When it comes to the world of off-roading, bigger isn’t always better. Full-size pickups might be hard to beat regarding raw power, towing capacity, and performance, but if you’re looking to explore your local off-road trails or plan an extended overlanding trip, the midsize segment is the way to go. There are a number of reasons why midsize trucks have come to dominate the off-road pickup market, but their dimensions play a big part. A smaller pickup is simply easier to navigate across technical off-road routes where avoiding ruts, rocks, fallen trees, and other obstacles is such an important part of a successful journey.
The smaller size also means a smaller turning radius, which can come in helpful when trying to free yourself from a tight spot or maneuver through a hairpin turn. Midsize pickups are also much lighter than their full-size counterparts, which aids in comfort while reducing the likelihood of being mired in muddy off-road terrain. Lastly, there’s the visibility factor. A full-size pickup might be the king of the road, but its sheer bulk can come back to bite you when you hit the less traveled road. The long front end and towering hoods common to the full-size segment can make it tough to see the road ahead, which is a crucial part of any off-road excursion.
These factors have made the midsize segment the obvious choice for most off-road applications, giving drivers a daily driver that can double as a trail-chewing weekend warrior. Automakers are right on top of the trend, rolling out countless midsize pickups to satisfy the public’s appetite for all things off-road, so we’ve compiled this midsize truck off-road roundup.
For simplicity’s sake, we’re only going to pick one off-road trim per model. The Ford Ranger, for example, comes with no shortage of off-road upgrades to choose from, ranging from the F4X Off-Road Package to standalone trims like the Ranger Tremor and Ranger Raptor. Rather than doing a deep dive on each version, we’ll focus on the model’s most capable off-road guise, which would be the new Ranger Raptor in the case of the Ford Ranger.
The Nissan Frontier Pro-4X
We’ll start with the Nissan Frontier Pro-4X, which manages to strike a healthy balance between off-roading and everyday use. This isn’t a criticism of the pickup per se because as nice as a full raft of off-road features can be, there are times when the cumbersome nature of a dedicated off-roader can be more of a burden than a benefit. With the Frontier Pro-4X, Nissan has split the difference, designing a nimble, efficient pickup that can withstand the rigors of off-roading while still being a comfortable, convenient daily driver.
Just to be clear, the Frontier Pro-4X is not one of those purely appearance-oriented “soft-roaders” that have become so popular as of late; it’s a legitimate off-road contender complete with Bilstein shocks, three steel skid plates, and an electronic locking rear differential. It’s also the most powerful pickup on the list, with the 3.8-liter V6 engine giving drivers 310 hp to play with. Nissan’s Intelligent Around-View Monitor combines multiple video feeds into one composition video feed, allowing drivers to get a bird’s-eye view of the area surrounding the truck while making avoiding obstacles, and parallel parking, less stressful than ever.
While it has little to do with the off-roading experience, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to mention the Frontier Pro-4X’s interior. The pickup’s interior was refreshed for 2023, bringing it firmly into the modern era with stylish trims, supple surfaces, and a host of advanced tech features like a 7-inch color digital gauge display, heated steering wheel, and heated front seats, and most importantly, Nissan’s proprietary Zero Gravity seats. You know what, take back what we said; an interior this lush and cutting-edge certainly plays into the Frontier Pro-4X’s off-road appeal, giving drivers all the creature features and comfort options they need to stay on the trail as long as they like.
The Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro
Toyota has built its reputation on reliability, so if you’re looking for an off-road pickup that can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’, the Tacoma TRD Pro is a solid choice. Refreshed for the 2022 model year, the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro includes a generous allotment of off-road equipment headlined by the truck’s FOX 2.5-inch internal bypass shocks that have been tuned by Toyota Racing Development (TRD) engineers to make for the smoothest ride possible. The pickup also gets a thoughtful boost over the base Tacoma, with 1.5 inches of additional clearance at the front and 0.5 inches in the rear.
Powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine, the Tacoma TRD Pro is well-balanced when it comes to horsepower and torque. This is accomplished in a few different ways: a custom cat-back exhaust which helps to squeeze a little more power, and noise, out of the engine, Toyota VVT-iW technology, Atkinson-cycle combustion approach, and D-4S fuel injection system ensure maximum efficiency without any compromise in terms of power.
On the technology side of the equation, the TRD Pro is certainly no slouch. The pickup comes with two inventive technologies that go a long way in ensuring off-road success: Toyota’s Multi-Terrain Monitor and Crawl Control System. The MTM stitches together front, rear, and side-camera views on the 8-inch multimedia touchscreen, giving drivers a chance to spot and avoid any off-road obstacles before they can wreak havoc. CCS is almost like a form of low-speed cruise control, wrestling throttle and braking duties away from the driver so they can focus solely on steering. The system can be adjusted for sensitivity on the fly, making it easy to descend even the toughest slopes without having to white-knuckle it.
