...has just been raised by both Ford and — yes, that's right — Nissan.
Which new luxury vehicle offers four-wheel steering for tight spaces as well as four-wheel drive, XM Satellite Radio and a "ride-comfort system" that lets you choose between normal and firm at the push of a button for a price north of $40,000? A BMW 530i, perhaps, or a Lexus GS 300?
Try a high-end version of the GMC Sierra 1500. That's right, a pickup truck. Full-size pickups aren't just for good ol' boys anymore. They're going upscale, with all the comforts and goodies of luxury sedans. They come with extended cabs that can seat up to six people. They let you travel in style while hauling tools or toys — even big toys such as boats and snowmobiles.
Ford has just introduced a brand-new version of the F-150, which is the bestselling vehicle in America. In December, Nissan will launch the first-ever full-size pickup from a Japanese manufacturer — the Titan, being built in Mississippi. And Toyota, whose Tundra is slightly shorter than its full-size competitors, is launching a "double cab" Tundra.
Full-size pickups are Detroit's last bastion, so the Japanese challenge is serious. It's also sure to benefit consumers, giving them even more choices.
In fact, full-size pickups come in an array of configurations. With Ford's new F-150, for example, you can mix and match cab sizes with various sizes and styles of cargo bed. And each of these basic shapes can be had in either two-wheel or four-wheel drive, as well as with a choice of two V-8 engines and different levels of decor. Choosing the right pickup is like ordering take-out Chinese, only with more dollars and less MSG.
Not to worry. For most of August, your correspondent cruised around Manhattan and New Jersey like an urban cowboy, testing different pickups to bestow a SmartMoney Award.
For simplicity's sake, we focused on upscale versions of pickups with rear-hinged backseat-access doors, cargo beds around 6 1/2 feet, four-wheel drive and a big V-8 engine. The Toyota Tundra was excluded because its double-cab wasn't available for testing.
Nissan Titan King Cab
The Titan wins because it has ample acceleration and power, an amazingly carlike ride for such a large vehicle and some unique, thoughtful features that make this truck especially versatile.
Tops among the latter are backseat doors that fold virtually flat against the Titan's cargo bed instead of stopping halfway, as on other trucks. If you've ever been boxed between the open front and rear doors on other trucks in a crowded parking lot, you'll love this feature. The Titan also has a cubby built into the outside rear wall of the cargo bed for hauling wet or dirty items.
The Titan boasts a standard 5.6-liter, 32-valve, dual-overhead-cam V-8 that cranks out 305 hp and 379 pound-feet of torque (a measure of low-gear pulling power that pickup drivers highly value). A five-speed automatic transmission is standard. Ride and handling are very smooth.
On the safety front, the Titan has an optional rear-sensor system that beeps when you're about to back into something, and optional side-curtain airbags. Because many full-size-pickup buyers are tradition-minded, Nissan is targeting the "modern truck guy," a suburbanite who commutes in the truck during the week and hauls a boat or horse trailer on weekends. Nissan hasn't yet priced the Titan, but expect it to be competitive with upscale versions of the F-150. The truck also comes in a Crew Cab version, with four full-size doors but a shorter cargo bed.
Ford F-150 Lariat SuperCab
Assigning the F-150 to second rather than first place was a very close call. This is a great truck, bigger and better than its bestselling predecessor in almost every way. Ford added rack-and-pinion steering — which the Titan also has — more interior room and a more powerful engine.
The optional 5.4-liter, 24-valve V-8 has performance statistics virtually equal to the Titan's. The bold egg-crate grille on the F-150 Lariat gives this truck the best styling of the bunch. The "tailgate assist" system makes the back end easy to raise and lower.
But the F-150 offers only a four-speed automatic transmission instead of a five-speed. It's also considerably heavier than the Titan. These differences translate into a modest performance deficit. More important, the F-150 lacks some of the Titan's features — notably the backseat-access doors that swing open nearly 180 degrees and the exterior cubby. A rear-sensor system is available, but side-curtain airbags aren't.
The F-150 Lariat that I drove, with the rear-sensor system and other goodies, carried a sticker price of $37,025. The F-150 SuperCrew has four full-size doors.
GMC Sierra 1500/Chevrolet Silverado 1500
The Sierra and Silverado, virtually identical trucks sold by different General Motors divisions, have much to commend them. Styling is crisp and clean, though not distinctive. Ride and handling are smooth. The optional 5.3-liter V-8 is less powerful than the powertrains on the Titan and the F-150, though the Sierra Denali comes with a 6-liter V-8 with 325 hp. The Sierra/Silverado's automatic is a four-speed.
The 5.3-liter engine has less hauling and towing power than the Titan's and the F-150's, even though the GM trucks weigh much less — although you can tow up to 10,000 pounds with the 6-liter engine.
The 2003 model GMC Sierra I tested carried a sticker price of $40,352.
Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab
The optional Hemi Magnum 16-valve, 5.7-liter V-8 is the most powerful engine in its class. A five-speed automatic comes with the big engine.
The 1500 Quad Cab is the only truck of this bunch with four full doors. That's because Dodge stopped making versions with smaller rear-access doors. A Dodge selling point is the offer of four full doors for a price comparable to that of competitors with only two. The 2003 1500 Quad Cab that I drove carried a sticker price of $37,650.
But the Dodge's ride and handling were the roughest of this group by far. The interior needs an upgrade to make it as luxurious as it is capacious, and the towing capacity trails the Titan's and the F-150's.
The Ram's size and brute power offset the lack of refinement for some. But Nissan and Ford have just raised the bar.