For 2008, Americans are just as likely to use their trucks for hauling their families as they are for hauling bricks. As such, manufacturers have responded by creating trucks that can easily handle both jobs. Most pickups now come in roomy crew cab configurations, and many higher-line models offer such comfort features as heated leather seats, back-up cameras (as much a help for trailer hook-up as for parking) and DVD entertainment systems.
Trucks are still the workhorses of America, however, so you'll still find plenty of capability in this segment. Many trucks now have the availability of different cargo bed lengths. Towing capacities have steadily increased as well, and manufacturers have added conveniences like transmission tow-haul modes and, on a few of the heavy-duty models, factory trailer-brake controllers. In addition, all trucks, whether compact or large, come with the option of four-wheel drive so they remain capable when the pavement ends.
Compact pickups have grown in size over the years, and many are now described as "midsize" and can legitimately transport families of four or five. Four-cylinder engines and manual transmissions are still around in this class, but V6s and automatic transmissions are commonplace. A few models offer V8 engines as well. These trucks are still less capable than full-size pickups when it comes to hauling and towing, but for buyers who don't require maximum towing and payload capacities, compact trucks are a much less expensive option. Moreover, their smaller size makes them easier to maneuver in city traffic.
Among compact pickups, our favorites are the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma. Both have powerful 4.0-liter V6s as their top-of-the-line engines, and their roomy interiors feel genuinely midsize in dimensions. Even as a crew cab, the Frontier has a noticeably sporty feel, whether on pavement or off-road, while the Tacoma's calling card is a spacious cab with Camry-like comfort and ambience. Both trucks offer a specialized off-road suspension package, in addition to the usual choice of two- or four-wheel drive. To satisfy your cargo hauling needs, the Tacoma has a standard non-rusting and dent-resistant composite cargo bed, while the Frontier can be equipped with a factory-applied spray-in bedliner and adjustable cargo tie-downs.
Dodge's Dakota is also a worthwhile truck to consider, thanks mainly to its available 4.7-liter V8. The 4.7-liter is heavily revised for 2008 and rated for significantly more horsepower. Properly equipped, the Dakota can tow up to 7,050 pounds -- the highest rating of any compact truck. The downside is that the Dakota gets pricey in a hurry when loaded with the V8 and a full plate of options, yet most buyers won't be satisfied by the performance of the base V6 engine. That said, the Dodge is just as pleasant to drive as the Nissan and Toyota, and its interior is equally roomy. In the past, we criticized it for cut-rate materials quality, but Dodge has made some improvements in this area for '08. Mitsubishi sells a rebadged version of the Dakota called the Raider: It's a reasonable alternative, but there's less variety of configurations and equipment.
Another option in this segment is the Ford Explorer Sport Trac, a crew cab pickup based on the Explorer SUV. Although Ford offers a choice of V6 or V8 power, neither engine is particularly strong, and ultimately, the Sport Trac lacks the utility of the competition. Because of the Sport-Trac's crew cab-only configuration, the truck has just one bed size and it's on the small side at just 4.1 feet long.
Rounding out the compact pickup segment are a set of twins and a set of triplets. The Ford Ranger and Mazda B-Series Truck twins have been in production for a very long time without a redesign. Compared to any of the above trucks, they feel rudimentary with sloppy road manners and minimal selection of safety and convenience features. Unless you want nothing more than an inexpensive off-roader, skip them.
The Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon and Isuzu i-Series siblings have a much newer design, but with nothing larger than a 3.7-liter inline five-cylinder in the stable of engines, they've never been able to keep up with Dodge, Nissan and Toyota in acceleration or towing capacity. Not helping matters is their plain interior design with low-buck materials and generally uncomfortable seats.
Among full-size pickups, the decks are more evenly stacked. With rare exception, all the trucks in this class are capable of getting the job done. Unless brand loyalty is a concern, it's a good idea to check out all the major players before making a purchase. Aside from a few luxury models that are exclusively all-wheel drive, all of these trucks are offered in 2WD and 4WD variants, and most offer regular, extended and crew cab body styles, along with a range of bed lengths.
