The 2024 Texas Truck Rodeo
WISE COUNTY, TX – In the fall of 1993 I was but a few weeks into what I call a career as an automotive writer. Working for a suburban newspaper group in southern Dallas County, I had obtained my first press car from Ford’s regional PR exec, Jim Bright. And it was Jim, a short time later, that put the very first Texas Truck Rodeo (held in San Antonio and hosted by the Texas Auto Writers Association) on my radar. At the time, the confluence of automotive journalists – several of whom were writing for daily newspapers – with a bunch of trucks and SUVs was regarded as novel. And while the Texas Truck Rodeo has continued for most of those subsequent thirty years – with only Covid-induced interruption – the market for trucks and truck-based SUVs has exploded, while the market for automotive writers has done just the opposite.
There’s probably no better contrast between ‘then’ and ‘now’ than the Rodeo’s official hotel. In 1993 it was San Antonio’s La Mansión del Rio, a luxury hotel on San Antonio’s riverwalk. Thirty years later it was the Fairfield Inn in Decatur, a satisfactory place to lay your head after a barbecue-filled evening – but you won’t confuse it with La Mansión.
The most obvious difference in those 30 years, beyond the absence of the metro dailies, was the variety of entries. In 1993 all of the major OEMs were represented, including Dodge, which brought its all-new Ram. Obviously, thirty years ago the industry didn’t offer the seemingly vast number of crossovers in any and every size, nor was there even the thought of electrification, but the light duty pickup was everywhere, and in that first year TAWA’s Truck of Texas designation seemed to be everything.
This year the Truck of Texas category was contested by Ram and Toyota. Ford, which essentially owned the award for the Rodeo’s first two decades, has – over the last several years – stayed in Dearborn, while Chevrolet and GMC eventually grew tired of losing. The absence of Ford and GM is, of course, regrettable, as a Rodeo with more is obviously more merry. But I’m not here to mourn their absence…I’m here to drive as much as possible in as many categories as possible.
In a nod to your kids and their participation trophies, the TAWA Board has created more categories than you can shake a stick shift at. Beginning with COMPACT SUV, the nominated vehicles include MID-SIZE SUV, FULL-SIZE SUV, OFF-ROAD SUV AND LUXURY SUV. (Be sure to take notes!)
Moving to trucks, we’re able to enjoy – and judge – the MID-SIZE PICKUP, FULL-SIZE PICKUP, HEAVY DUTY PICKUP AND OFF-ROAD PICKUP. In the absence of Ford and GM several of the categories were non-competitive; the most heavily contested was the off-road pickup, with three entries – two of which were from Ram.
Given that this is 2023, GREEN VEHICLE was timely, and here we were able to evaluate the Genesis Electrified GV70, Grand Cherokee 4xe and Dodge Hornet R/T Plus. The Genesis is a true EV, while the Jeep and Dodge are plug-in hybrids, with 25 to 30 miles of all-electric driving, along with the boost that comes from a hybrid motor connected to its otherwise conventional powertrain.
Journalists will receive ballots within the next few days. While waiting for that, here are my impressions:
COMPACT SUV – With Honda’s new CR-V Hybrid, Mazda’s CX-50 2.5 Turbo, Hyundai’s all-new Kona and Dodge’s newly introduced Hornet R/T Plus, there are no losers unless, of course, you can’t muster the $35-$40K necessary to buy one; at that point you, Mister, are the loser. Of these four, my heart would go to Mazda’s CX-50 for its tall wagon approach to crossing over, while my head probably heads to Honda’s CR-V Hybrid for its compelling combo of utility and efficiency. But you can make a good argument for any of them, but don’t get Hyundai’s new Kona without its 1.6 liter turbo.
MID-SIZE SUV – Mid-size constitutes a rather unique descriptive, as all three entries – Kia’s Sorento, Jeep’s Grand Cherokee and VW’s Atlas – veer into the full-size footprint; both the Sorento and Atlas, in fact, offer three rows of seating. There’s a good argument for all three, but Kia’s content is the most accessible, while Jeep’s Grand Cherokee can land at $50K before you can say ‘Native American’. Volkswagen has improved the Atlas in its latest refresh, but as a one-time Beetle owner I still think VWs should be smaller…not larger.
FULL-SIZE SUV – While Toyota’s all-new Grand Highlander, Kia’s well-regarded Telluride and Dodge’s Durango SRT Hellcat landed in the same category, no one is cross-shopping a Highlander (no matter how ‘Grand’) with a Hellcat. Going in I was fully prepared to give the trophy to Kia (the one I’d buy if needing a proportional 3-row), but that was before driving the Toyota. Its hybrid drivetrain, boasting 362 horsepower, 400 lb-ft of torque and a 26/27/27 EPA estimate is wondrous, and more than offsets the Grand Highlander’s somewhat bloated proportion. Add its 5,000 pounds of towing capacity and you have a vacation platform both ready and willing.
OFF-ROAD SUV – In the same way that few will cross-shop the Grand Highlander and Hellcat, few – in my view – will make the jump from a $75K Sequoia or Wrangler to the $95K necessary to buy the Wrangler Rubicon 392. But the Wrangler Rubicon 392 is as heroic as its branding, and if your entire reason for living is to take the path less taken, there are few new options more capable than the Rubicon and 392 cubic inches. With that, if you want to take your stuff the Sequoia can handle it, while the Rubicon will be hard-pressed to carry anything beyond your oversized ego…and billfold.
LUXURY SUV – The three entries, beginning with Acura’s MDX Type S and continuing with the Genesis Electrified GV70 and Jeep’s Grand Wagoneer, run the gamut within the segment. The MDX serves as the traditional standard bearer, while the truck-based Grand Wagoneer is (obviously) the most truck-like. Although the GV70 looks utterly conventional in its proportion and execution, it drives like nothing else except, of course, another luxury EV. If I could buy an electrified SUV, this is the one.
MID-SIZE PICKUP – There’s but one entry, Nissan’s freshened Frontier. Toyota didn’t elect to enter its ’23 Tacoma, while the all-new ’24 Tacoma served only as a static display. And – as noted – Ford’s Ranger and Chevy’s Colorado weren’t there. But the Frontier is well-designed, offers great V6 power, and in its Pro-4X offroad trim comes in at under $48K. In my mind it should not only ‘win’ the category (how could it not?). Given its utility and accessibility it should be the Truck of Texas. But there’s no chance.
FULL-SIZE PICKUP – Again, but one entry, but given that it’s the Ram 1500 Limited Elite, its win will be deserving. Built on the best truck platform with a competitive drivetrain and amazing interior, any 1500 is one heckuva way to roll.
HEAVY-DUTY PICKUP – Ram’s 2500 Rebel is about as serious as a passenger (opposed to commercial) truck is gonna’ get. Maximum capability is combined with an available 6.7 liter Cummins Diesel, which delivers maximum durability. Not only will the 2500 tow a house trailer…it’d probably tow your house. Out in Decatur, the Ram 2500 is arguably King of the Road, and is certainly king of the rough road.
OFF-ROAD PICKUP – Again, here we benefited from three entries, the Toyota Tundra HV 4X4 TRD Pro, Ram 2500 Power Wagon and Ram 1500 TRX. Again, my heart tells me I need to spend $105K on the TRX, while my head directs me to Toyota’s Tundra with its twin-turbo V6 hybrid powertrain. But if it’s a head vs. heart competition, the head will remind me that the Tundra – at $72K – is some $30,000 less than the TRX. And that $30K could buy you a few acres in Texas. Or (possibly) a store front in Decatur.