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story.lead_photo.caption The 2019 Toyota Tundra is shown. (Photo courtesy of Toyota)

Austin—Maserati  will be there, Toyota's answer to the Ford Raptor will be there, as will the well-regarded new Ram when auto journalists from across the nation gather today for the Texas Auto Writers' Truck Rodeo.

If there's an early favorite, it's the all-new 2019 Ram pickup, winner of the opening skirmishes of the latest pickup war. Riding on a completely redesigned chassis that is lighter, stronger, better balanced, safer and better able to subdue noise, vibration and harshness than its predecessor, the new Ram came out of the gates fast, racking up a 10-percent sales growth in September, while chief rivals Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado saw year-over-year decreases.

Critics like the new Ram. In side-by-side-by-side comparisons, Car and Driver Magazine, Edmunds.Com and the Chicago Tribune all put Ram first, citing a more comfortable ride, a cabin as quiet as a cemetery at midnight and, on models equipped with a new light hybrid system, fuel economy similar to Ford's acclaimed twin-turbo V6.

"All three of these are solid trucks and fans of each brand won't have any trouble if they buy a new one," said Dan Edmunds, director of testing on an Edmunds video available on YouTube. "The Ram 1500 is Edmunds' top-rated truck. The others may satisfy brand loyalists, but this one could win some converts."

Ram's shot at 2018 State Truck of Texas was boosted by decisions by Ford and General Motors not to attend. Ford won the award the past two years and has taken home the big trophy 14 times, the most of any manufacturer.

Business decisions, not competition, were behind the decision not to vie in Texas, according to Mike Levine, Ford's North American Vehicle Communications Manager, and Joe Jacuzzi, executive director of vehicle brand communications for Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac.

"This is our second year not attending the Truck Rodeo," Jacuzzi said. "Please know, this decision was not made lightly. As the media landscape continues to evolve, we are constantly looking for ways to leverage our finite resources to deliver the greatest return on investment.

"For example, two years ago, we debuted the all-new Duramax diesel engine at the State Fair of Texas, where Texas owners helped us set a Guinness World Record for the largest flag pulled by a moving vehicle. "

Ford's Levine offered a similar explanation.

The 2019 Dodge Ram is shown. (Photo courtesy of Dodge)

"We are trying new custom programs to better serve Texas media this year. As a result, we will not participate in the 2018 Texas Truck Rodeo," he said. "We'll come to Texas to engage media with Ford-dedicated programs that provide more flexibility to share our newest products," he said.

"This decision has nothing to do with our competitors. As America's best-selling truck for 41 years and the best-selling truck in Texas, we're focused on serving the needs of our customers, regardless of what the competition does."

Ford and GM may not be at the dance, but the 69 journalists who have signed up will have plenty to drive challenging steep and rock-strewn trails on the 1,600-acre Longhorn River Ranch in the Hill Country.

In all. 19 manufacturers will send vehicles to gain exposure to writers come from across the Southwest and nation. Outlets expected to send staff include the New York Times and Consumer Reports. After opening formalities today, writers will spend Monday and Tuesday driving before selecting winners.

"In Texas, where almost 25 percent of trucks are sold and where many journalists are focused intensely on pickups, winning a head-to-head comparison is no small task," said Michael Marrs, host of a Saturday morning Houston radio show, "In Wheel Time," and president of TAWA.

Toyota will send along some of its TRD Pro trucks, billed as the ultimate off-road experience.  For 2019, the entire TRD Pro family rides on 2.5-inch TRD Pro-exclusive Fox Internal Bypass shocks. Tuned specifically for each vehicle by the engineers at TRD, the aluminum-bodied shocks offer damping suitable for everything from high-speed desert running, to slow-speed rock crawling, or for simply driving to and from work.

Hyundai, builder of two of the year's biggest hits, the Kona and new Veloster, will test the ranch's trails with the all-wheel-drive Santa Fe Ultimate. At 3,591 lbs, it is lighter than competitors like the Jeep Cherokee, Subaru Outback, Nissan Murano, Ford Edge and Kia Sorento.

Critics praise the Santa Fe Ultimate's controlled braking, torque vectoring and traction control, saying the Ultimate is as off-road capable as pricier competitors.

The Levanti, Maserati's mid-size SUV, is a performance champ. Similar in handling to the nimble Porsche Cayenne, it boasts a 424-hp engine and can hit 60mph in 5.1 seconds and tops out at 164 mph.

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