For many years, the standard half-ton formula was pretty predictable: V-8 engine between 4.6 and 5.7 liters and four-speed automatic transmission. Sure, there were V-6s, but only the fleet buyers or shoppers concerned with the purchase price opted for those, as they were often quite underpowered compared to their V-8 counterparts, and largely offered a negligible increase in fuel economy.
Now, seemingly out of the blue, there are a variety of compelling and competitive powertrains in half-tons, including the surprisingly good base V-6s in almost all the models. With the arrival of the 2014 GM half-tons, four-speeds have finally been banished to the history books. Six speeds are the new four, and eight-speed transmissions are rapidly proliferating in the half-ton segment, starting with Ram.
Although the raison d'etre for pickups remains capability and utility, fuel economy is a more prominent consideration than it's ever been, driven as much, if not more by buyer demand than government regulation. And the winner in the bloody-knuckles fight among the automakers for leadership in this hard-fought segment is the truck buyer.
If you like high-tech horsepower and torque with reasonable fuel economy, Ford offers its EcoBoost V-6. If you prefer the more traditional V-8, GM has its new direct-injected 5.3 that squeaks out 1 mpg better economy than Ford's turbo V-6, and Ram now offers the Hemi V-8 with an eight-speed that matches the Ford.
But frankly, unless you do towing and hauling on a regular basis, the base V-6s more than suffice, putting out more horsepower than their V-8 forebears of less than a decade ago. Missing for nearly three decades from the half-ton equation has been a diesel option, an engine that dominates in over-8600 GVWR truck segment. That's about to change for the 2014 model year, with the introduction of the Ram 1500 with the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6. Besides being the smallest-displacement offering in a half-ton that we can remember, it promises to be the most economical, by a substantial margin. But with an estimated 420 lb-ft of torque, it won't be a sluggish dolt. We're predicting a 0-60 time of around 8 seconds flat. Sure, it's not SRT territory, but it's plenty quick for a workhorse.
Ford and GM are standing at the sidelines, taking a "wait and see" stance with diesels in half-tons. The big question for Chrysler and everyone else is not if the EcoDiesel option will be popular, but how popular. A 15-percent take rate is a given, and 20 percent is not a reach. But could it approach the EcoBoost's 40- to 43-percent take rate? With a price point of at least $4000, it won't be the cheapest option, but the powertrain's combination of economy, capability, and driving character could win over a good chunk of Ram 1500 buyers.
Each of the Detroit three has its own formula for delivering the perfect balance of performance and economy for its buyers. The variety and excellence of powertrains in half-ton trucks is unprecedented, and whether your tastes lean toward the more traditional or the cutting edge, there's now something for every taste, budget, and need.