Best Trucks of 2012

Last Updated: Nov 29, 2011

The Best Trucks of the Year picks the top overall choices in half-ton pickups as well as winning alternatives among the trucks of all types that are best for various specific chores.

Auto sales are struggling back to health and trucks are helping pull the load. It’s uncertain when the U.S. might return to the glory years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when 17 million new cars and trucks were sold annually. But sales of light trucks – primarily pickups -- are up 15 percent in calendar 2011 and are on pace to reach about 6.8 million. That beats the 6-percent gain registered by cars over the same period and points to a total 2011 U.S. car market of about 13.2 million new cars and trucks.

The lion’s share of pickup sales are so-called half-ton models, such as the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado 1500. They’re suited to a wide range of commercial, farming, ranching, and recreational uses. Of course, the pickup’s appeal as a substitute for a car in everyday transportation declined along with the economy and the rise of gas prices. But today’s half-tons can rival the roomiest upscale cars for styling, comfort, connectivity, and safety features. They’re even making strides on the fuel-economy front. The Best Trucks of the Year helps you choose the one that’s best for you. (Note that all base prices in this article include the manufacturer’s mandated destination fee.)

Best overall truck of the year

2012 Ford F-150: Radical changes in the pickup landscape occur rarely but Ford achieves one by making the F-150 available with its EcoBoost V-6 engine. This twin-turbocharged, directed-injected 3.5-liter has convinced skeptics and triggered huge demand for its combination of V-8-grade power and six-cylinder fuel economy. At some 600,000 sales this year, the F-150 is America’s most popular vehicle -- car or truck -- and 45 percent of buyers are ordering it with the EcoBoost engine. Its success signals a rethinking about the role of high-tech hardware in today’s pickups.

The smooth-running EcoBoost six has 365 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque and claims unofficial class leadership in towing with a rating of 11,300 pounds and in payload, with a ceiling of 3,060 pounds. Nothing with this much muscle matches the EcoBoost’s 16/22-mpg city/highway, 18-mpg combined EPA fuel-economy ratings with two-wheel drive (2wd) or 15/21/17 mpg with four-wheel drive (4wd).

The EcoBoost is optional on virtually any F-150 model at a reasonable $895 over the cost of the available 5.0-liter V-8, which has 360 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque and rates 15/21/17 mpg with 2wd, 14/19/16 4wd. It costs $1,895 to move up to the EcoBoost from the F-150’s base V-6, which has 302 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque and rates 17/23/19 mpg 2wd, 16/21/18 4wd. To contest the EcoBoost’s all-around ability in an F-150 requires the less widely available 6.2-liter V-8 with 411 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque but a sobering 13/18/14-mpg rating with 2wd and 12/16/13 with 4wd. All four F-150 engines use a six-speed automatic transmission. 

The EcoBoost V-6 headlines the 2012 Ford F-150 story but it wouldn’t be relevant if the truck itself wasn’t also a winner. A broad selection of spacious cabs, cargo beds with compartments and dividers, and outstanding solidity are among its assets. The traditional leaf-spring rear suspension has the F-150 trailing the Ram 1500 for suspension refinement and handling. But the F-150 has a wider range of bed-and-cab configurations and for model-year 2012 matches its Ram and GM rivals with available 4wd that can remain engaged on all surfaces. The F-150 also dazzles with connectivity options, such as Ford’s Tool Link system that employs radio-frequency identification to inventory and track equipment and tools stored onboard. Optional metal steps slide from beneath the sides or tail for easier bed access, and the tailgate can be fitted with a folding handle to assist entry and exit. Specialty editions such as the flashy Harley-Davidson-inspired model and the off-road rocket SVT Raptor, plus class-leading scores in initial-quality surveys round out the 2012 F-150’s Best Truck of the Year credentials. Base-price range: $23,985-$52,990.

2012 Ram 1500: Ram registered its own half-ton game changer with a model-year 2009 redesign that retained this pickup’s brawny personality but tempered it with a new suspension that makes it the best-riding rig in the class. Every full-size pickup has a tough solid rear axle but only the Ram 1500 has a coil-spring rear suspension instead of Conestoga-era leaf springs. The design delivers category-topping absorbency over bumps and class-leading composure on most any surface. This refinement hardly compromises work-day credibility, though. The 2012 Ram 1500 has a competitive 10,450-pound tow rating, and although its 1,860-pound payload maximum is middling for the class, that’s not likely a deal-breaker for most half-ton buyers. 

