Most of the Earth isn't paved. There are rocks, mud, dust, rugged trails, and lots and lots of sand. And to get to some places, a truck will have to deal with one or more of those. Here are nine trucks, listed alphabetically, that will effectively deal with all those off-road challenges.
Buying any new vehicle starts with carefully considering what you need, weighing that against what you desire, and then finally admitting what you can afford. With off-road trucks, that's made more difficult because of just how many off-road situations there are.
A truck that's great for crawling along rock faces in Utah might not be of much use in lugging a horse trailer out of the mud at a Connecticut fairground. And there's no way a 2-ton-rated dually pickup will make it across California's legendary Rubicon Trail no matter how well its four-wheel- — make that six-wheel- — drive system works. You need the right tool for the job, so you'd better know what the job is.
1. The Reasonable Alternative: 2016 Chevrolet Colorado Z71
American full-size trucks have grown ever fuller in size. For many buyers, they've just been too big. Still, with the exception of the Toyota Tacoma, the smaller truck market was practically dead in the U.S. in recent years. And then GM resurrected the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon for 2016.
Except for its slightly smaller size, the Colorado is basically a straightforward truck. It's got a ladder frame like a big truck. Initially, it came in rear-wheel or four-wheel drive, powered by gas-fueled four- and six-cylinder engines. But then something special happened: GM added a turbocharged 2.8-liter four-cylinder diesel to the option sheet.
The Duramax 2.8-liter turbodiesel is a proven design that GM has used on its commercial vehicles worldwide. It's backed by a six-speed automatic transmission. And with ample low-end torque, the Duramax is a robust tow vehicle. The balance shafts in its block make it smooth and quiet enough to use every day. Add the nimble Z71 off-road package — which includes electronic hill descent control, a protective shield for the transfer case, beefed-up and more supple suspension, big off-road tires on 17-inch wheels, and LED projector-beam headlamps — and the Colorado is a uniquely capable off-road machine that gets great fuel mileage on road.
2. The Hot Rod: 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor
Back in 2010, Ford's F-150 Raptor hit the market like the giant, ravenous dinosaur that gave it its name. Based on the pre-runners used to plot and plan the course in the Baja 1000 off-road endurance race, Ford jacked up the F-150, widened it, and generally rendered it ridiculously capable for a full-size truck.
Now comes the second generation of the Raptor, based on the aluminum-bodied F-150. It still has the lengthened front suspension with longer travel than a stock F-150, along with Fox Racing shock absorbers and massive wheels and tires.
Much is new, though: a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6, which replaces the previous 6.2-liter non-turbo V8, a freshly designed 10-speed automatic transmission and a Terrain Management System. This allows the driver to select from six tuning packages that optimize the Raptor's performance parameters for specific off-road conditions.
3. The Lugger: Ford F-350 Super Duty
Many truck buyers don't need to cover a narrow trail or fly across a beach's sands. What they need to do is tow. And where they're towing is so sloppy, they need four-wheel drive.
Ford now builds the body of its Super Duty line of heavy-duty trucks out of military-grade aluminum, also used in the less monstrous F-150. But what lies beneath is mostly familiar, hardcore hauler stuff. That includes the standard 6.2-liter gas-fired V8 or, the real star of the Super Duty line, the 6.7-liter turbodiesel V8 rated at 440 horsepower and an almost unfathomable 925 pound-feet of peak torque.
With all that power and four-wheel drive, there isn't a slimy boat ramp that can't be conquered. Don't tow a house trailer; tow your house and all the other houses in the neighborhood. In fact, using a modern gooseneck towing system, a properly equipped Super Duty can lug up to 32,500 pounds. With a conventional towing ball, it can take on 21,000 pounds. And it will take 27,500 pounds with a fifth wheel.
Of course the world isn't all boat ramps and horse shows and muddy RV parks. And the F-350 becomes amazingly capable off-road when equipped the FX4 Off-Road package. The FX4 adds hill descent control, quality Rancho off-road shocks, and skid plates to protect the transfer case and fuel tank. This truck might be too big for trail-busting, but sometimes there's a log in the forest that needs to be towed out.
4. The Luxury Pick in a Smaller Package: 2017 GMC Canyon Denali
If you're willing to spend the money, virtually all brands will sell you a pickup as richly trimmed out as any luxury car. You'll find fine hides over the upholstery, electronics aplenty, and climate control systems so sublime that butter will harden in one seat and melt into a golden liquid for your popcorn in the other.
But until this year, all that has been for the big trucks. Now the indulgence has flowed down to the midsizers in the form of the coming-to-you-soon 2017 GMC Canyon Denali.
The Denali gets all the best that GMC has to offer. That includes perforated-leather seating surfaces over heated and ventilated seats, a seven-speaker Bose sound system, a forward collision warning system, a lane departure warning system, chrome side steps, a heated steering wheel, real aluminum trim and 20-inch machined-aluminum wheels. A navigation system? Of course there's navi.
The Canyon Denali will arrive sometime early in 2017 and will likely be offered with both V6 and turbodiesel four-cylinder engines. Both the extended-cab and four-door crew-cab bodies will be available. Pricing is pending.
5. The Inexpensive One: 2016 Nissan Frontier SV King Cab 4x4
Nissan's current Frontier compact truck has been around since the 2005 model year, and in comparison to newer direct competitors such as the Toyota Tacoma and GM's Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon twins, it is behind the times. So the Frontier needs to compete on price.
