Four midsize trucks get dirty at a 26-acre animal sanctuary
I am parked on a grassy hilltop, sitting on a hay bale in the bed of an atomic-orange 2018 Toyota Tacoma, soaking in the warm, pale, late-afternoon California winter sun, and watching a black-on-black Honda Ridgeline descend the opposite hill. It pauses at the top and then slowly moves toward me. As the Ridgeline inches down from the ridgeline, a massive black and white form suddenly looms in front of me, blotting out the sun, the truck, and even the hill.
Enter Safran the steer. All 7 feet and 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg) of him.
Safran steps forward, looks down at the Ridgeline, and gallops after it. A dozen or so similar large forms appear and watch Safran chasing after the Honda. He cuts off the Ridgeline and lowers his head toward its grille, as if to say, “Me first.” The Ridgeline smartly comes to an abrupt stop.
Pleased with his intimidation of the Honda, Safran gambols back to our group of humans and bovines, hanging out at the back of our now-hayless Tacoma, 2019 Ford Ranger, and 2019 Chevrolet Colorado. He pauses at the Chevy, gives it a lick, and merrily trots off to join the dozen cows and donkeys that had followed him down the hill. It’s dinner time.
I Wanna Be a Cowboy
Too often comparison tests involve journalists attempting to simulate a car’s duty cycle. Supercar on a track, SUVs in the dirt—you get it. With the Colorado, Ranger, Ridgeline, and Tacoma on hand, I figured, why mimic work when we can actually do it?
Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit farm-animal rescue founded in 1986, provided the opportunity. With locations in Watkins Glen, New York, and another about an hour north of Los Angeles, the organization specializes in saving farm animals—chickens, pigs, lambs, goats, cows, horses, you name it—from abuse, neglect, and dereliction. Farm Sanctuary’s SoCal location in Acton (home to Safran and more than 100 other animals) was kind enough to entertain our harebrained idea and put us and our pickups to work.
Midsize pickups—often marketed as “lifestyle” trucks—might seem like an odd choice to put to work when more capable vehicles exist. But today’s midsizers are more capable than many full-size pickups were as recently as 20 years ago. Take it from this city slicker, Middle America: Your big trucks are overkill.
Even so, it would be ignorant to overlook that the majority of midsize pickups spend more time hauling air than they do hay. So we’ll spend some time testing how these pickups handle lifestyle duty, with city commutes and highway slogs, too. Our winner will be both the hardest-working hand on the farm and a natural city slicker, too.
Out Standing in the Field
A few days before our convoy to Farm Sanctuary, we were overlooking the Santa Monica Bay and getting to know our trucks. At first glance, they all seem like they’re cut from the same cloth: four doors, 5-foot beds, and four driven wheels. But on closer examination, there are some major differences among them.
The Honda is the nonconformist of our group; our Ridgeline Black Edition is the sole unibody pickup in our truck posse. Based on the Pilot platform, the Ridgeline is designed for those who want truck utility but crossover comfort. Its 280-hp 3.5-liter V-6 is paired to a six-speed automatic and an all-wheel-drive system—the only non-4WD system here. Although there are compromises in using a unibody for a pickup—mainly towing capacity, which is a group-low 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg)—there are some packaging advantages, too.
With knobby tires and squared-off sheetmetal, our Tacoma TRD Off-Road tester is the polar opposite of the Honda. Toyota has a global reputation for excellence and durability with its midsize pickups, and from the way it sits in the parking lot, the Taco seems up to the task. Our tester is powered by Toyota’s optional 3.5-liter V-6 backed by a six-speed automatic.
Our Colorado Z71 is a familiar beast—it won back-to-back Truck of the Year awards in 2015 and 2016. Despite its size, the Colorado is a truck that makes few compromises. Its optional 3.6-liter V-6 is the most powerful here with 308 hp on tap, and it’s mated to an eight-speed automatic.
There’s been a Ranger-sized hole in Ford’s lineup the past eight years, but the global Ranger is finally home with some modifications. The most extensive is its powertrain—a 2.3-liter turbocharged I-4 borrowed from the Mustang. In Ranger trim, it produces 270 hp and gets a 10-speed automatic. Our Ranger XLT FX4 tester looked the part, but there was a problem—it was missing a tow hitch. We agreed to begin our evaluation with the Ranger XLT in town to gather initial drive impressions then swap for a black Ranger Lariat with the tow package to complete our testing.
For now, we had to press on.
