Four years ago, when we last mixed farmers, mud, hills and new trucks, the trend-setting, revamped Dodge Ram edged out Ford and Chevy. This year Chevy and Ford's prototype rigs gained back an edge.

Our fifth truck rodeo brought together nine of our Team FIN farmers from across the Midwest during two rainy days in August to test what Detroit had to offer. The drivers put the trucks through their paces on a section of a motocross track, on an asphalt speedway and with a load over gravel and paved roads. Then they judged the trucks for service, convenience and comfort. They rated all test features on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent).

Several shapes and sizes. With GM plants shut down and production prototypes in limited supply, we could obtain only two half-ton trucks - a Chevy 1500 Silverado and Dodge Ram 1500; a three-quarter-ton Dodge Ram 2500; and a one-ton Ford F-350 Super Duty with duallies, all featuring 4x4 power.

The testers liked the variety of three sizes but could really compare only the two half-ton pickups, because the three-quarter-ton and one-ton didn't match up.

Before we launch into the results of the test drives, let's take a look at what the manufacturers claim is new and different on these 1999 models.

The Dodge Ram 1500 half-ton truck remains relatively unchanged for 1999. But it's a different story for Chevy.

It launched an all-new Silverado, which begins with a new exterior design. Underneath is a stiffer, lighter, three-piece modular frame that handles more rugged use and contributes to a smoother, quieter ride in what Chevy claims is the largest interior of any half-ton truck. The independent front suspension features several upgrades to improve stability, ride and durability. A 4-wheel disc/4-wheel ABS is now standard for the first time on a full-size pickup, with larger and more durable pads and rotors. Inside, the Vortec V-8 powerplant features more horsepower and a flatter torque curve than that of last year's engine. And to transfer this power to the road, Chevy developed an Autotrac active transfer case that senses slippage and will kick 4-wd in and out of gear to maintain maximum traction without any driver input.

The three-quarter-ton Dodge Ram 2500 remains much like last year's rig. But Ford claims to have added more size, power and value to its all-new Super Duty F-series.

The F-series begins with two platform sizes (less than 8,500 lbs. gross vehicle weight or more than 8,500 lbs.). From there, customers can choose from 44 vehicle configurations (as reported in our December 1997 issue), including cab styling, 2-wd or 4-wd, short or long box, gross vehicle weight designations, engine choices, trim packages and transmission options. Several notable features are a longer chassis; a SuperCab with four doors as standard (on the F-250 and F-350); a totally revamped cab interior and dash; a new Triton V-8 and V-10 gas engine with more horsepower, higher torque and better fuel economy; and 4-wd on the dual-rear-wheel trucks.

Half-ton challenge. Our test drivers compared the latest Chevy and Dodge half-tons head-to-head. Although the final tally gave a slight edge to the new Chevy (4.2 to 4.1), buying preference came down to personal needs.

The farmers claimed that half-ton pickups are not heavy enough to handle the rigors of the farm, yet many of them were impressed with both trucks.

When rating the trucks' handling on the motocross hills and in the mud, Team FIN farmers scored the Chevy much higher than the Dodge half-ton, 4.7 to 3.9, primarily because of Chevy's ease of shifting. "The new automatic four-wheel drive feature works great; it shifts from two-wheel to four-wheel without even feeling it," said Roland Schnell, who farms near Sully, IA. "The Dodge's mechanical shift on the transfer case is good at high speeds, but is still mechanical and not as user friendly," he added. Atwood, IL, farmer Gary Appleby echoed this majority sentiment, saying, "The Dodge was hard to get in and out of four-wheel drive, and the Chevy was convenient to shift."

On the asphalt oval, Dodge showed a slight edge over Chevy in braking and handling, 4.3 to 4.1. Pandora, OH, farmer Daryl Bridenbaugh liked Chevy's acceleration and handling. "It downshifted quickly and really had a lot of passing power for a small block V-8," he said. Scott McPheeters, who farms near Gothenburg, NE, thought that the Dodge shifted smoother under rapid acceleration. And Monmouth, IL, farmer Raymond Carrier added that "both half-tons were pretty even in this event, and the braking was excellent on both trucks."

Adding oil. Next, we pushed the half-tons beyond their limit by adding four 55-gal. drums of oil (1,840 lbs.). This weight was more than the recommended payload capacity for the half-tons, but most of the testers claimed they haul larger loads than that in their own truck beds.

Steve Webb, a farmer from Needham, IN, liked how the Chevy handled the load, as did other farmers. It outscored the Dodge 4.2 to 4.0. "It has excellent handling for a half-ton truck and would make a good choice for someone who occasionally hauls heavy loads," Webb said. Schnell added that the Chevy's smaller 5.3-liter V-8 had just as much power as the Dodge's 5.9-liter V-8 for this test. "But, as expected for a lighter truck, it was a little soft with some sway in the corners," he said.