The Ford Ranger Raptor
Once exclusive to Ford’s marquee pickup in the F-150 (and the Bronco SUV in 2021), the Raptor trim has finally been expanded to the brand’s midsize offering in the form of the 2023 Ranger Raptor. Inspired by the harsh desert racing scene, the F-150 Raptor has set a new bar for the full-size segment when it comes to pure off-road power: a feat the Ranger hopes to replicate for the midsize segment. The all-new Ranger Raptor will go on sale in late 2023 as a 2024 model, giving Ford fans a new, more compact option for their off-road fun.
Given that the Ranger Raptor is so new, it’s a little tough to pin down specifics on the model, but there are some clues. The Ranger Raptor has been available overseas for the last couple of years, where its performance varies widely by region. In Europe, the pickup puts out around 288 hp and 362 lb-ft of torque thanks to its 3.0-liter V6 engine, but the Australian version of that same V6 sees the blokes down under enjoying 392 hp and 430 lb-ft of torque. We do know that the Ranger Raptor will come standard with a 10-speed automatic gearbox paired with a two-speed transfer case as well as locking front and rear differentials, which are some important features for any off-roader worth its tow hooks.
The Ranger Raptor will also be offered with Continental General Grabber A/T, Fox Racing shock absorbers with an adaptive valve, and a selectable driving mode feature that lets drivers choose between Normal, Sport, Quiet, and Baja modes. These modes subtly tune the truck’s throttle response, transmission response, brake and engine traction controls, and Electronic Stability Program (ESP), giving you a custom ride for every type of off-road surface. Quiet mode means you won’t wake the neighbors when you come back from a late-night off-road trip, while Baja mode does the exact opposite.
The Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison
The Chevy Colorado is already one of our favorite midsize pickups, but the addition of the ZR2 Bison packages puts it over the edge and allows it to compete with the rest of the off-road segment. Riding two inches taller than the stock Colorado and packed with a range of trail-tested off-road components, the Colorado also features a 3.5-inch-wider track and driver-favorite Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires.
Of course, an off-road truck will always be measured first and foremost by its locking differentials and suspension, and the Colorado ZR2 Bison earns high marks in both categories. The pickup’s advanced spool-valve dampers come courtesy of Multimatic, which is a big help when it comes to absorbing the constant impacts of off-road driving. The Colorado ZR2 Bison also comes standard with front and rear locking differentials, which is a major improvement over those opting just for the latter.
The Colorado ZR2 is already a more-than-capable off-roader, but it definitely gets a boost from the addition of the Bison package, which adds a hose of aftermarket accessories from the undisputed kings of the off-road customizations scene: American Expedition Vehicles (AEV). From fender flares and steel bumpers to rear recovery points, tubular armor, spots to attach a winch and fog lamps, and even boron-steel skid plates protecting the differentials, the Bison package is a must-have for any driver looking to bring their off-road game to the next level.
The Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Few brands know off-roading quite like Jeep. Born from rutted, rubble-strewn battlefields, the Jeep brand has made off-road performance a key part of its approach from day one. Given this impressive background, it’s little surprise that Jeep’s first pickup since the early 90s not only made the list but came out as one of our clear favorites.
After an almost 20-year hiatus, Jeep returned to the pickup scene in 2023 with the Jeep Gladiator. The Gladiator Rubicon represents the pickup in its most rugged form, complete with a full suite of hardy off-road equipment that puts many of its rivals to shame. From electronic-locking front and rear differentials and electronic-disconnecting sway bars to an aggressive approach angle and 11.1 inches of ground clearance, the Gladiator Rubicon was built for off-road excellence.
In crafting the Gladiator, Jeep took the popular Wrangler chassis, stretched it out, and added a heavy-duty solid axle suspension to give the midsize pickup a little more flexibility. The Tru-Lok electronic-locking front and rear differentials allow the Gladiator Rubicon to hold its own when it comes to low-speed applications like rock-crawling, and a wide track gives it improved stability of the base Gladiator model.
A Fox suspension makes for a smooth ride, and unlike some other midsize off-roaders on offer, it can be optioned with either a 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic transmission. The Gladiator Rubicon’s most unique trick might be its front anti-roll bar, which can be electronically disconnected to allow for the best possible suspension articulation. It’s a feature you won’t find on any other midsize off-road pickup, proving that Jeep is still a trailblazer in the niche segment.
If you’ve ever considered trading in your everyday vehicle for something that isn’t afraid to get a little down and dirty, there’s never been a better time to explore the off-road segment.
Exploring the Path Less Traveled Has Never Been Easier
Automakers are locked in an off-road arms race, giving drivers more choices than ever while integrating some of the latest and greatest off-road technology and components into the mix. From powerful, desert-racing-inspired choices like the Ford Ranger Raptor to well-rounded options like the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison and off-road behemoths like the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, there’s a midsize pickup out there for every type of off-road driver.
The construction, size, and maneuverability of midsize pickups make them particularly well-suited to live out on the trail, and these pickups also tend to be a little more affordable than some of their full-size off-road cousins. If you’re the type of driver who goes out of their way to splash through puddles and is always looking for an excuse to test their truck’s limits, the midsize off-road segment is worth a closer look.