From the February/March issue of Car and Driver.
Jeff Storey says the Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD, the Ford F-250, and the Ram 2500 are the wimpiest tow rigs his 16-ton drag sled has ever seen. In the hairy-chested world of heavy-duty pickup trucks, those are fightin’ words. We came here—to the fairground in rural Blanchard, Michigan—to meet Storey and his tractor-pull sled in order to prove which American brand makes the most macho three-quarter-ton truck, but he just raised the stakes. Each truck is now vying to prove it’s not the weakest tow rig ever to be hitched to the beast known as the Pioneer.
We’re used to measuring a vehicle’s fitness with quarter-mile times, but heavy-duty trucks are built for powerlifting, not sprinting. So for this round of the never-ending pickup battle, we decided to stage a tractor pull. Storey normally runs his sled behind tractors making as much as 10,000 horsepower. To slow those monsters down, he can load the Pioneer’s weight-transfer box with up to a dozen 1800-pound lead bricks. We used just one lead slug for our test, and yet, when we hooked Storey’s rig to the trucks, the weight behind the hitch was more than twice what the Ford and Ram are rated for and close to double the Chevy’s rating. On the streets, this would be reckless. But on our closed course, the dirt surface acts as a fuse. The tires will break traction before the driveline is damaged.
Commercials for these trucks often look like they were directed by Hulk Hogan on a creatine bender. The truck does a lap around a steel forge with a freaking yacht in tow before a stack of girders is dropped in the bed, all while outrageous payload, towing, and torque figures flash on the screen. Until recently, Ford was the reigning braggart, with its Power Stroke diesel making 1050 pound-feet of torque. But then Ram topped it with a 2021 powertrain update that boosted its Cummins diesel to 1075 pound-feet. Hey, Bugatti, are you seeing this?
To find the best heavy-duty tugger, we procured three-quarter-ton trucks equipped with diesel engines and the most aggressive off-road rubber available from the factory. Then we hitched them to Storey’s sled and stood on the accelerator pedals. We’re going to settle this Calvin and Hobbes pissing match once and for all—or at least until the next generation of heavy-duty pickups arrives.
A tractor pull is a simple test, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. The rate at which the weight-transfer box moves is dictated by a five-speed gearbox that’s driven off the drag’s wheels. As each truck pulls the sled, the heavy box slides forward, shifting the weight from the sled’s wheels to its belly pan, which digs into the dirt. If that’s not enough to stop a tractor in its tracks, a set of hydraulic arms can lift the sled’s wheels off the ground, dumping the entire weight of the machine onto the pan. The farther you go, the deeper it digs. That’s the complex part. Here’s the simple bit: The longest pull wins. The drag sled doubles as a really long ruler, measuring the distance of each run.
The strategy of tractor pulling is straightforward: Shift into 4Lo, wait for the all-clear, then shove the right pedal through the firewall and, as Storey says, “Drive it to the kitchen!” That metaphorical cookhouse is 300 feet away. Make it that far and you’ve found the tractor-pull end zone, achieving what’s known as a full pull. Before we started, Storey dialed in how quickly the weight-transfer box would move and determined when the Pioneer’s hydraulic arms would engage to keep the full pull within reach. We made three runs with each truck and used the best pulls to determine the finishing order.
On paper, the Ford has what it takes to be a champion-grade puller. It’s the most powerful truck here, with the sharpest claws to tear into the soil and a lockable rear differential and limited-slip front diff. This $82,245 brodozer is lifted from the factory and rolls on meaty 35-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires thanks to the $3975 Tremor package. The Power Stroke turbocharged 6.7-liter V-8 makes 475 horsepower and 1050 pound-feet of torque, and a 10-speed automatic handles the shifting duties. Setting expectations high, this F-250 is the quickest diesel pickup we’ve tested, with a 6.1-second sprint to 60 mph and a quarter-mile run of 14.6 seconds at 94 mph—1 mph shy of its top speed.
