LONDON, ON – Heavy-duty pickup trucks tend to lead a less glamourous life than their half-ton siblings. While the lighter-duty models are typically the show horses in the trucking ring, it’s the big HD guys that boast the greatest grunt.
They’re the workhorses of the truck business, though that’s not to say you still can’t enjoy life in an HD truck, as I experienced while serving as a judge in this year’s Canadian Truck King Challenge.
The five-person judging team spent a couple days driving more than 2,500 kilometres as they put a trio of HD candidates through their paces before declaring a winner.
First, it should be noted the Canadian Truck King Challenge is unlike other truck evaluations. Under criteria established by founder, chief organizer and truck guru Howard Elmer, the entries are tested as in no other awards program – they’re put to work in trials that replicate the tasks most owners would expect their vehicles to perform.
Not only are the entries evaluated for typical parameters such as styling, convenience and dynamics, including ride, handling and braking, they are also tested with a hefty payload lashed to the bed and with a 6800-kg (15,000-lb) fifth-wheel RV trailer hitched up to see what effect such loads have on their dynamics.
Throughout the program, the trucks’ fuel consumption is scrutinized with onboard FleetCarma C5 data loggers that continuously upload the results to FleetCarma’s headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario.
This year, a new wrinkle was added as the three entries, with their large trailers in tow, took to the dragstrip at Grand Bend Motorplex near the Lake Huron resort town of Grand Bend.
The three entries represented the only manufacturers playing in the North American HD ring: General Motors, Ford and Ram.
All three trucks were powered by diesel engines paired to six-speed automatic transmissions and all were the four-door crew cab configuration.
The entries were supposed to be one-ton models with a fifth-wheel hitch mounted in the bed and dual rear wheels, although Ford elected to send its F350 fitted with single rear wheels.
Big torque, big prices
The Ford Super Duty entry was a well-appointed, $80,144 (base price, $62,099), 2014 Lariat 4X4 with a 6.7-litre V-8 Power Stroke diesel that cranked out 440 horsepower and 860 lb-ft of torque to a rear axle with a 3.55 gear ratio. It had a maximum payload rating of 2014 kg (4,440 lb) and could tow up to 12,211 kg (26,700 lb) with its fifth-wheel hitch.
GM opted to send a 2015 GMC Sierra Denali 3500 4X4, which is almost identical mechanically to its Chevrolet Silverado stablemate. The Sierra had a base price of $68, 645, but its sticker as tested totalled $86,725. It was powered by a 6.6L Duramax V-8 diesel that channelled its 397 horses and 765 lb-ft of torque through an Allison transmission and a 3.73 rear end. It had a maximum payload rating of 3345 kg (7,374 lb) and could tow up to 10,523 kg (23,200 lb) with a fifth-wheel hitch.
The Ram entry was a 2014 3500 Laramie Limited 4X4 that listed at $85,920 as tested (base price $79,295.) Its 6.7L Cummins inline six-cylinder diesel was rated at 385 horsepower and 850 lb-ft of torque, delivered through a 3.73 rear axle ratio. The Ram had the highest payload limit at 7,390 and its towing capacity of 13,607 kg (30,000 lb) outdid the others.
Ford F350 Super Duty
All three trucks drove decently when empty, although the Ford seemed to be the most nimble.
Its powertrain was quick to respond, especially without a load, it had a satisfactory ride quality and the brakes and steering had good feel.
Its interior, however, looked dated. Once the benchmark for cabin décor, Ford’s interior designs have now been outpaced by the competition, although this issue will certainly be addressed when the all-new 2015 models hit the streets soon.
I found the seating position and bit higher than I’d like, though visibility was good. The power-extendable/fold side mirrors were appreciated, especially when the big trailer was hooked up.
The F350 was the lone entry with a flat rear floor, which would make loading items into the cab much easier.
Its highly-touted rear tailgate step, while certainly providing easier human access into the cargo bed, was a pain when trying to transfer a load with a forklift. The step’s handle creates a hump on the inside of the tailgate, which created all kinds of grief when the 1823-kg (4,020-lb) skid of shingles used for payload testing was unloaded.
The skid kept snagging on the humped bedliner, forcing some innovative steps to resolve the issue (and some creative bodywork adjustments to restore the bedliner’s original shape.)
Without question, the Ram sets the bar for interior design, with rich trimmings, plenty of useable storage compartments and a very user-friendly infotainment/navigation system.
