We hook up the trailer, head out on the highway, and hit the mud in four of the hottest littlish (i.e. mid-size) trucks on the market.

The pickup is as central to the American Dream as
the white picket fence. It’s not just the house and the 2.5 kids that we
want, it’s all the projects around that house, the Home Depot runs, the
toys we can hitch up, and somewhere to play with them. And just because
we’re in a new era of global awareness and responsibility doesn’t mean
that dream has to die.

But it could be downsized
to a more sustainable scale. Luckily, American truckmakers have you
covered. Some people call them mid-size pickups; others point out that a
middle implies a point between two extremes and therefore refer to
these obviously-not-small things as compact trucks. Whatever you call
them, after flirting with stagnation in the early part of the decade,
the less-than-full-size-pickup market is booming again.

The rebirth started in 2014 when Chevrolet and GMC launched the Colorado and Canyon, respectively, on a sturdy new frame, substantially beefier than the global Colorado’s. Sales of the Silverado and Sierra hardly hiccuped, while the smaller trucks’ annual tally jumped from about 50,000 units to well beyond 100,000. They’re represented here by a Colorado Z71, which was demoted in 2017 to second-most-capable off-roader in the Colorado lineup behind the ZR2 but still boasts a two-speed transfer case tucked behind a skid plate and a locking rear differential. With the towing package and a dealer-installed polished exhaust tip, the Colorado rings up at $38,955. Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Honda was hoping for a rebirth when it unveiled the new Ridge­line for 2017, but that hasn’t exactly panned out. The company readily admits that the problem with the first-generation pickup was that the styling was off-putting, but then it went ahead and made the next iteration of the truck just as unconventional as before. It’s a shame, because for all its minivan-with-a-bed looks, the Ridgeline is a comfortable, capable thing for people who don’t regularly tow 10,000 pounds. The Ridgeline comes in one cab configuration and one bed length, with one engine-and-transmission pair sending torque to either the front or all four wheels. A loaded-up RTL-E like the one we had stickers at $43,090.

Fans of the Ford Ranger—a phrase nearly as weird as “adult readers of Harry Potter“—had been crying out for the truck to return to the U.S. since the latest global version was unveiled in 2010. Buyers here can choose a smaller back seat with a longer bed or a bigger back seat and a shorter bed. Both rear- and four-wheel drive are available, but there’s only one powertrain. If you want a Ranger, you get a 270-hp turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four and a 10-speed automatic. Until Ford gives in and brings us a Raptor version, the optional FX4 package makes the top off-road Ranger. Ours checks in at $40,510. Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

The most exciting thing to happen to this segment since NAPA started putting those hilariously lifelike giant hats on the Rangers in its delivery fleet is the Jeep Gladiator. It’s kind of a Wrangler with a bed, except that it’s way more than that. Jeep reengineered the entire back half of the frame so thoroughly that maximum payload jumps from 1000 pounds in the Wrangler to 1600 in certain truck trims. At 7650 pounds when optioned properly, the Gladiator’s towing capacity not only exceeds the four-door Wrangler’s by 4150 pounds and leads this class, but it approaches the ratings of the all-growed-up big trucks. With a starting price of $41,890 and an as-tested total of $55,485, our Overland model also rivals the big trucks in price.

Since sometimes these trucks are tools and
sometimes they’re toys, we expanded our usual testing regimen to get a
fuller impression of their capabilities. We hooked each up to a small
aluminum trailer with a Honda Pioneer side-by-side on it, a load of
about 3500 pounds. Then we hit the highway, charting a course for
Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreational Area, an off-road park just
outside of Hollister, California, where we got rained on, good and
muddy, and only almost stuck.

Yes, we realize we’re missing a Toyota Tacoma, and that Tacos have sold in massive numbers forever, and that this whole thing about the rebirth of the segment is a lie because the Tacoma has been the segment for the last decade. But the Tacoma is so ancient that the oldest living Galápagos tortoise could have been born in its back seat. And the Nissan Frontier is older than the Galápagos archipelago itself. The reason these trucks matter is that now Tacoma and Frontier owners can buy pickups that actually behave like modern vehicles. Well, not all of them.

4th Place:
Ford Ranger

Highs: Smooth powertrain, butch good looks.
Lows: Insufficiently reengineered from the version sold elsewhere in the world.
Verdict: If you’re going to be late to the party, at least get it right.

We
were excited about the Ranger. Ford took its sweet time bringing this
truck here, and in the years since we first saw that broad-shouldered,
swaggering profile on other shores, we’ve been ratcheting our
expectations ever higher.