The Toyota Tacoma is the best-selling midsize pickup in the country, but from behind the wheel, it’s hard to figure out why. “Toyota wins all the style points,” features editor Scott Evans said. “Thank goodness for that because it has a lot of offsetting to do.” It’s hard to pinpoint just one flaw with the Tacoma because there are so many.
Most of us found the Taco to look the best both inside and out. Its cabin, with high-quality materials and killer styling, is particularly noteworthy when compared to the plain Chevy and Ford. Unfortunately, even the shortest of us had trouble fitting in the Tacoma’s cramped cabin. Finding a comfortable driving position in the rock-hard seats is made difficult by a steering wheel that barely telescopes and a seat that doesn’t raise or lower—the latter is probably for the best because even 5-foot-9 Scott reported his hair was brushing the Tacoma’s headliner. The back seat is even more cramped—kids or dogs are the only creatures squeezing back here.
It doesn’t get much better from there. On paper, Toyota’s 278-hp V-6 should be plenty for this truck, but its power is only available if you’re near redline, which the transmission doesn’t like. It’s as if gears two through five don’t exist; you’re either barely idling in sixth gear or screaming at 6,100 rpm in first.
Also frustrating are the Tacoma’s sensitive brakes and stiff ride. The Toyota bucks like an unbroken stallion during even the most gentle limousine stops, and its suspension is oversprung. I know what you’re thinking—“The ride sucks because it’s got an off-road package, idiot!” Take it from someone who daily-drives MT’s Ram Power Wagon—off-road capability doesn’t have to mean punishing ride quality.
Our off-road-packaged Ranger XLT had suspension issues, too; its ride is so soft that the truck is always bouncing. Every gentle turn, bump hit, or door closure makes the Ford rock like a cheap motel’s vibrating bed. It was so bad that we crawled underneath the truck to see if any part of the suspension was loose. It wasn’t.
As we found out later when we doubled back with our Ranger Lariat replacement, the awful ride can largely be attributed to the $1,295 USD FX4 off-road package, which the Lariat didn’t have. Without it, the Ranger rides slightly better, but it’s still undersprung. “The ride and body movements are still busy, but it’s acceptable now. Instead of being thrown around, I’m just getting constant jostles and kidney shots,” Evans said.
Although the Ranger had lots in common with the Tacoma in the ride department, its powertrain thankfully saves the day. The Ford has the worst weight-to-power ratio of the bunch, but it doesn’t feel it. Its turbocharged engine is responsive, and the tight ratio spread of the 10-speed auto helps ensure that power is never an issue, even if the gearbox is occasionally clunky in heavy traffic.
The Ranger’s sheetmetal makes a good first impression, but the cabin (of both testers) betrays the real age of this rig. Sure, it’s been gussied up with some digital displays, but there’s no hiding that little has changed since this developing-world pickup debuted in 2012. Ergonomics aren’t great, and the cabin is tight, with pinched head- and shoulder room (especially in back). Utility is limited because the rear seat back merely flips forward but not flat.
After the frustrating limited functionality of the Ford and Toyota, the crossoverlike Honda impressed us. Up front, there’s a massive center cubby and comfortable bucket seats. In back, occupants are treated to their own USB ports and HVAC vents. When they aren’t in use, the Ridgeline’s rear seats flip up and out of the way, providing secured storage for goods that don’t fit in the segment-exclusive hidden trunk in the bed.
The drive experience is more crossover than truck, too. “This feels buttoned down, alert, and modern; the ride is definitely carlike,” road test editor Chris Walton said. Associate road test editor Erick Ayapana agreed, adding, “Relative to its body-on-frame competitors, the Ridgeline is smooth and predictable.” Honda’s V-6 is generally a strength, with its six-speed making up for its lack of torque.
The Colorado is the Goldilocks of the group. “I had no idea the Colorado was still so far ahead in terms of refinement and ride,” Walton said. The Chevy is trucklike but behaved well both through bends and on badly maintained roads. Its powertrain won praise, too. “It feels peppy, and the transmission is responsive, especially compared to the Toyota’s,” Ayapana said.
Although Chevy has refined the Colorado’s powertrain since it won its Truck of the Year awards, it hasn’t spent much time on the interior. With the exception of its infotainment system, the roomy cabin has a Playskool quality to it, with oversized knobs and buttons for those who drive wearing their work gloves. It’s functional but not aesthetically pleasing.
After living with our trucks for a few days in the city, we packed up and headed to the edge of the county to try our hands (and trucks) farming.
It was early. The roosters weren’t even up yet. The only sound was the trucks ticking in the cold behind us.
