In this golden age of pickup trucks, from fuel economy to crash safety, the workhorses of the automotive world have never done a better job of doubling as passenger cars. Likewise, with tow and payload ratings at all-time highs, today's light-duty, full-size trucks are the brute-strength equivalents of yesterday's heavy-duty pickups.
We'll give our answer right away based on the numbers: the Ford F-150 earns a 7.0 on our new ratings scale; the Ram 1500 manages a 6.0. We were expecting a close race, but were surprised on how close it actually ended up. Comparatively, the Ram is much older and the Ford is verifiably safer, but the Ram's looks have aged well and its powertrain lineup is just a little better. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
How are the two trucks scored apples-to-apples? They have outstanding performance, styling, features and utility, though the nuances of each give you some clear choices when it comes to buying.
Start with performance, where the differences come out in strong relief. The Ram sports a base V-6 with an 8-speed automatic for excellent fuel economy, then antes up from there with a turbodiesel option that pushes fuel economy to a class high of 29 mpg highway. A Hemi V-8 handles the extreme towing duties with a sharp, NASCAR snarl and an 8-speed automatic tuned for musclecar-like acceleration.
The F-150? It's powered in most part by 6-cylinder engines. There's a basic V-6 for fleet duty; a 325-hp 2.7-liter turbo-6 that nicely supplants the old smaller-displacement V-8 in the lineup, while boosting its fuel economy on the EPA rankings. There's a V-8, of course, with 385 hp, for those who can't do without—but frankly we'd go with the top twin-turbo V-6 instead, and its monstrous 375 hp. Most of these are teamed to a 6-speed automatic that can't mask a central issue with the turbo engines: those higher EPA fuel-economy ratings really need more gears to stay in the most efficient part of the powerband. A 10-speed automatic in top versions of the F-150 may remedy that, but so far, EPA figures are unimpressive.
The Ram's diesel turns in more reliably high mileage, but the F-150 outpoints it on payload and tow ratings. Configure it properly and the Ford can pull up to 12,200 pounds; the Ram's top number this year is 10,650 pounds.
On the road, the car-like quality of the Ram's electric steering and available air suspension plays out more impressively than the F-150, but by the slimmest of margins. The Ram's firmer, more composed and feels strong in tow exercises, and sounds like what it is: six, eight, or diesel. Ford pumps in artificial V-8 engine noise on some models to cover up its downsized turbos, but doesn't really need the psychological balm once the gas pedal's engaged. Its trucks are impressively quick, steer cleanly, but they have a less settled ride when unladen, with more bump quiver and jiggle.
Ford's tuning may have to do with its revolutionary body structure. To reduce weight and improve fuel economy and safety, the F-150 uses a stronger steel frame cloaked in lightweight aluminum body panels. Ford says it's worth up to 700 pounds of saved weight, though some figures aren't directly comparable to prior models.
The new body structure has one clear benefit over the Ram: the F-150 has scored top safety ratings, while the Ram's numbers are downright disappointing in some tests.
From the outside, the degree of change under the Ford's skin is completely invisible. The F-150 simply looks like a slightly more angular descendant of the family, while the Ram has an undeniable look that's rugged and distinctive, even to people who don't know or like trucks. The Ram's interior is also better finished, particularly in upper trims, though the margin shrinks as the price tags grow.
Your deciding vote could come down to looks or powertrains, but more likely it'll come down to configuration. Both trucks can be fitted in a dizzying array of body styles, drivetrains (rear- or four-wheel drive, of course), trim levels, and bed specs. Both offer a choice of regular, extended, and crew cabs, with excellent use of interior space. The Ram has lots of convenient storage touches, under the middle of the front bench if it's so equipped, and under the rear seats—even in the pickup bed fenders.
Ford's attention to detail shows in the pickup bed. It can be trimmed out with loading ramps that lock into the sides of the pickup bed; with cleats and brackets that let drivers customize bed storage solutions; and with a deployable bed step that makes it much easier to load the bed solo.
Both trucks are base-priced in the mid-$20,000 range, and both tick up into the stratosphere in Ram Laramie Limited and F-150 Limited trims, respectively. The Ram's bold western-themed packages are a homey touch that compares well with Ford's King Ranch trim and its wonderfully aromatic, untreated leather. Both offer comprehensive safety options and infotainment systems, where the Chrysler Uconnect setup is a clear, concise, easy-to-use victor over Ford's updated but still fussy Sync 3 interface.
Which one's better for you? That comes down to your taste for utility and experimentation. Repair costs and ease are less predictable at this point with the F-150, though Ford's done much to address them before the need arises. Likewise, the Ram's turbodiesel option is a big question mark of need in an age of $2 gas. Many of the F-150's features are aimed squarely at hardcore work use, while the best Ram features will coddle you better than any other Chrysler product currently in existence.
The clearest advice we can give before the number come in? If ultimate towing is your quest, the F-150 rules the big-truck kingdom. If you are not entertained by its moderately improved gas mileage and un-revolutionary looks, the Ram is ready to roll.