Ram doesn’t offer the powertrain variety of its domestic-brand rivals and its extended- and crew-cab models feature fewer bed-length choices. But no competitor matches the RamBox, which for model-year 2012 is available on the 6-foot-4-inch cargo bed, not just the 5-foot-7-inch bed. The RamBox transforms the sidewalls of the cargo bed into tough, lockable, plastic-lined bins for carrying tools, beverages, or gear. Ram’s styling is bold and any of its three cab styles is hard to beat for roomy comfort. Four-wheel-drive that can remain engaged on any surface is a traction advantage on damp streets when there’s little or no weight in the cargo bed. Upper-trim Ram 1500s have an advanced 4wd system that powers the front wheels only when necessary for a claimed 1-mpg improvement in fuel economy.

Engines choices begin with a 3.7-liter V-6 with 215 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque; it comes only with 2wd and a four-speed automatic transmission and rates 14/16 mpg city/highway, 16 mpg combined. For model-year 2012, Ram’s other two engine choices exchange a five-speed automatic transmission for a more-efficient six-speed automatic. The 4.7-liter V-8 has 310 horsepower, 330 pound-feet of torque, and rates 14/20/16 mpg with 2wd, 14/19/16 with 4wd. Star of the show is the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with 390 horsepower, 407 pound-feet of torque and ratings of 14/20/16 mpg with 2wd, 13/19/15 with 4wd. All engines have Ram’s Decel Fuel Shut Off that increases mileage by interrupting the flow of gas when you lift from the accelerator. The Hemi also automatically cuts back to four cylinders at idle and in low-demand conditions.

As for this pickup’s name, it’s no longer the Dodge Ram. Parent company Chrysler Group has spun-off Ram Truck from Dodge to market it as a separate brand. Base price range: $22,270-$44,120.

2012 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra 1500: Tried and true could be the tagline for these corporate cousins, and that’s a kind of virtue in itself. Last redesigned for model-year 2007, Silverado and Sierra are the oldest domestic-brand full-size pickups but they still appeal for their proven powertrains and broad lineups. Silverado and Sierra differ primarily in grille appearance and trim details, though Sierra offers a luxury Denali model with no direct equivalent in the Chevy line. GM has worked to keep these trucks relatively fresh, refining ride and handling over the years and giving the 2012 versions updated front-end styling and making cruise control and trailer-sway control standard on every model.

Still, the age of these pickups is evident in cabs that just aren’t as spacious or lavishly outfitted as those of the F-150 or Ram 1500. This is most obvious in rear-seat accommodations, where Silverado and Sierra extended-cabs and crew-cabs are relatively confined compared with the competition. And although every Silverado and Sierra comes with GM’s OnStar assistance system and is available with a lengthy list of connectivity and luxury features, the newer Ford and Ram lead in the gizmo-options derby.

But among those who might not need electronic tool tracking or RamBox storage -- and appreciate relatively understated looks -- Silverado and Sierra have a loyal following and rank second only to the F-150 in U.S. vehicle sales. There’s no Crew Cab long-box, but GM covers every other cab-and-bed configuration. Towing and payload ratings of 10,700 and 1,937 pounds, respectively, are competitive. And they’re available with GM’s Autotrac 4wd that can remain engaged on dry pavement.

The Silverado and Sierra 1500s share an engine range beginning with a V-6 of 195 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque; it rates 15/20/17 mpg with 2wd and 14/18/15 with 4wd. Next up is a 4.8-liter V-8 at 302 horsepower, 305 pound-feet, 14/19/16 mpg with 2wd, and 14/18/15 4wd. Both these engine use a four-speed automatic transmission. The other engines get a well-sorted six-speed automatic.

The popular 5.3-liter V-8 has 315 horsepower, 335 pound-feet of torque, and rates 15/21/17 with 2wd and 4wd. This is the engine used in the 2wd Silverado and Sierra XFE models, which employ special aerodynamics and other fuel-saving tweaks to rate 15/22/18 mpg.  Along with the 6.0-liter V-8 (403 horsepower, 417 pound-feet, 13/18/14 mpg 2wd, 12/18/14 4wd) the 5.3 utilizes GM’s Active Fuel Management to save gas by automatically switching between eight and four cylinders, depending on power demands.

And while they aren’t big sellers, Silverado and Sierra can boast the only gas-electric hybrid powertrains in the pickup field. Available in both 2wd and 4wd and capable of towing 6,100 pounds, they team a 6.0-liter V-8 with battery-fed electric motors to net 332 horsepower and a pleasing 20/23/21 mpg. Base-price range: Chevrolet Silverado 1500, $22,940-$50,190; GMC Sierra 1500, $26,180-$50,560.

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