It may have been our first time working on a farm, but for Farm Sanctuary project assistant Caleb Bachara (who would be guiding our efforts), it was just another day at the office.
Because Farm Sanctuary is a nonprofit, its small staff is never truly able to complete a day’s work of maintaining the 26 acres and 100-plus animals on site. But we’d aim to knock out as much as possible with our support trucks during our time there.
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First up, we were going to clear some tree stumps and brush. With the deadly 153,000-acre Camp Fire in recent memory, brush clearing was a high priority.
We saddled up in our trucks, stopped by the shed to load up with chains, hooks, shovels, and a trusty Sawzall, and made our way across the farm to a small thicket of trees just off the pasture.
Scott donned his well-traveled but still sharp cowboy hat and we got to work—pruning first in an effort to protect the paint of our very borrowed pickups. When the trees were ready to come down, we ran some chains around their trunks.
I backed the Ranger up to the first tree. I gently pressed the gas. The Ford surged forward undaunted. That seemed too easy; I must’ve forgotten to hook up the chain. I took a swig of coffee and hopped out, ready to try again.
The tree lay prone, its roots exposed to the breeze.
“Well, that was easy.”
I spoke too soon. After we’d yanked down a couple more trees and hauled them across the farm to dump them, we set our sights on a particularly big stump that was pinching access to one of Farm Sanctuary’s sheds. Stump pulling is real truck work—perfect for the Honda Ridgeline to prove it’s a real truck.
Chris hooked up the Honda to the stump. The chains clinked as he took in the slack, and the Honda’s V-6 roared, but nothing was happening. Chris gave it another go, but the most he could coax out of the Honda was a hint of wheelspin. That tree wasn’t going anywhere.
A “real” truck would be able to handle that stump, we reasoned, so Erick and the Tacoma took the Ridgeline’s place. He dropped the Tacoma into four-low and started tugging. The Toyota grunted forward as part of the stump snapped. He backed up and tried again for the rest, only to start digging himself into the soft soil. (So maybe the Ridgeline isn’t a complete wimp.)
Time to break out some tools.
We alternated between digging and hacking at the stump. After every foot or so of dirt we cleared from the stump, we hooked up the Colorado to the remains of the stump and tried again. After the third try and a broken chain, we doubled back to raid the toolshed for reinforcements: a pickaxe and a pry bar. After another 20 minutes or so of chopping—not to mention untangling some roots from a water line—we finally got the sonofabitch free with another tug from the Tacoma.
It was barely 8 a.m. and we were already exhausted, but there were eight bales of hay with our names on them. On paper, all four trucks’ beds are about the same length, but as we’d soon learn while manhandling 100-pound (45-kg) bales, there’s a significant difference in width. The Ford, Honda, and Chevy easily took two bales of hay laid flat, longways in their beds, while the narrower Toyota bed required us to force one bale on its side, bouncing annoyingly back and forth against the bed rail.
There were also some major differences in how easy it was to unload at the hay feeder. The Ridgeline’s dual tailgate swings either down or out, and in the latter position it was exceptionally easy to reach into the bed and pull out the hay. The Colorado’s standard bumper-mounted bed step is also ingenious, making it significantly easier to hop into the bed and unload.
Job done, we were sent into town for Farm Sanctuary’s weekly feed run: 26 100-pound (45-kg) bales of hay, plus eight 50-pound (23-kg) bags of feed. Given the stubby little beds on our trucks, we hitched a borrowed trailer to the Colorado to speed up the job.
It was mesmerizing watching how quickly the Colorado’s trailer piled up with hay. With hay hooks glinting in the sun as they sliced into each bale, the trailer had been loaded with 14 bales before we realized we needed to redirect the loading effort to the beds of the other three trucks. The Honda ended up neatly fitting five bales in its bed, the Tacoma squeezed four with some Tetris-ing, and the Ranger easily swallowed the final three bales along with the feed bags.
The formerly plucky Honda was feeling every one of those 500 pounds (227 kg) on the way back. Most frustrating was a lack of a dedicated tow-haul mode; low gear helped some, but the transmission nonetheless insisted on early upshifts. Ride quality also suffered some. Body-on-frame pickups typically ride better with some weight in the bed—and indeed, Scott reported a slight ride improvement from the Ranger—but the Ridgeline was less composed than before.View this post on Instagram
The Colorado, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more impressive. “The Chevy never felt out of breath on the winding roads leading to the farm,” Erick said. “Good backup camera, too,” he added after expertly backing the trailer up a narrow path between pens so we could unload. Showoff. Safran seemed impressed, too, rewarding anyone brave enough to get close with a slurpy kiss.
