Saddling Up and Riding at the 2017 Texas Truck Rodeo

There’s an unusual kind of rodeo that takes place in Texas every October. No saddle is required. Boots are optional. Horsepower is still a huge part of it, though. It’s the Texas Auto Writers Association’s (TAWA) Texas Truck Rodeo.

For more than 20 years, automotive journalists from across the country and the Lone Star State have participated in the event and pitted pickups against each other on and off-road. The modern form of the contest includes crossovers, SUVs, and light and heavy-duty trucks.

Texas Truck Rodeo

Only one of the pickups at the rodeo would drive off with the Truck of Texas trophy.

This year’s Texas Truck Rodeo featured 64 vehicles competing for awards in nearly 20 categories. American, German, Japanese, British, Italian, and even Swedish manufacturers brought their entries to the Longhorn River Ranch in Dripping Springs, Texas to battle for those honors and the biggest prizes of the event: the titles of CUV of Texas, SUV of Texas, and the most coveted of all, the Truck of Texas.

Seventy-four of my fellow automotive journalists and I spent two days under a clear blue sky driving as many of those competing vehicles as possible. We gave each one a score for its exterior, interior, performance, value, and personal appeal. For on-road evaluations, we hit the back roads surrounding the postcard-worthy 1,632-acre hunting ranch.

Ford completely redesigned and re-engineered its Super Duty lineup for the 2017 model year. The new pickup ended up being crowned the Truck of Texas at last year’s Texas Truck Rodeo.

Left: The F-250's heated and cooled leather seats were nice, but the front camera was the most useful interior feature when we took the F-250 on a trail. Right: FX4 suspension and King Ranch trim: Ford's version of luxury off-roading.

Once we drove past an emu or two and made it through one of the main gates, we could get up to highway speeds and test characteristics such as acceleration and ride quality. When it was time to go off-road, my colleagues and I had the choice of three trails (and the occasional chance to see a European Fallow Deer or Scimitar-Horned Oryx).

Level 1 was a gentle, gravel-covered path. Level 2 was a slightly more arduous. Level 3 consisted of whoops, a descent into and climb out of a pit, and rocky, twisting climbs up into the hills that overlook the sprawling property. An offshoot of Level 3, aka the “gauntlet trail,” was specifically designed to challenge the event’s most hardcore contestants with its massive chunks of stone, tight turns, ruthless tree stumps, and diff-scarred rock ledges. One section of the gauntlet trail was reserved for showcasing the Power Wagon’s party piece.

The Jeep Renegade Desert Hawk may not be anywhere close to a Wrangler, but we never had to use its front tow hooks.

Left: A cool hood map decal sets the Renegade Desert Hawk apart from its Renegade siblings. Right: Do the taillights of the Jeep Renegade remind you of an old jerry can? They should. Jeep designed them to do just that.

I devoted my time to the off-road SUVs and pickups. Jeep’s 2017 Renegade Desert Hawk had the Sub-Compact SUV category all to itself. The same went for the 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk in the Mid-Size SUV class. The Compass Limited and Trailhawk siblings had to fight the 2018 Nissan Rogue Platinum and 2018 Toyota RAV4 Adventure in the Compact SUV segment. In the Mid-Size Luxury SUV arena, the Summit version of the Grand Cherokee battled the 2017 Mercedes-Benz G550, 2018 Volvo XC60, and 2017 Land Rover Discovery HSE Luxury Td6 and Si6 twins.

It’s too bad GM chose to not take part in the rodeo. Pitting its Colorado ZR2 against the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro would’ve been a lot of fun.

The 2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Recon went head-to-head against the 2018 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro in the Off-Road Utility Vehicle division. The war for Mid-Size Pickup Truck supremacy was fought exclusively by Japanese combatants (GM chose not to participate in the Texas Truck Rodeo this year): 2017 Honda Ridgeline RTL-E, 2018 Nissan Frontier Midnight Edition, and 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. Ford pitted the XLT and King Ranch versions of its 2018 F-150 against the 2018 Nissan Titan Midnight Edition, 2018 Ram 1500 Rebel, and 2018 Toyota Tundra Limited in hopes of its facelifted and updated truck being ranked the top entry in the Full-Size Pickup Truck class.

