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.