Our 26 bales unloaded, we took a quick breather to give belly rubs to some napping pigs and meet Honky Tonk the donkey before getting back to work. Throughout the rest of the day, we hustled—hauling loads of fencing across the farm and repositioning horse trailers. As the sun finally began to dip over the San Gabriel Mountains, we led Safran and his buds to dinner.
It had been a long but a successful day. Our little trucks had helped accomplish about a week’s worth of busywork on the farm—allowing sanctuary staffers to focus on their animals—and we learned enough to crown a winner.
Hay King (Finishing Order)
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: At MT, we don’t always agree with each other. Although we always pick a winner for each comparison test, there’s usually some dissent. However, this was a rare occasion when all four editors ranked our field identically.
In last place is the supremely disappointing Toyota Tacoma. The Tacoma is all hat and no cattle; it looks fantastic, but whether you haul air or hay, it’s let down by a cramped cabin, narrow bed, grabby brakes, and an engine and transmission that work in tandem about as well as a pack of cats and dogs.
In third place, in a surprise to us, is the Ford Ranger. As we saw on the farm, the Ranger is capable. Its stellar powertrain has more than enough power to tow and haul, its platform handles weight well, and its extra-wide bed proved to be incredibly useful. But on the road, the Ranger doesn’t measure up to our top two finishers. Its suspension tuning is (at best) compromised toward a duty cycle this truck will rarely see in America, and its cabin is cramped and dated. “The Ranger, being the newest truck here, somehow manages to feel the oldest and least refined,” Walton said.
The second-place Honda Ridgeline is slavishly designed around the idea of the lifestyle truck, where it excels. But it’s relatively (and surprisingly) capable, too. Its pickup box is exceptionally large for its size, and the dual-use tailgate is a much more elegant solution to the problem of unloading a pickup bed than the overly complicated multiposition tailgates on some full-size pickups. There’s still room for improvement, though; we’d like to see a dedicated tow-haul mode and something done to improve ride quality when hauling.
Our unanimous winner for best midsize pickup truck is the Chevrolet Colorado. The Colorado so effortlessly walks the fine line between being a lifestyle pickup and a work truck. It has plenty of power for work or play, a buttoned-down ride that doesn’t beat you up on your daily commute, a good back-seat package, and an incredibly functional bed. It’s the uncompromised pickup—the one that drives like a compact but hauls like a heavy-duty. “It’s like these guys are truck-building experts or something,” Evans deadpanned. “Not hard to remember why this is a two-time Truck of the Year.” No, it’s not. As for how it measures up to the (Jeep) Gladiator in the arena? We’re as eager as you are to find out.
2019 Chevrolet Colorado V6 Z71 2019 Ford Ranger Lariat 4×4 Ecoboost 2019 Honda Ridgeline Black Edition 2018 Toyota Tacoma V6 TRD 4×4 Off Road DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front-engine, 4WD Front-engine, 4WD Front-engine, AWD Front-engine, 4WD ENGINE TYPE 60-deg V-6, alum block/heads Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head 60-deg V-6, alum block/heads Atkinson cycle 60-deg V-6, alum block/heads VALVETRAIN DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl SOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DISPLACEMENT 217.5 cu in/3,564 cc 138.0 cu in/2,261 cc 211.8 cu in/3,471 cc 210.9 cu in/3,456 cc COMPRESSION RATIO 11.5:1 10.0:1 11.5:1 11.8:1 POWER (SAE NET) 308 hp @ 6,800 rpm* 270 hp @ 5,500 rpm 280 hp @ 6,000 rpm 278 hp @ 6,000 rpm TORQUE (SAE NET) 275 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm* 310 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm 262 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm 265 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm REDLINE N/A (fuel cut-off @ 7,100 rpm) 6,500 rpm 6,750 rpm 6,100 rpm WEIGHT TO POWER 