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The Ram 1500 is the Motor Trend 2013 Truck of the Year.

The Ram 1500 pickup is the 2013 Motor Trend Truck of the Year. Five judges tested three contenders on ride, comfort and amenities before putting them to work hauling loads up Arizona Highway 68 to Davis Dam, a trek that's become an industry standard for towing uphill. Judges also kept an eye on the usual Motor Trend award criteria, including design advancement, engineering excellence, performance of intended function, efficiency, safety and value.

The 2013 model year saw only three trucks new enough to qualify for the competition. To take the top honor, the Ram 1500 had to square off against the 2013 Nissan NV Passenger Van and the 2013 Ford F-150. Even so, that's stiff competition for a truck that regularly falls well behind its competition in annual sales.

F-150, the truck to beat
From the start, the Ford F-150 was the truck to beat. It took the 2012 Truck of the Year award, and Ford regularly owns the light-pickup sales crown by a wide margin. Over the past year, Ford engineers haven't been sitting back with their heels up, either. For 2013, the F-150 hits the market with a new Limited trim level, which throws every option in the book at an already well-equipped package. But the biggest change comes under the hood. Buyers can take the keys to an F-150 with a 3.7-liter V6 engine that offers a tow rating of 6,700 pounds. That's a jump of 600 pounds over the 2012 model year.

But there were a few chinks in the F-150's armor. Testers found issue with the smallish buttons under the MyFord Touch screen and thought there wasn't enough visual differentiation between the Limited trim level and the rest of the F-150 fleet. In the end, Motor Trend evaluators decided, "this year's changes do not move the bar enough to earn the F-150 a repeat win for 2013."

More on the Ford F-150 from Motor Trend

Nissan van too 'downmarket'?
What of the 2013 Nissan NV Passenger Van? The cargo version of the NV lost to the F-150 by just one point in last year's competition, but this year's Passenger Van had some trouble living up to the expectations set by its bare-bones sibling. Senior Editor Jonny Lieberman said that while the cargo NV delivers all sorts of clever amenities that buyers don't typically expect to find in a stripped-down work vehicle, the 12-passenger NV feels "downmarket." That's a serious problem for a big commercial transport that enters the field with a $31,990 base price.

Testers complained about everything from uncomfortable armrests to an air-conditioning system that couldn't keep the big steel box cool under the Arizona sun. Throw in a set of cupholders that seem like an afterthought rather than a functional amenity, and the NV Passenger Van fell on a tough crowd. While judges found plenty to like in the hauler's brawny aesthetics and seat-integrated seatbelts, in the end those traits weren't enough to keep the NV from falling to the Ram 1500.

More on the Nissan NV Passenger from Motor Trend

Ram clearly the winner
The Ram 1500 did not win by default, however. Chrysler shoved a staggering amount of engineering into its newest pickup, and while the exterior may appear largely unchanged, there's little beneath the skin that hasn't received a substantial makeover. The company's Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 engine now powers entry-level trims, providing a massive 43 percent more horsepower than the previous 6-cylinder, and an all-new 8-speed automatic transmission adds both refinement and fuel-efficiency to a truck that had been badly in need of both.

Motor Trend judges also found the addition of an air-ride suspension to be "a giant leap for half-ton trucks." The technology not only allows the Ram 1500 to compensate for a wide range of loads, but also adds comfort and flexibility with its multiple height settings. The driver can choose from two off-road modes that add up to 2 inches of ground clearance, or an aerodynamic mode than can lower the whole vehicle by more than half an inch for better fuel economy.

The decision to give the 2013 Ram 1500 the Motor Trend Truck of the Year award was unanimous. Although the pickup lost points for its sluggish UConnect infotainment system, unusual rotary-dial gear selector and redundant controls on the steering wheel, the judges forgave those faults in the face of the vehicle's overall ride characteristics. Motor Trend said driving the 2013 Ram 1500 was "essentially like driving a Chrysler 300 with a bed." That's high praise.

Read:  2013 Ram 1500: First drive review

James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trend and European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.