LAKE LEELANAU, Mich. — Five years ago the midsize truck segment was a one-horse race. The Toyota Tacoma reigned supreme, thanks to a sterling reputation for reliability, great residuals and a fiercely loyal fanbase. Then in 2014, the second-generation Chevrolet Colorado burst onto the scene, injecting life into the stagnant segment and racking up nearly half a million sales through 2018. This led to the reintroduction of the Ford Ranger in 2019 and the new Wrangler-based Jeep Gladiator, that brand's first truck in nearly 30 years.
Although we've driven them all extensively, it was time to see which of these midsize trucks is really the best. We gathered them for a few days in the forests of northern Michigan. Six of us — four editors and a pair of video producers — were on hand to rate the trucks and document the whole affair. The goal? To determine the strongest one overall, using our bespoke scoring formula to see how each truck measured up in critical areas. These trucks have a tougher task than their full-size brethren. They need to pack comfort and utility into a stylish form, while providing value relative to the Silverado, Ford F-150 and Ram 1500.
The test consisted of two parts: a multi-hour road route, both freeway and two-lane, and then a full day at a 400-acre truck playground called Twisted Trails off-road park. We evaluated the trucks based on dynamic qualities — such as ride, handling and off-road capability — as well as the hard specs, like cargo volume, payload and fuel economy. Pricing was also factored in, and we weighted qualities related to versatility and capability, since midsize truck buyers want true multipurpose machines.
Our four contestants were the Chevy Colorado Z71 ($41,595), Ford Ranger XLT FX4 ($40,605), Jeep Gladiator Sport ($51,115) and Toyota Tacoma TRD Sport ($41,200). While each is offered in multiple configurations and exciting hard-core trims (such as the Colorado ZR2, Gladiator Rubicon or Tacoma TRD Pro), the trucks we tested represent vehicles that most midsize-truck shoppers actually end up buying. The trucks here are similarly equipped midlevel trims with four doors and four-wheel drive. We specced all with an automatic transmission and their most popular engine variant, which was a V6 for everything but the four-cylinder-powered Ranger.
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We know these aren't the only vehicles in the segment, but we only took the trucks that had a legitimate shot at winning. We loved our long-term 2018 Honda Ridgeline, but it's aimed at a different sort of buyer than our four competitors. The Nissan Frontier is still around, too, but its archaic design is simply not competitive these days.
Fourth place: 2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD Sport — 225 points
Frankly, it feels like Toyota grew complacent after years of success. "When the Tacoma was introduced, going up against the ancient Frontier and the flawed Colorado, the Tacoma was the clear winner for most observers," said Senior Editor Alex Kierstein. "The thing is, the newer competition nicks the Tacoma in its weak spots."
Most of us dig the Tacoma's design, and it has influenced other Toyotas such as the new RAV4. It's bold and sharp with a wide variety of interesting paint colors, including our tester's Cavalry Blue. Each variant (SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro) looks distinct from the rest, something that you can't say about all of the trucks here.
"The Tacoma was arguably the badass of the bunch in terms of looks," said Senior Editor, Green, John Beltz Snyder. "Sure, Jeep design invokes straightforward ruggedness, but the Toyota looks menacing, especially up front." The interior is stylish, too, and has features such as a wireless charging pad and plenty of storage.
As popular as the Tacoma is, it has some persistent flaws. The truck's ground clearance is a boon off-road, but the high floor makes for an awkward splay-legged seating position. The low roofline meant several of us were constantly hitting our heads over bumps and craning our necks to see traffic lights.
Furthermore, the high, long hood hampers forward visibility. "The downside of that imposing face is that it takes up a lot of the visual real estate from inside the truck, making it harder to place between the lines in a parking lot, or to guide the front tires around off-road obstacles," Snyder said.
The 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic are a letdown, too, especially compared with the other three trucks. The transmission was always hunting for the highest possible gear, and the engine's response was lazy and uncouth. "The transmission seemed befuddled frequently, and the V6 is beyond uninspiring," Kierstein said. "The Ranger's got a much nicer powertrain, and the Gladiator has that and a whole heap more."
Taken on its own, the Tacoma is still a perfectly fine truck. It's handsome, capable and has the segment's best build quality. Historically, Tacomas have held their value better than nearly anything else around. There's a seemingly endless amount of aftermarket support for it, too, if that's your thing. The top-of-the-line Tacoma TRD Pro is up there with the Colorado ZR2 and Gladiator Rubicon in terms of off-road equipment and prowess, but even the TRD Sport is plenty rugged. It's also right there with the Chevy when it comes to ride quality both on the road and off. It just can't match the other trucks when it comes to things such as comfort or powertrain refinement. Towing and cargo volume aren't competitive, either.