14.6 lb/hp 16.9 lb/hp 16.0 lb/hp 16.5 lb/hp TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic 10-speed automatic 6-speed automatic 6-speed automatic AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE/LOW RATIO 3.42:1/2.26:1/2.62:1 3.73:1/2.37:1/2.72:1 4.25:1/2.36:1/NA 3.91:1/2.27:1/2.57:1 SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, leaf springs Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, leaf springs Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, leaf springs STEERING RATIO 16.8:1 17.7:1 15.6:1 17.3:1 TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 3.2 3.1 3.0 3.5 BRAKES, F; R 12.2-in vented disc; 12.8-in disc, ABS 12.2-in vented disc; 12.1-in vented disc, ABS 12.6-in vented disc; 13.0-in disc, ABS 10.8-in vented disc; 10.0-in drum, ABS WHEELS 8.0 x 17-in cast aluminum 8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum 8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum 7.0 x 16-in cast aluminum TIRES 255/65R17 110T (M+S) Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain Adventure 265/60R18 110T (M+S) Hankook Dynapro ATM 245/60R18 105H (M+S) Firestone Destination LE2 265/70R16 112T (M+S) Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain Adventure DIMENSIONS WHEELBASE 128.3 in 126.8 in 125.2 in 127.4 in TRACK, F/R 62.4/62.4 in 61.4/61.4 in 66.1/66.0 in 63.0/63.2 in LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 212.7 x 74.3 x 70.6 in 210.8 x 73.3 x 71.5 in 210.0 x 78.6 x 70.8 in 212.3 x 75.2 x 70.6 in TURNING CIRCLE 41.3 ft 42.0 ft 44.4 ft 40.6 ft CURB WEIGHT 4,486 lb 4,551 lb 4,475 lb 4,575 lb WEIGHT DIST, F/R 57/43% 57/43% 58/42% 56/44% SEATING CAPACITY 5 5 5 5 HEADROOM, F/R 41.4/38.3 in 39.8/38.3 in 39.5/38.8 in 39.7/38.3 in LEGROOM, F/R 45.0/35.8 in 43.1/34.5 in 40.9/36.7 in 42.9/32.6 in SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 57.5/56.2 in 56.7/56.3 in 62.0/61.5 in 58.3/56.3 in PICKUP BOX L x W x H 61.7 x 57.8 x 20.9 in 61.0 x 61.4 x 20.8 in 64.0 x 60.0 x 16.0 in 60.5 x 56.7 x 19.1 in WIDTH BET WHEELHOUSES 44.4 in 44.8 in 50.0 in 41.5 in PAYLOAD CAPACITY 1,487 lb 1,560 lb 1,499 lb 1,175 lb TOWING CAPACITY 7,000 lb 7,500 lb 5,000 lb 6,400 lb TEST DATA ACCELERATION TO MPH 0-30 2.3 sec 2.5 sec 2.5 sec 2.8 sec 0-40 3.4 3.6 3.7 4.1 0-50 4.7 5.1 5.3 5.9 0-60 6.4 6.8 7.2 7.6 0-70 8.4 8.9 9.5 9.9 0-80 10.7 11.4 12.3 12.7 0-90 13.7 14.8 16.2 16.0 0-100 — 18.8 20.6 22.1 PASSING, 45-65 MPH 3.2 3.4 3.8 3.6 QUARTER MILE 14.9 sec @ 93.1 mph 15.2 sec @ 91.3 mph 15.6 sec @ 88.3 mph 15.9 sec @ 89.7 mph BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 128 ft 127 ft 128 ft 133 ft LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.78 g (avg) 0.75 g (avg) 0.79 g (avg) 0.71 g (avg) MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.6 sec @ 0.63 g (avg) 27.7 sec @ 0.61 g (avg) 27.7 sec @ 0.62 g (avg) 28.6 sec @ 0.58 g (avg) TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1,500 rpm 1,600 rpm 1,750 rpm 1,800 rpm CONSUMER INFO BASE PRICE $37,895 $39,480 $44,415 $37,360 PRICE AS TESTED $38,280 $43,695 $44,415 $41,517 STABILITY/TRACTION CONTROL Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/Yes AIRBAGS 6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain 6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain 6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain 6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain BASIC WARRANTY 3 yrs/36,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles POWERTRAIN WARRANTY 5 yrs/60,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE 5 yrs/60,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles 2 yrs/25,000 miles FUEL CAPACITY 21.0 gal 18.0 gal 19.5 gal 21.1 gal EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 17/24/19 mpg 21/26/23 mpg (mfr est) 18/25/21 mpg 18/22/20 mpg ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 198/140 kW-hrs/100 miles 160/130 kW-hrs/100 miles 187/135 kW-hrs/100 miles 187/153 kW-hrs/100 miles CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.99 lb/mile 0.84 lb/mile 0.94 lb/mile 0.99 lb/mile RECOMMENDED FUEL Unleaded regular Unleaded regular Unleaded regular Unleaded regular *SAE Certified