To stress these smaller trucks even more, we hitched them up to a 550-bu. wagon partly filled with grain (total weight 13,660 lbs.). Most farmers thought that both trucks hauled this load equally, giving both rigs a score of 3.9.

"Both the Dodge and the Chevy had ample power," said John Bovill, who farms near Beresford, SD. And Schnell gave the Chevy high marks for its automatic 4-wd during this test because "it handled the load as well as the three-quarter-ton Dodge with the larger engine."

Under the hood. In our convenience analysis, the Dodge outscored the Chevy 4. 3 to 3.9. "The Dodge is much less cluttered under the hood, with easier access to clean the radiator and get to the oil filter," said John Engelland, who farms near Sterling, KS. Webb added, "The belt tension on the Chevy is a little hard to work with to change belts." Bridenbaugh applauded Chevy for its "new generation of wiring that is greatly simplified to reduce the opportunity for wiring-related problems."

Regarding convenience inside the cab, many of the farmers complained of the lack of dash space for mounting radios and microphone clips in all the trucks tested.

When it came to comfort, the new Chevy won this final category 4.6 to 4.3. All farmers voted the Chevy as having the most comfortable rear seat, as well as a great adjustable driver seat, but they wished it had the fourth door like the Dodge. "The bucket seats are impressive in the Chevy due to their adjustable lumbar support, as well as side support to fit both smaller or larger people," Schnell said.

Most farmers liked the updated design of the Chevy. GM just tweaked an already good design without opting for the radical changes some companies make for the sake of aerodynamics. And a few of the vertically challenged farmers liked that the Chevy is 2 in. closer to the ground.

The big trucks. Although comparing the Dodge 2500 three-quarter-ton (5. 9-liter V-8) and the Ford F-350 one-ton (6.8-liter V-10) is like comparing apples to oranges, our Team FIN testers were able to compare similar attributes for both trucks to help the discerning buyer.

The heavier Ford with dual rear wheels handled the mud and hills with ease; it was even able to climb in 2-wd. Carrier said that, in the comparable transmission category, "the Ford is far superior in 4-wheel shifting, ride and handling." Schnell added that the Dodge mechanical shift isn't as smooth or convenient as the electronic shifting in the other trucks. The rating, while not really comparable, was 3.6 for the Dodge 2500 and 4.5 for the Ford F-350.

In the braking and handling event, the trucks had an almost equal score: Dodge 4.0, Ford 3.9. Some of the farmers were amazed how well the Ford handled the slalom around the pylons, because they had never driven a dually. Schnell and Webb both commented that they were disappointed in the acceleration of the bigger Ford and that it was slightly more difficult to stop, causing the rear end to jump under hard braking. However, Gary Appleby said, "The Ford had excellent acceleration and it stopped well during hard braking."

When it came time to haul the oil drums, both trucks handled this chore with relative ease. Ford scored a 4.3, Dodge a 4.0. The main difference was in the ride.

Jack Appleby, who farms with brother Gary, liked the acceleration of the Ford while hauling and "it gave a smooth, fantastic ride, especially for a dually." The Dodge, he said, "gave a pretty stiff, rough ride. You could feel every ridge in the road." However, several farmers commented that the Dodge 2500 provided a quieter ride when it was under load.

When the trucks were hitched to a grain wagon, most of the farmers said they couldn't compare the trucks' hauling abilities because they were too different. Because of its big engine size and dual rear wheels, the Ford earned a higher 4.7 rating, compared to the Dodge's 4.1. "I like how the Ford shifts to four-wheel drive with just a knob, unlike Dodge's mechanical shifting," Gary said.

In looking at the differences in convenience, the testers gave the Dodge a 4. 3 and the Ford a 3.9. Most farmers liked both trucks' access under the hood. Engelland favored the Dodge because "the engine compartment is more accessible, whereas the Ford's bigger engine and height off the ground make access slightly more difficult." And Webb downgraded the Ford, saying that the spark plugs and the fuse box are hard to get to in a crowded engine area. However, other farmers liked the Ford's great serviceability of fluid checks and filter locations.

The Ford's new dash and standard four doors helped it narrowly beat the Dodge 4.6 to 4.3 in comfort. Most farmers liked the Ford's new styling and the functionality of its new outside mirrors, but many didn't care for its design.

No losers here. All in all, Team FIN members were impressed with the improvements made in the trucks since the 1995 models. And they all said that any of these four trucks would be great on their farms.