Dodge Dakota (left) and two Toyota Tundras. Click image to enlarge
By Jil McIntosh
If you’ve ever wondered about the definition of “daunting”, here it is: arrive early in the morning to a gravel parking lot in the middle of nowhere – actually, about 17 kilometres east of the middle of nowhere – to face a row of 23 brand-new trucks. In the rain. Before I’ve had my first cup of coffee. And with only three days to take them all through their paces.
Welcome to the Canadian Truck King Challenge. The event is now in its second year, and this time around, I was asked to be one of the eight judges.
The importance of this type of independent event – and the massive amount of work and planning that goes into it – cannot be overstated. While many people test trucks, it’s extremely difficult to gather a great number of vehicles at one time, and have the room, the facilities and the equipment to test all of them, back to back, through a full range of uses.
Thanks to the location, we were able to take the trucks through four separate tests: empty through a 20-kilometre loop, including gravel, macadam and paved roads; with a load or towing a trailer; a challenging off-road course; and a static test, to judge the vehicle’s ergonomics, interior space and cargo ability. One tester also judged each vehicle’s acceleration and braking distance, using a computer.
Of course, Murphy’s Law rules no matter where you are. Due to the huge number of trucks, they couldn’t always be loaded in time, and so some went out with loads in the bed and others towing trailers, for which we accounted when making our judgments. And a weight transfer sled, which would have been used to measure each truck’s pulling ability, came to grief in a collision en route to the site, so that particular test had to be scrapped. Still, the overall testing was fair to all of the vehicles, which were divided into classes by their size and engines.
2008 Canadian Truck King Challenge. Click image to enlarge
Judging a truck properly can be a tricky business, simply because of the wide range of uses. A sports car is simple: it’s built solely to go fast and handle well. Get into trucks, though, and you’re looking at every possible need: as another tool in the contractor’s toolbox, as a tow vehicle for everything from a box trailer to a fifth wheel, as an off-road toy, as an off-road work vehicle, and even just as a big car with an open trunk. What makes it even tougher is that the lines can blur, and the truck that hauls the work trailer on the highway five days a week may still need to get its owner up a corduroy road to the cottage on weekends. We had to take all of that into account. Not only that, but trucks have huge numbers of options and packages, some of them meant for specific duty, and there were times when we had to factor that a buyer intending to push a truck to its limits in one category would probably outfit it with available items not added to our test vehicles.
While everyone did the empty and loaded loops, the judges were split on other tests, and so the Canadian Driver team went off-road while other teams loaded and unloaded vehicles for the static test.
We felt the best approach was to first look at the big picture, and then the details. During the loaded and towing tests, we first assessed the truck’s performance: how well it accelerated, and if the handling remained confident, or if the front end got too light. On the bigger trucks, we looked for braking assistance from the engine or transmission, rather than the brakes alone. We rated the brakes, and for that, we depended on our gut instincts as well as on the computer numbers. One brand’s braking distance wasn’t too bad by the numbers, but the squishy pedal always left us feeling that we were braking too late for the load, and confidence in the vehicle can be an important part of the overall towing experience.
2008 Canadian Truck King Challenge. Click image to enlarge
We assessed the mirrors, but also took into account the vehicle’s equipment: we didn’t expect that an off-road package would come with slide-out tow mirrors, but even so, we had to be able to see enough around us to be safe – even off-roaders often need to pull stuff. Finally, we looked at the factory trailer hitch, giving extra points to easily-accessible trailer harness plugs, and deducting points for safety chain loops that were too far back and tougher to reach. What we were looking for was a truck that was easy to hitch up, could pull and stop the load, and could do it all safely and with the least amount of fuss.
The off-road course consisted of two halves: a rocky path through the woods, and a field with a log-strewn ditch and a series of dips and mounds. Partly due to time constrictions, only 4×4 trucks did any of the off-road, and the dual-wheeled one-tons took to the field only, with all of that factored into final figures. The idea wasn’t to find the best rock-crawler – there is a limit to what you can expect a truck to do without aftermarket off-road modifications – but, according to the organizers, to put the trucks through obstacles similar to what they might face on a heavy-duty construction site.
Faced with a rating of 1 to 20 points overall, my partner and I broke it up into four categories: ground clearance, manoeuvrability, ease of using the 4×4 switch, and something that, with apologies to the dictionary, we dubbed “stuckability”. We first looked at whether we got stuck, and then we assessed how tough it would be to pull it out if we did: trucks gained points for easy-to-reach tow hooks, and lost them if the hooks were tougher to access, or if pulling would damage the bumper or fascia. All the trucks were shift-on-the-fly from 2WD to 4High, but we looked for easy-to-reach switches – one was so far down that we couldn’t read the dial – along with quick transfer from 4High to 4Low, and ease of use. While almost all indicated 4Low with an icon in the cluster, one lost points because you had to look for a tiny light on the dial that was invisible in bright daylight. Were we too picky? Not when you’re out there cupping your hand over the dial, trying to figure out where your transfer case is set.
2008 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Ext. Cab 4WD on the off-road course. Click image to enlarge
We also tried to be as objective as possible. To judge ground clearance, we aimed for the same obstacles each time and checked to see which ones scraped; for manoeuvrability, we took into account the vehicle’s wheelbase and overall length, and gave more weight to the turning circle instead. When one truck ranked poorly against the competition, we felt the problem might have been us: it had been our first trip through the course, it was the only off-road test we did that day, and it was our last test of the afternoon, when we were tired. To be fair, we took it through again the next day, back-to-back with other trucks in its class. It performed exactly the same, but at least we knew it wasn’t our doing.
We also took tires into account, and realized that the odd slip-and-slide was often the result of highway-quality rubber, especially on the more luxurious models. But we were also ruthless when it came to options: if a truck had an off-road package, then there was no excuse for a tire that couldn’t get us up a hill. As far as we were concerned, if a manufacturer says a truck is off-road out of the box, then we shouldn’t have to go to a tire shop to really make it so.
And when we sat in a truck and looked around, we thought about what a truck was meant to do. A work truck package lost points if it had carpet instead of an easy-clean rubber floor. Vents and dials were faulted if they were too small to be operated with gloves. Handles for getting into tall trucks, lots of cubbies for storage, ease of getting in and out, and seat comfort all played a part in our decision, as did “Market Service” – how well the truck would serve the market for which it was intended. This could mean that a basic truck intended for a work service fleet could compete evenly with a luxury liner with leather and navigation system. And finally, we looked at value: was it a good, solid buy, or was it too much money for what you got?
Daunting? Oh, you betcha, and exhausting on top of it. But once they gave me that first cup of coffee, and put a set of truck keys in my hand, and I heard that first engine roar to life, I realized that there are plenty of ways to spend three days, and this one’s right at the top of the list.