The blue oval’s 2017 F-250 King Ranch had to contend with the 2018 Ram 2500 Limited Tungsten, the only other competitor in the Heavy Duty Pickup Truck category. The 2018 Ford F-150 Limited, 2018 Ford F-250 Limited, 2017 Nissan Titan Platinum Reserve, and 2018 Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn Southfork duked it out for top honors in the Luxury Pickup Truck segment.

One niche. Two wildly different ways of filling it.

It was a battle royale when it came to the Off-Road Pickup Truck category; Ford brought its 2017 Raptor, Ram showed up with its 2017 Power Wagon, and Nissan came ready to rumble with its 2017 Titan PRO-4X.  (Ram, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and Nissan even brought trucks and vans to compete in the Commercial Vehicle category.)

It’s a good thing I had already spent a week in the $136,000+ Mercedes-Benz G550 (review coming soon) because it was continually checked out for drives. I hadn’t taken it rock-crawling, though. Luckily, I managed to squeeze in some seat time on the ranch. I immediately pointed its three-pointed star toward the Level 3 path and its gauntlet side trail.

Left: Who knew something so square could be so fun? Right: The G550 may be a posh status symbol for those who prefer to stay in the city, but it's definitely not a mall-crawler.

The G550 basically walked into and out of the depression. Despite its nearly 6.5-foot height, I was able to drive it over the series of whoops with complete peace of mind. In tight curves, its 9.4-foot wheelbase made it surprisingly nimble. Adjusting my line allowed the Pirelli rubber to hook up better and the locking front, center, and rear differentials to turn the most serious obstacles into grit-covered memories.

Ford brought the 2017 Raptor to the rodeo last year, but only allowed me and my colleagues to ride shotgun in it for hot laps on an open field. This year, we could romp around in it all we wanted. Having already driven it hundreds of highway miles, across desert sand at high speed, and over rocks alongside a bunch of Wrangler owners, I passed. I knew it was going to be a tough match for the Nissan and Ram.

With its front sway bar disconnected, the Power Wagon was even more unstoppable than usual.

However, I did drive the Ram Power Wagon even though I’d spent a lot of time in it before. Ram made it impossible to resist by designing a course that allowed me and my fellow writers to use its 12,000-pound front-mounted winch.

I stopped the Power Wagon on a landing near the top of the gauntlet trail. I looked up to see another Power Wagon on the next-highest landing and a Ram trucks representative standing next to it. He came down the decline separating us to tell me how to complete the demonstration. He had already looped the winch cable from his truck through a coupling that he proceeded to loop my truck’s cable through.

Left: The Power Wagon was the only vehicle at the rodeo equipped with a winch. It did not go to waste. Right: Even though it didn't have a gun turret on it, the Power Wagon was an absolute tank.

He then connected the end of my truck’s cable to one of the front tow hooks. Once I positioned my truck at an angle on the hillside, the Ram rep winched me up until I was firmly in place and not at risk of rolling backward. It was then up to me to reach the next landing using a combination of steady 4LO throttle and my thumb on the winch controller.

I had to make sure I didn’t accelerate too slowly and strain the winch cable as it retracted or apply too much gas and trample it. It was a stop-and-go journey that eventually ended with me reaching my destination. I had the luxury of using the Power Wagon as an off-road toy, but all of the fun I had doing that didn’t blind me to the truck’s usefulness as a tool on nightmarish, seemingly unpassable terrain.

Topless and doorless is the most fun way to travel in a Wrangler.

Left: A common sight: A Jeep Wrangler at the top of a rough trail. Right: When it comes to the Wrangler Rubicon Recon, it's OK to press the red button. In fact, you can press both of them.

