Buying Guide: Best 2016 Trucks

By

Contributing Editor

A veteran auto journalist and editor of Tirekicking Today, Jim has contributed countless reviews and articles to such publications as autoMedia, New Car Test Drive, and Kelley Blue Book, as well as J.D. Power, cars.com, Consumer Guide, and the Chicago Tribune. He began by writing about antique/classic cars and how-to tasks, before turning to new and used vehicles. Most of his 30 published books have dealt with auto history, along with six children’s titles. His most recent book is the Tirekicking Used Car Buyer’s Guide.


, Contributing Editor - January 5, 2016

Because pickup-truck buyers tend to spend their lifetimes driving a particular make, no one is likely to change brands because of any critic or reviewer’s opinion. Pickup owners are among the most loyal, especially to American-brand full-size trucks.

As a rule, a Chevrolet man or a Ford woman stays that way. Pickup owners don’t switch brands idly, unless the manufacturer makes a major error in redesign of a new generation.

Fewer midsize pickups are available these days, but there’s still a sizable selection of big boys. Because the full-size pickup possibilities seem so endless, it’s a wonder that anybody ever decides which particular set of configurations, trims, and options to purchase.

2016 Ford F-150
Ford F-150

A company that’s had the top-selling vehicle, not just the most popular pickup truck, for decades, must be doing something right. With a heritage dating from 1953, Ford’s F-Series has dominated pickup sales. Drive home a Ford F-150, and you may almost feel you’re buying a chunk of trucking history.

Capabilities and model choices aren’t much different from its U.S. rivals, Ram and Chevrolet/GMC. Every big American pickup has seen dramatic improvement in ride, handling, quietness, solidity, and near-carlike qualities in recent years. So, the choices generally come down to details and personal preferences.

Efficiency, too. Performance from Ford’s 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine is hard to believe. F-150 ride quality is generally smooth and easy, but it’s still a truck underneath; so, railroad crossings can induce quite a jolt. Even when pushed a bit, it’s exceptionally quiet, and occupants can expect an inviting interior. Adopting an aluminum body for 2015 did no discernible harm to the F-150’s construction strength.

2016 RAM 1500
RAM 1500

Sam Elliott, the ruggedly handsome actor with the resonantly masculine baritone voice, turned up in a series of TV commercials proclaiming the tough character of Ram brand pickups. Even those of us who abhor ads could hardly keep from listening when Elliott spoke.

Big pickups wore a Dodge badge (with Ram the model) until 2011, when the Chrysler company (now FiatChrysler) launched a specific Ram brand. Nobody tries harder to convey the impression that theirs is the toughest of them all: the pickup to have when you need just a little more grunt and muscle than competitors can supply, even if the specs don’t differ that much.

Easy to drive despite its size, the Ram pickup accelerates nearly effortlessly with V8 power, but sucks up a lot of fuel. It’s energetic enough with a V6 -- almost like V8s of the past. Still, refinement, not performance, is the principal attraction of today’s Ram.

2016 Nissan Frontier
Nissan Frontier

When a new design is competing with an old-timer, which one deserves to be named a favorite? In the case of midsize pickup trucks, the contest is between the Nissan Frontier, dating from 2005, and the Toyota Tacoma. Coincidentally, the Tacoma also emerged for 2005; but instead of remaining in its previous form for another season, Toyota’s midsize model got a substantial redesign for 2016.

Clearly, the midsize Toyota pickup is more refined than its decade-old predecessor. Nevertheless, I’m going with the oldie -- at least for now. I drove both the Frontier and the Tacoma when they appeared in 2005, and was impressed by both. Each might have been short on frills, but they got the job done. Cabins looked and felt trucklike, but why not? They were (and are) trucks, after all.

Obviously, Nissan will have to issue a new design before long, to remain competitive in a market that isn’t exactly fast-growing anymore.

2016 GMC Canyon
GMC Canyon

Midsize pickups have been disappearing. Ford stopped making its smaller Ranger pickup after the 2011 model year. Dodge stepped away from its midsize Dakota that same year, soon after the new Ram brand edged the Dodge nameplate aside for the company’s truck division.

Not long afterward, Chevrolet abandoned its midsize Colorado, and GMC did likewise for the similarly-constructed Canyon. That left exactly zero American-brand smaller pickups for U.S. buyers.

After three years out of the market, the Chevrolet Colorado and its GMC Canyon stablemate reappeared for 2015 in sharply reworked form -- a year after GM’s full-size Silverado/Sierra duo got a major revamping. Because the previous Colorado and Canyon were seriously outmoded by the time they disappeared, their belated replacements stand far ahead in both refinement and appearance. Design cues stemmed from the larger Silverado/Sierra, and the 2016 models are considerably less trucklike, inside and out. Still, as the only domestic-brand midsizes left, they demonstrate that big pickups are the ones more buyers are seeking.

2016 Toyota Tundra
Toyota Tundra

Not unlike passenger cars, import-brand trucks used to handily beat domestic pickups in refinement. Not anymore. Big pickups from the Detroit Three have been so well tamed in recent years, the difference between foreign and domestic models has diminished sharply. Toyota’s Tundra still scores a tad above the others, but by less than in the past.

Performing with excellence overall, the Tundra is tougher than domestic-pickup fans might think: solidly built, yet quiet and easy to drive. Full-size dimensions impede close-quarters maneuverability, but that’s par for the big-truck course. Though tautly suspended, the Tundra rides as comfortable as any competitor, and better than some.

Like trucks of other makes, it comes in a variety of cab styles and bed sizes. In short, Tundra -- like its midsize Tacoma offspring -- provides just about all the benefits of any rival pickup, but includes Toyota’s long-standing reputation for reliability.

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, Contributing Editor

A veteran auto journalist and editor of Tirekicking Today, Jim has contributed countless reviews and articles to such publications as autoMedia, New Car Test Drive, and Kelley Blue Book, as well as J.D. Power, cars.com, Consumer Guide, and the Chicago Tribune. He began by writing about antique/classic cars and how-to tasks, before turning to new and used vehicles. Most of his 30 published books have dealt with auto history, along with six children’s titles. His most recent book is the Tirekicking Used Car Buyer’s Guide.