But those blistering acceleration times occur with the transfer case in 4Hi and using a big brake torque to pile on the boost from the start. Moving the drag sled requires 4Lo, and Ford doesn’t allow brake torquing in 4Lo, presumably to save the 8120-pound behemoth from turning its axle shafts into rotini pasta. Without that preload, the F-250 is already 1.7 mph off the Silverado’s pace at the 50-foot mark. It never catches up. The Ford runs out of steam about three and a half feet short of the coveted full pull having yanked hard enough to bend the pin in the trailer hitch. There’s no doubt in our minds that with a little more oomph at the start, the F-250 would have made it to the finish line.
Ram may be the current torque king among heavy-duty trucks, but the high-output Cummins (420 horsepower, 1075 pound-feet of torque) is available only in the 3500. We also had to pass on the dirt-hungry 2500 Power Wagon because it comes exclusively with the gas 6.4-liter V-8. To get our hands on the standard-output diesel, we had to make do with a $79,850 Ram 2500 Laramie that was dressed for a hoedown rather than a tractor pull. With a luxurious interior blanketed in rich leather, the Night Edition’s painted bumpers, and black 20-inch wheels wrapped in Firestone Transforce AT tires, this isn’t your average work truck.
Even though it’s the least powerful engine here, there’s a lot to love about the Ram’s 370-hp turbocharged 6.7-liter inline-six. The old adage “Six in a row, ready to tow” still rings true. When deadlifting 14 Mazda Miatas’ worth of weight, the Ram flexes its muscle. The peak torque of 850 pound-feet occurs just off idle, at 1700 rpm, and the Cummins pulls with a semi-truck clatter that had us reaching for a nonexistent air horn. With four fewer gears than the Chevy and the Ford, the Ram spends less time shifting and more time in the boost. It is quicker than the competition to the 200-foot marker by nearly two seconds. But as the belly pan weights up and digs into the earth, the lightest-in-test Ram loses momentum quickly. Its run ends 15 feet shy of the Ford’s, at 281.4 feet.
Our third contestant, a $76,885 Silverado 2500HD High Country, came armed with the Z71 off-road kit, which includes Goodyear Wrangler TrailRunner AT tires. Chevy makes more aggressive off-road trucks than this, but they are half-ton (1500 LT Trail Boss)or smaller (Colorado ZR2 Bison) and aren’t suited for this task. Chevrolet’s Duramax diesel, a turbocharged 6.6-liter V-8, produces 445 horses and 910 pound-feet of torque and supports the highest tow rating in the test. Chevy brands its 10-speed as an Allison, but the world’s largest manufacturer of automatic transmissions for heavy-duty commercial equipment merely tested and validated the gearbox. It didn’t design or build it. There are more similarities between this trans and the Ford’s than Chevy marketing would like you to know.
But whether it’s a matter of hardware difference or blind faith, Chevy engineers must believe in their driveline more than Ford’s number crunchers trust their rotating bits, as there’s a big difference in how the Silverado converts its potential energy into kinetic energy. Where the F-250 limits torque in 4Lo, the Silverado is champing at the bit to be unleashed. The Duramax is making enough torque when we release the brake that all four tires threaten to spin. The tractor-pull regulars who have gathered to watch our little contest are so impressed by the Silverado’s dig from a standstill that the crowd spits out a string of expletives.
The Chevy’s shifts are more assertive than the Ford’s, and the rev-happy diesel never comes off boil as it makes forward progress. The Silverado reaches 150 feet 1.7 seconds quicker than the Ford, hustling 1.6 mph faster at that mark. While that might not seem like much, when your top speed is 20.9 mph, it’s enough to get the job done. The heaviest-in-test Chevy makes a triumphant run, grinding to a stop 3.7 feet past a full pull. As we always say, it’s not the size of the torque output that matters; it’s how you use it.