck’s rear end planted and isolating those in the cabin from punishment. “In the loose stuff, it’s impressively stable,” Scott said. “In the worst conditions, the rear end danced around a bit but always in slow movements that were easily controlled. We never had a big moment.”
In the end, the Colorado’s powertrain kept it from a win. The V-6 makes its power high in its rev band, but the gearbox wants to keep revs low. The two refuse to work together. As good as the ZR2 is off-road, its powertrain ruins the on-road experience.
Our winner seems to do everything right.
The Ram 2500 Power Wagon is a truck that oozes confidence. With its beefy two-speed transfer case, locking diffs, disconnecting anti-roll bars, and winch, it’s a truck that doesn’t shy away from obstacles. You’re always looking for what’s next, and you know the Ram can handle it.
During the worst of the TLH, when the Colorado was skipping over bumps and the Raptor was sliding sideways, the Ram tracked straight and true. The Power Wagon’s Bilstein monotube shocks aren’t as fancy as the Raptor’s Fox shocks or ZR2’s Multimatic dampers, but you can’t tell from behind the wheel. The ride is slightly stiffer, mostly because of its size and higher payload capacity, but it’s never punishing. The Power Wagon always grips no matter what stands in its path. Focus on your line. The Ram has everything else handled. It’s the right truck for the terrain we encountered on the entirety of the Trans-Labrador Highway. —Seabaugh
2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 4×4 V6 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor 4×4 2017 Ram 2500 Power Wagon 4×4 BASE PRICE $42,620 $53,545 $53,090 PRICE AS TESTED $43,615 $69,740 $60,100 VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truck Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truck Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truck ENGINE 3.6L/308-hp/275-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 3.5L/450-hp/510-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6 6.4L/410-hp/429-lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8 TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic 10-speed automatic 6-speed automatic CURB WEIGHT 4,700 lb (est) 5,700 lb (est) 7,000 lb (est) 0-60 MPH 7.4 sec (MT est) 5.2 sec (MT est) 8.7 sec (MT est) PAYLOAD CAPACITY 1,100 lb 1,200 lb 1,510 lb TOWING CAPACITY 5,000 lb 8,000 lb 10,030 lb EPA CITY/HWY/ COMB FUEL ECON 16/18/17 mpg 15/18/16 mpg Not rated