Sherri Singer

THE WINNERS
Best overall
GMC Sierra
Full-size pickups
GMC Sierra
Finalists:Ford F150
Chevy Silverado
Compact pickups
Mazda B4000
Finalists:Dodge Dakota
Nissan Frontier
Others competing
Chevy S10, Dodge Ram,
Toyota Tacoma
All major pickup
manufacturers were invited to
enter pickups in each category,
but some were unable for
various reasons.

It was cold, gray, and rainy. The first drivers to navigate the decreasing radius dirt course nearly got stuck, even though they were in four-wheel drive. And the pickups roaming around the Dana Corp. off-road track were sending up rooster tails of mud.

Such was the scene on the first day of the Machine Design Best Ride competition, held this past October at Dana Corp.’s Technical Resource Park in Ottawa Lake, Mich. When the mud dried up and the score sheets dried off, the winner emerged: The GMC Sierra bested ten other vehicles which traversed frame-twisting moguls, graded hills, bone-jarring road surfaces, and other obstacles that make up Dana’s first-rate test facility. Judges for this year’s event, which was cosponsored by Dana and Nye Lubricants Inc., displayed a wide range of driving styles. Besides Machine Design editors, drivers included Popular Science Magazine auto editor Dan McKosh, and Matt Joseph, host of All About Cars on WTDY radio in Madison, Wis.; engineers from Tier-One automotive suppliers, and even a Trans Am-Series racecar driver. They rated the vehicles on handling and response over road conditions that ranged from benign to awful.

As in previous years, Best Ride judges scored vehicles using a format adapted from focus groups run by the Big Three. A one-to-ten scale let participants compare various aspects of ride and handling. The competition even featured a somewhat less severe version of the Scandinavian “moose test,” basically a simulated moose (pylons) designed to evoke an emergency swerve. This test gained notoriety after Scandinavian journalists tried it on the prototype of an A Class Mercedes and flipped the car over.

Moose-test results in the Best Ride competition were not nearly as dramatic but educational nevertheless. Drivers evaluated trucks both loaded and unloaded to gage how the ride changed with 800 lb of sandbags in the bed (or with half the vehicle’s rated load capacity, whichever was smaller).

If the reactions of judges were any indication, the test results were eye opening.

“I’ve tested some of these trucks in isolation and they seemed adequately state-of-the-art,” remarked one. “But they don’t come off that way tested side-by-side with others.”

The scores were close. After the GMC Sierra, the Ford F150 and Chevy Silverado scored well enough to earn Top Finalist grades in the full-size category. Finalists in the compact class were the Dodge Dakota, Mazda’s B4000, and the Nissan 4WD Frontier.