"The Tacoma is fun," said Editor-in-Chief Greg Migliore. "I've always liked it, and it certainly looks cool. It's definitely the right truck for some buyers, who make up its loyal base. But it's simply a step behind the field at this point."
Third place: 2019 Chevy Colorado Z71 — 239.2 points
The Colorado was the oldest truck here, but outside of the dated interior, it certainly didn't feel that way. We all found the ride and handling to be the best of the bunch, with refined manners both on- and off-road. It soaked up bumps, dips and potholes well, with none of the softness or wallowing you get with the Ranger.
"Its on-road dynamics are stellar — GM certainly knows how to set up a chassis — and with the right bits it'll hold its own off-road (the ZR2 is proof of that)," said Kierstein. "Its firmly controlled ride and accurate steering really leave an impression." Even the lesser Z71 off-road package impressed, and it was one of two trucks with a locking differential.
It wins big on utility, too. The 5-foot bed's volume is substantially larger than that of both the Tacoma and the Gladiator, thanks to tall sides, and it's only fractionally behind the Ford's. If you opt for the 6-foot bed, it's easily the biggest in the class. The Colorado and Tacoma are the only two that offer two bed lengths with crew-cab models, though the Toyota's shallow sides hurt overall volume. There are multiple tie-downs fore and aft, and steps in the corner of the bumper to help climb inside.
The Colorado is the only truck here that offers a diesel engine. We like that engine's copious torque and impressive fuel economy, but most customers will end up with the V6. It's not the smoothest or best-sounding engine GM has ever built, but it makes a class-leading 308 horsepower and feels quick and responsive in most situations. "Its engine is gruff, but has enough grunt to not matter much," Kierstein said.
Unfortunately, the Colorado has the same pitfalls as many other GM products — namely, its lackluster interior — a sea of ugly, ill-fitting black and gray plastic filling out a boring and carlike design. More than that, though, it simply isn't comfortable. The seats are hard and flat, with a leatherette/cloth mix that has roughly the same texture as a doormat. Multiple reviewers complained of a sore butt after a few hours. The Colorado's cabin is not nearly as cramped as the Tacoma's – it's roomy with good visibility and an excellent seating position – but many of us felt that if it had a nicer-looking interior, with a more truckish design and more supportive seats, it would have had a serious chance at besting our test.
It's a shame, really, since the chassis and powertrain are so strong.
"It has a rough-and-ready feel, and it earned a lot of points for its functional bed and reasonable price," Migliore said. "With a slightly better interior or fresher design, this thing might have pulled the upset."
Second place: 2020 Jeep Gladiator Sport — 243 points
If we were voting solely with our hearts, the Gladiator would have won by a mile. It's hard to beat the truck's cool factor, packing in all the same charm as the Jeep Wrangler with the added utility of a bed. It was also the one we all wanted to spend more time in. "It's the Jeep truck we've all been waiting for," Migliore said, "and it certainly delivers."
Our editors agreed. "From a simple enjoyment standpoint, it's the clear winner — it has a fun and interesting character inside and out, the ride is supple, the powertrain is the most sophisticated we tested," Kierstein said. "You can take the top and doors off! I think this is the most entertaining truck around, save the F-150 Raptor."
The design drew praise, especially inside. Despite being designed to withstand dirt and grime, Migliore called it "best in class" and said that it "felt the most special." It's high on style without compromising functionality. The cabin is narrow and the greenhouse a bit shallow, but otherwise, the Gladiator is comfortable and roomy. The biggest complaint was road noise on the highway, even with our truck's optional hardtop and sound-dampening headliner (a $500 option). Still, it isn't loud enough to warrant earplugs like some Jeeps of the past.
The powertrain was the best of the bunch, thanks to a refined V6 and a buttery-smooth transmission, though we do wish the engine had a bit more grunt. With the Tacoma and Ranger, you're always aware of what the powertrain is doing, especially the transmissions. With the Gladiator, everything just works smoothly and effortlessly. And while it couldn't match the Colorado's refinement, the ride and handling were far better than expected. The long wheelbase might hurt it off-road, but it keeps the truck straight and stable on the highway. The steering is light and numb, but felt direct enough to mitigate constant corrections to keep the truck centered in the lane.
As expected, the Gladiator was a champ off-road. Stepping up to a Rubicon adds equipment such as bigger tires, rock rails, locking differentials and beefier Dana 44 axles, but the base Sport is still plenty good. "It has legit, rugged off-road underpinnings, even in the Sport trim we tested," Kierstein said. "The break-over angle is terrible, but there's enough capability here for forest service roads and mild trails. If you want to go crawling, get a two-door Wrangler."
It does all the truck stuff well, too. "It's much more than a Wrangler with a bed in the back," Migliore said. "Jeep took care to make this a legit truck." The Gladiator had the best tow rating of the bunch, though payload was just third best, and the 35.5-cubic-foot bed was only slightly larger than the Tacoma's.