Ford says the North American Ranger has been significantly reengineered from the global version of the truck, but until we see a spreadsheet with different part numbers, we won’t be convinced. Particularly telling was the headliner in our truck. The trailing edge was so rough that we wondered if it wasn’t an SUV piece run through a band saw. We then argued at length about whether the scrap would be recycled into new headliners or used to make forts for the factory workers’ kids. Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

This half-finished feel extended to more important
aspects, too. Woefully underdamped, the Ranger was always a second or
two behind what the road was doing. And not only was its 193-foot stop
from 70 mph the longest here, but the pedal feel was genuinely
frightening. It sank through a couple of inches with no resistance or
response and then grabbed with an immediacy that frequently had our
heads bobbing.

At Hollister Hills, the Ford’s Hankook Dynapro AT-M
tires reminded us that, no matter the surface, tires make the
difference. There’s no surprise quite like driving up a mountain on a
nice sunny day only to find it raining on the drive down. The Hankooks’
chunky tread design grabbed the slick adobe mud by big, gooey handfuls
and dragged the Ranger through the park with relative ease. Between the
tires, a useful approach angle, and the fact that Ford calls its exposed
steel front skid plate a “bash plate,” the FX4 was clearly the better
off-road package than Chevy’s Z71.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Towing the trailer wasn’t enough to stress the
trucks, but it did serve to showcase each one’s strengths and
weaknesses. In addition to raising—or should we say lowering?—the
braking experience to truly alarming levels, attaching the trailer
highlighted the EcoBoost four-cylinder’s smooth, sturdy power delivery.
The less-than-huge-pickup segment doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on
powertrain refinement, but this Ford’s four-cylinder seems designed to
smash that paradigm with velveteen output. Ten speeds appear to be more
than the truck really needs, but shifts are at least quick and smooth,
and the four-cylinder’s broad mid-range means that it never feels
overburdened no matter what’s going on. In at least that one way, the
Ford is a high-water mark that its competitors will be striving to meet
with their next-generation trucks. But in every other way, the
long-awaited Ranger feels not a year ahead but a generation behind.

3rd Place:
Jeep Gladiator

Highs: Have you heard? They’re making Wranglers with pickup beds now!
Lows: Fifty-five large and that’s not even the top of the pricing pyramid.
Verdict: You’ll love it even when you don’t want to.

The
Jeep was, hands down, every voter’s favorite. You can’t not smile while
driving it. It’s like a golden retriever puppy. When you thumb the key
fob of any of the others, you might glance over your shoulder to make
sure the door locks engaged, but you run back to hug the Jeep. Heck, not
only is it designed so that you can take the top and doors off, but all
the necessary tools live in a little pouch in the glovebox, and tucked
under one of the rear seats is a foam holder to keep track of the
fasteners.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

We so badly wanted to let this puppy play that we
had to jump it. Surprisingly, that was the Wrangler pickup’s best
showing off-road. With the Overland trim’s Bridgestone Dueler H/T 685
pavement-biased tires and at least nine more inches of wheelbase than
any other competitor here, the Jeep was even less comfortable on
Hollister Hills’ slippery trails than the Honda, which senior editor
Tony Quiroga dubbed a “dachshund.” A dachshund might scrape its belly
here and there, but even with 10.0 inches of ground clearance, the most
in the test, the Gladiator would belly-flop into the mud with a wet
thwap and noisily drag its frame rails over crests and bumps that the
drivers of the Colorado and Ranger didn’t notice.

It
wasn’t much better on-road. Consider the following radio exchange
between vehicle testing director Dave VanderWerp in the Jeep and Quiroga
in the Ford:

DV: Over one of
those whoop-de-dos, the Jeep got so out of sorts that stability control
intervened with a strong stab of the brakes . . .

TQ: There were whoop-de-dos?

DV: Exactly.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

And yet, as wild as the Jeep’s movements were, they
were more consistent than the Ford’s. Maybe it’s because its suspension
response was so slow that it missed entire events. Hit a stretch of
washboard and the Jeep might react to only every third bump. And the
Jeep responded best to the trailer, the tongue weight seeming to eat up
some of the excess travel of the rear coil springs and calm the ride.

The Pentastar V-6 can feel a little crude in other applications, but here, it’s right at home. Like the Wrangler, the Gladiator uses recirculating-ball steering, and it feels as if there’s a lot of slack in the system. You need to scrunch up the balls and firm up the worm before anything will happen. But even that wasn’t enough to turn anyone off the Jeep. We’ll forgive a lot of dynamic sins for something that overflows with personality the way this truck does.