It gets the highest marks for its exterior styling, too. Less pleasing, however, are the Ram’s performance and dynamics. It felt the most sluggish of the three entries, with or without a load and the steering matched the powertrain in response – lethargic and heavy.
The brakes had a spongy feel that was at times disconcerting. The Ram’s large exterior flip mirrors were a simple solution to improving rear visibility, especially when towing. It’s too bad Ram engineers couldn’t come up with a similarly simple feature to allow access to the pickup bed – you definitely have to be agile to climb aboard.
GMC Sierra 3500 HD
The Sierra was pleasing to look at and its comfortable cabin was well laid out with touches of luxury and amenities that would rival high-end sedans, though it wasn't quite up to the Ram’s standards.
I did like the digital gauges clustered behind the steering wheel – all the information a driver would want was accessible and easily read.
The Sierra was close to silent on the road – road and wind noise didn’t seem to exist – and there was just enough sound coming from under the hood to let the driver know things were perking up there just fine.
The Sierra had an excellent ride and felt stable, whether it was empty, hauling a couple of tons of shingles or towing a monsterous RV trailer. The steering was a bit heavier than the Ford's, but nowhere near as weighty as the Rams, and the brakes had a firm, confident feel.
Unlike Ram, the GMC folks included a handy aid for climbing into the cargo bed – a simple step built into the ends of the rear bumper. It’s not complicated and works well, although the handy handholds built into the upper side-rails of the light-duty GM pickups have been forgotten in the HD models.
The eye-opener for all, however, was when the trio was tested with trailers on the quarter-mile. The fifth-wheel RV units, provided by trailering expert Andy Thomson, were hooked up by the skilled crew at his Can-Am RV Centre near London and then the convoy set off for the hour-plus run to Grand Bend.
On the highway, the Sierra excelled as its Duramax/Allison powertrain easily handled the load. The transmission shifts were smooth and crisp, always selecting the appropriate gear for the situation at hand.
The intelligent cruise control was very effective at maintaining the set cruising speed, whether climbing grades or cruising downhill while the chassis, with its independent front suspension, felt poised throughout the drive with no obvious body roll or swaying.
The Ford, too, felt confident on the road, although there was a bit more sway action, perhaps due to the single rear wheels. Its engine responded well and the transmission shifts were clean, though not up to the standards of the GMC.
The Ram was the least favourable as a tow vehicle. In addition to its lazy engine response, it seemed to demand more attention from the driver, with more steering correction required to compensate for the swaying action.
The suspension felt soft and the brakes just didn’t muster the kind of feel and response you’d expect.
Proof is in the performance
Once at the Grand Bend Motorplex, the real surprises surfaced. Proving that stats on paper really can’t compare with real-world driving, the Sierra was the quickest of the three, despite posting the lowest torque output – by nearly 100 lb-ft – to its rivals.
In my first run against the Sierra, with trailer, I got a good jump off the line and figured I had the win in the bag, only to see the GMC pull alongside at mid-track and ease ahead has we approached the finish line.
Overall, the Sierra posted the quickest elapsed time – 21.932 seconds, significantly better than the Ford (23.033) and the Ram (23.581.) Trap speed was always about 97 km (60 mph), plus or minus 2 km/h, for all three trucks.
The drag racing with trailers, which Motorplex officials admitted was a first for their facility, proved to be so much fun, we unhooked the RV rigs and went at it again empty. The GMC again was unbeatable, posting a best ET of 16.098 seconds. The F350 had a best time of 16.542 empty, while the Ram’s best clocking was 16.927 seconds. Trap times were again within 2 km/h of 129 km/h (80 mph) for all three trucks.
Fuel consumption results over the two days of testing, with five different drivers in each truck for each exercise, showed the Sierra was best overall with an average consumption rate of 20.58 L/100 km. The Ram’s average consumption rate was 22.31 L/100 km, while the Ford’s rating was 22.77 L/100 km.
The judges’ final score sheets rated the GMC Sierra best with a payload, best while towing and best while driven empty, sweeping all three categories to earn the 2015 HD Truck King crown. The Ford F350 finished second overall, about a point ahead of the Ram 3500.
Next, it’s on to the testing session to decide the 2015 Canadian Truck King Challenge winner in the van segment. Stay tuned here for those results, coming soon.