After touching the real wood accents, suede-like headliner, and galvanized-look trim in the Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn Southfork and using the helpful front camera in the F-250 King Ranch FX4, I made my way to the Wrangler Rubicon Recon. It didn’t have a top. It didn’t have doors. It didn’t even have mirrors.

What it did have was a beefed-up Dana 44 front axle, lockers, and an electronically disconnecting front sway bar. I happened to pick a terrible line on the gauntlet trail and ended up getting a hideous chunk of tree stump wedged behind one of the Recon’s front wheels. I couldn’t go forward or turn.

After backing up and freeing the rig, I scaled the rough landscape, clearing the daunting rock ledge with plenty of approach angle degrees to spare. The rough-riding, technologically dated, gas-guzzling JK may be a dinosaur, but there are obvious reasons why it’s survived so long. They’re most apparent on unpaved roads.

In early October, Ford gave me a chance to drive its facelifted 2018 F-150 in Dallas. It managed to make an already handsome truck look even better. It also made the 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 and naturally aspirated 5.0-liter V8 more powerful (325 horsepower/400 lb-ft and 395 horsepower/400 lb-ft, respectively) and increased the availability of the 10-speed automatic across the engine range.

The interior of the F-150 is something to check out. It has all the creature comforts that you would want in a modern day pickup.

The new base 3.3-liter V6 has a satisfactory amount of grunt (290 horsepower and 265 lb-ft) that’s routed through a six-speed auto. The 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 remains unchanged after its MY 2017 retooling to generate 375 horsepower and 470 lb-ft. The availability of onboard Wi-Fi is a welcome addition to the truck’s tech arsenal. Given the fact that the 2015 F-150 won the 2014 Truck of Texas award, I had a feeling the improved 2018 model was going to be a serious contender for this year’s grand prize.

The last night of the rodeo, TAWA president Nic Phillips announced the winners at the Starhill Ranch, a venue that would’ve looked right at home in the Wild West. Ram took home the awards for the best heavy-duty pickup and luxury pickup truck.

Toyota facelifted the aging Tundra for 2018, but we’re impatiently waiting until the company brings out an all-new third-generation model.

The Raptor became the new Off-Road Pickup Truck of Texas. Toyota’s Tacoma TRD Pro took the top spot in the mid-size category. Its big brother, the Tundra, couldn’t do the same in the full-size segment and lost to the Nissan Titan Midnight Edition. The Titan SV King Cab earned the #1 ranking in the Commercial Vehicle division.

Jeep went up multiple times to accept the awards for the best off-road utility vehicle, sub-compact SUV (uncontested), and mid-size SUV (uncontested). Applause erupted when the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Ti was announced as the CUV of Texas. The 2018 Volvo XC60 was crowned the SUV of Texas.

The 2018 F-150 is a handsome rig. A generous coating of trail dirt makes it look even better.

Then it was time for the moment everyone had flown, driven, campaigned, and voted for: finding out which manufacturer had produced the 2017 Truck of Texas. Two rows of pickups waited nearby, their drivers ready for a cue. Only one would receive it. When he did, he turned on his truck’s headlights and drove away from the would-be winners to a more prominent position. The brilliant beams from the front end of the 2018 Ford F-150 cut through the tension that hung in the cool night air.

The men and women responsible for the 2018 F-150 had held on for years of development and two days of scrutiny (much longer than eight seconds) and rode the F-150 to victory. Ram, Nissan, and Toyota may have gotten thrown off during this year’s Texas Truck Rodeo and landed in the dirt, but they’ll dust themselves off and get on again next year. Giddy up.

About the author

Derek Shiekhi

Derek Shiekhi is a native Texan who grew up loving cars because of his father, who took Derek with him to buy early Mustang convertibles and Post-WWII pickups from GM. Throughout high school and college, he dreamed about cars, and returned to college to earn a second degree in journalism. After writing for the Austin-American Statesman newspaper, Derek joined the Texas Auto Writers Association, and is a member of the organization's board of directors.
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