Although most consumers focus on half-ton trucks, those who plan to use their truck on the job or tow a trailer, may need to look at heavy-duty three-quarter-ton and one-ton models. It should be noted that the terms "half-ton" and "three-quarter-ton" and "one-ton" do not actually pertain to a truck's payload capacity. In the early days of full-size trucks, a "half-ton" model could, in general, only carry around 1,000 pounds, but today's half-ton trucks can carry anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 pounds, depending on configuration and equipment. Modern heavy-duty models can carry loads up to 6,000 pounds. Currently, only Dodge, Ford and General Motors field entries in the heavy-duty class (but don't be surprised if Toyota rolls out a three-quarter-ton Tundra in the near future).
It's a good bet that the newest, most recently redesigned version of any vehicle will have advantages over the competition and that's certainly the case with full-size trucks. Both the half-ton Chevrolet Silverado, and its twin, the GMC Sierra, and the Toyota Tundra have been recently redesigned and both are well worth considering when purchasing a large pickup.
The Tundra gets our nod thanks, in part, to an available 381-hp 5.7-liter V8 and a truly excellent six-speed automatic transmission. That combination moves the Tundra from zero to 60 in just 6.3 seconds -- an amazing feat for a full-size truck. The Silverado and Sierra come with a potent 6.0-liter V8, but its low-end response isn't as impressive and it's paired up with a less flexible four-speed automatic transmission. However, both trucks offer a towing capacity in excess of 10,000 pounds. In addition, budget-minded buyers might find GM's trucks more appealing given the wider array of V8 engine options -- in addition to the 6.0-liter, a less expensive 295-hp 4.8-liter V8 and a 315-hp 5.3-liter V8 are available.
The Tundra's cab is roomy and modern with numerous storage areas, but we question the design of certain displays and controls -- the biggest fumble is the center stack, as many of the audio controls are nearly impossible to reach from the driver seat. In this respect, some consumers may prefer the Silverado/Sierra interior. Interior materials quality is solid in both trucks.
Nissan's entry in the large truck arena is the Titan, a brawny-looking large truck that offers a powerful V8, plenty of interior space and numerous convenience options, including a cargo track system in the bed with adjustable tie-downs. A 5.6-liter V8 is the only engine offered and it's good for 317 hp and a healthy 385 lb-ft of torque. It's paired with a well-calibrated five-speed automatic, and the result is that the Titan isn't far off the pace set by the Tundra. Downsides to the Nissan Titan include a no-frills interior with a plasticky dash and a slightly skittish off-road demeanor due to ultra-stiff suspension tuning.
Both the Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram are heading into redesigns for 2009. Each still has its strong points, but the newer trucks are notably better in terms of performance, amenities and overall refinement.
In the plus column, the Ford has an excellent highway ride and is nearly as comfortable around town as a family sedan. The Ford's major low point is its 5.4-liter V8, which simply doesn't offer enough low-end torque for a large truck. The Dodge Ram's 5.7-liter "Hemi" V8 is still plenty strong, and in our experience, performs well when towing. Another reason to look at the Dodge is its amazingly spacious Mega Cab body style, which easily accommodates five adults. Only the Tundra's CrewMax cab offers comparable passenger quarters.
Shoppers who don't need the pure utility of a full-size truck but still want the ability to haul plenty of cargo when the need arises might want to consider the Chevrolet Avalanche. It feels more like an SUV and less like a pickup thanks to a bed that's part of the body structure. That bed also boasts a unique storage system that includes a "Midgate," which allows owners to extend the cargo bed into the rear part of the passenger compartment to open up space for extra-long items.
If regular Home Depot runs are the extent of your truck needs, check out the Honda Ridgeline, which is easily the most comfortable and pavement-friendly truck on the market, whether you're talking compact or full-size. Of course, Honda's crew cab is not a truck in the traditional sense -- its towing and off-road abilities are quite modest -- but it does have a moderately sized bed with a water tight storage area below the bed's floor. Ridgelines are all-wheel drive only, so those who need a true dual-range 4WD system should look elsewhere.
Luxury-minded shoppers will want to consider the Cadillac Escalade EXT (mechanically similar to the Chevy Avalanche) or Lincoln Mark LT. Of the two, the Cadillac is far superior, as the Mark LT has no tangible advantage over a fully optioned Ford F-150. The Escalade EXT boasts a 6.2-liter V8 that makes 403 hp. The truck also comes standard with a full load of luxury amenities, including xenon headlights, leather and wood trim and a high-quality Bose surround-sound stereo with a CD/DVD changer.