So why didn't the Gladiator win? It's expensive, and we factored that into the equation — just as any truck buyer would. Unless you find a smoking deal, you're not getting into one for less than $35,000. A base Gladiator is almost $10,000 more expensive than a base Ranger and nearly $13,000 more than a Colorado. You get more capability with the Gladiator out of the box — and lots of stuff that you can't get on any other truck, such as a solid front axle, standard four-wheel drive and removable doors and roof — but even this base Sport needed thousands of dollars in options to meet the other trucks' equipment levels. Its options include a $3,200 package that adds power tinted windows, a power tailgate lock, power heated mirrors and automatic headlights; $995 for heated seats and remote start; $795 for adaptive cruise control; $1,195 for a black hardtop; and $2,000 for an automatic transmission. Most of that is either standard equipment or available at a far lower price point with the other three trucks.
Because of those options, the as-tested price was the highest here, and a loaded-up Rubicon can cost upwards of $60,000. Sure, you could forgo some of the options this particular Gladiator came with, but you'd be driving a comparatively spartan truck.
Kierstein put it well: "This truck's absolute price is hard to swallow, but as I kept reminding myself, it does a LOT that none of the other trucks can do."
First place: 2019 Ford Ranger XLT FX4 — 244.9 points
It was a close finish. Closer than any of us thought it would be going into the week. If the Gladiator was less expensive or the Colorado had a better interior, we might have had a different outcome.
"The Ranger did a lot of things well, and that's why it won," Migliore said. "It's an attention-getter, and it scored well in our metric tests. It was tops in payload, cargo/bed area and fuel economy, and a close second in several other areas. Ballgame."
The Ranger is new for America, though its base architecture is roughly as old as the Colorado's. Like the Chevy, it hides its age well thanks to a bevy of updates for the U.S. market. The exterior was heavily restyled with new front and rear facias, to great effect — the global Ranger looks a bit too soft and car-like. The blue-and-gray Ranger FX4 drew nearly as many looks as the Gladiator, although we wished the interior was a little less drab. It's clean and certainly better than the Chevy's, but it lacks pizzazz compared with that of the Toyota and the Jeep. Fault it for being a bit boring, not bad.
The suspension is soft, and we knocked it for some mild body roll, but it was easily the most comfortable truck in the test. We found the ride to be smooth, perhaps isolating — although not as competent on-road as the Colorado. The seats are arguably the best here, and there's far more room inside than in either the Tacoma or the Gladiator. The Ranger scored high on utility, too, thanks to the most voluminous 5-foot bed in the segment and generous interior storage.
The Ranger is the only truck here powered by an inline-four rather than a V6, but turbocharging brings it to parity with its naturally aspirated V6 competition — and there's lots of torque available way down low, which is a boon for any truck. It feels quick, especially around town, and delivers excellent fuel economy, at least on paper.
Our main issue with the powertrain is the 10-speed automatic's lack of refinement. It works well when paired with the Mustang's 5.0-liter V8 or the F-150's 3.5-liter turbo V6, but it stumbles with this 2.3-liter turbo-four. We've experienced similar behavior in Mustangs with the 10-speed automatic and a version of this EcoBoost engine. The low-speed hesitation was almost enough to lose the test. Almost.
"My experience with the Ranger is the perfect example of why we do these comparison tests," Kierstein said. "In isolation, I love the Ranger — its torquey, eager powertrain; its comfortable ride; its handsome exterior. I walked into the testing thinking that it'd decimate the competition. But you can't drive the Ranger back-to-back with the other trucks and not see where they best it. The Colorado's got better on-road manners; the Gladiator's powertrain is way more refined; the Tacoma handles better off-road. It was amazing how each truck seemed to have a strength that bested the Ranger. That said, when price is factored in, I think the Ranger might be the best combination of traits of all the trucks here."
Our testing bore that out. The 2019 Ford Ranger wins.
There isn't a truly bad truck among the bunch — and that's by design, since it's a small segment and we only tested the trucks with a legitimate shot at the crown. So it's no surprise that no one truck loomed over the competition as the Tacoma used to.
There are more trucks on the way, too. Rumors of a new Nissan Frontier have been around for years, and with the segment growing year over year, we don't expect Nissan to ignore the truck forever. Ram, too, has a new midsize pickup on the way. If it's based on the Gladiator, albeit with an independent front suspension, it could be a hit — especially if FCA can scale down the wonderful interior from the Ram 1500. With all of these potential new competitors, and some likely refreshes, doing this same test again in a couple of years could have wildly different results.
Ford has leveraged decades of experience building trucks both domestically and around the globe to deliver a truck that does just about everything well. While the competition is sure to fire back over the next few years with strong trucks of their own, the 2019 Ranger is the new standard that we'll measure all future midsize trucks against.