2nd Place:
Honda Ridgeline

Highs: Everything pertaining to objective vehicular agreeability.
Lows: The minivan jabs hurt because they’re true.
Verdict: What nearly every mid-size-pickup-truck buyer is actually looking for.

It’s
easy for other truck buyers to disrespect the Ridgeline. But it seems
as if Honda’s designers set them up for it. If you wanted to make it
easy in this segment to serve up your product like a punching bag, you
could always make it look like a minivan. The way the Ridgeline looks is
the worst thing about it.

But the Ridgeline
also acts and feels like a minivan in all the best ways. The cabin
measurements of the four trucks are close, but the Ridgeline’s interior
is so airy and open that it feels as if you’re flying a dirigible from
inside the envelope—in the other trucks, you’re down in the gondola. And
that’s just up front. The back seat of the Ridgeline is the only one an
adult will voluntarily crawl into. And that seat easily folds tight
against the back of the cab, leaving a massive space with a flat load
floor, making it a cinch to transport a bunch of cargo in weather-tight
security. Or you can put that stuff in the in-bed trunk, an idea that
gets better the more you use it.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

VanderWerp christened the Honda the “right-brain
pickup.” It’s brimming with things that would feel gimmicky if they
weren’t so useful—well, except for the bedsides doubling as giant stereo
speakers. That one’s a gimmick.

While the Honda silenced the doubters with
surprising competence in the towing and off-road tests, the additional
stress revealed just how noisy its structure is. The suspension largely
shrugged off the weight of the trailer, but the cab shuddered so badly
that we had to check our hookup to make sure nothing was loose. When we
got off-road, the groans as the body flexed over crests made clear that
it’s just not the most rigid body shell.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

But the fundamental
goodness of the powertrain and the Ridgeline’s overall package are
inescapable. The ride is imperturbable, control weights and responses
are light and natural, and the view out and interior space are
excellent. The Ridgeline presents many benefits of a car with enough
capability to do truck stuff when necessary. The downside to this is
that, as Quiroga put it, the Ridgeline is competent enough to be boring.
The other trucks are fun to hustle because you know you’re doing
something dumb. In the Ridge­line, you’re just comfortably and
expediently getting where you’re going. Most days, that’s all we want.
This time, though, it turns out we wanted something different.

1st Place:
Chevrolet Colorado

Highs: Compared with the others, it drives like a 911.
Lows: Well, a 911 with a gritty engine and a low-budget interior.
Verdict: Most of the virtues of the other trucks all rolled into one.

The
days get long on comparison tests. Sometimes our attention wanes.
Following a photo stop outside Buttonwillow, California, everybody was
staring at their phones when photographer Marc Urbano pulled onto the
road. When he radioed to ask if we were going to follow him, we
scrambled our trucks and took off. In the wrong direction. For 15
minutes. With spotty cell coverage, it took that long for Urbano to get
hold of one of us and tell us to turn around.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

But when we whipped those 180s in the mountains,
nobody was enjoying the canyon-road run as much as the guy in the
Colorado. The Chevy’s control feel and responses are the most
sports-car-like in the class. Ride motions are clipped but perfectly
damped. The brake pedal is Corvette firm, with natural modulation, and
generated the shortest stop in the test. Even the Colorado’s driving
position is reminiscent of a car’s, with the seat low to the floor and
sheetmetal that cradles occupants without smothering them or ruining
sightlines. Technical director Eric Tingwall called it “the best-driving
body-on-frame vehicle on sale today.”

We were
less impressed with the Chevy’s powertrain. The 3.6-liter thrashes
around through much of the rev range, with nothing more than a gritty
roar making it out of the engine room until the last couple hundred rpm
before the fuel cutoff, when the sound resolves into something kind of
stirring. And the transmission isn’t much more couth, with unpredictable
gear spacing and an overly aggressive upshift schedule that frequently
had the revs lower than we wanted.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

But the Colorado is a well-balanced package for tool and toy duties. In spite of having the test’s second-lowest ground clearance, the Chevy acquitted itself well off-road. Somebody might have snagged the lower air dam on a mound and ripped it off, but we all agreed that this at-speed modification represented an improvement to the way the Colorado looks, and that even though there’s a ZR2 above the Z71 in the off-road hierarchy, an off-road special really shouldn’t have a vulnerable piece of black plastic hanging down beneath its chin. And while both the Chevy and the Ford wore the appropriate tires for Hollister Hills, the Ranger’s Hankooks held the ground just a touch better when the mud started getting slick.

With the trailer hooked up, the Colorado’s ride
quality was barely changed. It still rode better than the Ford and Jeep.
An outstanding toy and an effective tool, the Colorado wins because it
excels no matter the task.

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