The extended-cab, short-bed 2016 Frontier SV V6 King Cab is the least expensive new four-wheel-drive pickup truck for sale in the U.S., coming in at $28,040, including shipping. That's around $1,000 less than the least expensive Toyota or GM products. Nissan's Frontier comes with a standard V6 engine, while four-cylinder engines are what you'll find in the competition. Further, the Frontier's V6 is a big 4.0-liter unit, rated at a brawny 261 horsepower and 281 lb-ft of peak torque. The standard transmission is an automatic with five forward gears. And behind that is a switch-operated dual-range transfer case.
Naturally, the Frontier can be further optimized for off-road use by spending more money. At the top of Frontier range sits the Pro-4X model in both extended King Cab and four-door Crew Cab versions. Sitting high on big tires and equipped with Bilstein and a locking rear differential, it's still a high-value proposition. The King Cab starts at $33,480, and the Crew Cab is at $33,240.
As (relatively) inexpensive as the Frontier is, dealers also have the incentive to clear out inventory: Nissan is developing a new Frontier that could appear during 2017.
6. The In-Between Solution: 2017 Nissan Titan XD
So a half-ton truck is too little? And a three-quarter tonner is too much? Nissan has neatly split the difference in the form of the all-new Titan XD. Call it a 5/8ths-ton truck, taking the ease of the half-ton pickup and marrying it to the grunting ability of a three-quarter-ton heavy-duty brawler.
The frame and suspension of the Titan XD are unique and only somewhat related to the pieces under a half-ton Titan pickup. Though strictly conventional in general design, they deliver a good ride and everyday usability. And the abuse this 4x4 can withstand is epic. To exaggerate the all-terrain ability, there's the Pro-4X Off-Road model at the top of the Titan pyramid. The Pro-4X adds oversize off-road tires, Bilstein shocks, an electronic rear locking differential, skid plates to protect the mechanical bits and hill descent control.
But what really gets the attention is the option of a new 5.0-liter turbodiesel V8, built by Cummins and carrying that famed name over to the Nissan brand. With an engine rated at 310 horsepower and a thundering 555 lb-ft of peak torque, the Titan XD neatly fits between the overkill of larger capacity trucks and the restrained power of lighter duty vehicles. And it can tow more than 6 tons — the equivalent of 12 grand pianos, 2,000 bricks or 2,500 Chihuahuas (as if you'd ever do that).
7. The Economizer: 2017 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel 4x4
There's only one full-size half-ton pickup available with a diesel engine: the Ram 1500 with the EcoDiesel V6. For those of us obsessed with fuel economy, it's utterly attractive.
The 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 engine uses a compacted graphite iron engine block — the same material used in high-stress situations like NASCAR racing — and aluminum twin-cam, 24-valve heads. Throw on a Garrett turbocharger breathing through an air-to-air intercooler and the result is 240 horsepower. That horsepower rating, however, isn't the star spec. Instead that honor belongs to the 420 lb-ft of torque that the engine produces at only 2,000 rpm. Backed by an eight-speed automatic transmission, the 4x4 Ram 1500 returns an awesome EPA-rated 22 mpg combined (19 city/27 highway). That leads to significantly longer range, which could be vital to long-haulers.
For comparison, the same truck powered by the gasoline-burning 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is rated at 17 mpg combined (15 city/21 highway).
8. The Beast: 2017 Ram Power Wagon
If the Ford Raptor is built to practically fly across the desert, the Ram Power Wagon is the truck for slugging through mud, grinding across broken trails and lugging a load of equipment to any job site. The Power Wagon carries on in the tradition of its great-grandfather, the WC-series Dodge light truck, which fought alongside tanks, and its brother, the World War II-era Jeep.
For 2017, Ram has retrimmed the Power Wagon with a blacked-out grille and better graphics, but it otherwise packs mostly proven components. The base vehicle is the Ram 2500 Crew Cab pickup, riding on electronically lockable front and rear solid axles with an electronically disconnecting front sway bar for additional travel when the going gets even tougher. It features 33-inch-tall Goodyear all-terrain tires, Bilstein shocks and a standard 12,000-pound capacity Warn winch. The standard powerplant is the 410-horsepower version of the Hemi V8, backed by a six-speed automatic transmission.
9. The Small Truck With Big Ability: 2017 Toyota Tacoma
Back in 1979, Toyota took its compact pickup truck and shoved a four-wheel-drive system under it. Some enthusiasts nicknamed it "Son of Land Cruiser," and its ruggedness and off-road ability quickly became legendary. Now, 38 years later (it picked up the Tacoma name in 1995), it's more capable than ever.
The Tacoma entered its third generation in 2016. Changes for 2017 are minimal. A four-cylinder engine is available in base extended Access Cab models, but most buyers opt for the four-door Double Cab, powered by the 278-horsepower 3.5-liter V6. And the most serious off-roaders will want the TRD Off-Road or TRD Pro trim levels.
What's sneaky about these line-topping Tacoma models is how much off-road technology is packed under that familiar-looking sheet metal. That includes a five-mode Multi-terrain Select system that electronically optimizes the truck's performance for the task and environment it faces. That includes regulating wheelspin by using the traction control system and adjusting throttle controls for maximum control in whatever muck is under the tires. Throw in a crawl control system that makes getting stuck in sand more a dare than a disaster, and there's not a more capable small truck for off-roading. The suspension is pretty supple off-road too.