For 2009, the truck buying landscape has altered dramatically, with the rise in fuel prices causing many Americans to shy away from traditional full-size and heavy-duty offerings. The heyday of regular folk using heavy, capable but thirsty work trucks as daily transport seems to have passed. This shift has seen renewed interest in the "compact" pickup class, a segment that has outgrown its label with larger offerings that now provide many of the same capabilities of traditional full-size trucks, with a slightly smaller fuel-economy penalty. The steady proliferation of creature comforts into the class, including spacious four-door cabs, back-up cameras, leather seating and other electronic and convenience features, continues unabated. With the sudden market shift by consumers away from traditional full-size trucks, manufacturers have redirected their efforts toward the traditional buyers in this segment, those who actually use trucks in their work. For 2009, the full-size segment has seen a revamp of two of the standard bearers in the class, and a focus on features geared toward work-site functionality. The number of model options is as wide as ever in the full-size segment, with buyers able to specify nearly any combination of cab type (regular, extended and four-door crew cabs) and drivetrain (two- or four-wheel drive) combined with different-sized bed lengths. Tow ratings continue to rise, and tow-friendly features previously reserved for the heavy-duty class have begun to filter down into the full-size class, including factory trailer-brake controllers.
The term "compact pickup" is a bit of a misnomer these days, as many traditional players in the class have swelled to midsize proportions, and can easily seat four or five passengers. You can still find four-cylinder engines and manual transmissions, but V6 engines and automatics now dominate the class, with a few models even offering V8 power. These smaller trucks are more capable than ever, but compared to full-size offerings, they still fall short in terms of towing and hauling capacities. But if your truck needs don't include 3,000-pound payloads or dragging around 4-ton trailers, compact trucks can provide a far more maneuverable and less expensive alternative.
In this compact class, our favorites continue to be the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma. The Frontier and Tacoma are both trucks in the traditional sense, with rugged body-on-frame construction and the availability of off-road-capable four-wheel-drive (4WD) systems. Each is available as a low-priced four-cylinder model, and both sport a 4.0-liter V6 as their most powerful engine option. The Frontier, even in its largest crew cab configuration, provides a noticeably sporty feel, both on- and off-road. The Tacoma's strong suit is its refined interior and sedanlike comfort. In addition to 4WD, both trucks are available with dedicated off-road suspension packages, and bed lengths vary depending on cab configurations. Cargo-bed rust prevention is handled by an available spray-in bedliner on the Frontier, while the Tacoma has a standard dent-resistant composite cargo bed.
For those who intend to spend most of their time on paved roads, Honda's Ridgeline is easily the most comfortable and composed truck on the market, whether you're talking compact or full-size. The Ridgeline's unibody construction and fully independent suspension provide true carlike isolation and comfort, but its lack of a dual-range gearbox limits its off-road abilities. Towing capacity is a respectable 5,000 pounds, and the moderately sized composite bed includes a watertight and spacious under-bed trunk. One of the biggest hurdles for the Ridgeline is its elevated base price ($28,000), which puts it out of reach for many small-truck shoppers.
Similar in concept to the Ridgeline, but far more capable off-road is the all-new 2009 Hummer H3T. Designed for the serious outdoor enthusiast, the H3T is a four-door short-bed truck based on a regular H3 SUV, and it provides a wealth of options for off-road enthusiasts. The H3T features a slightly claustrophobic but versatile cabin, and is available with either a mediocre (239-horsepower) five-cylinder or a stonkin' 5.3-liter V8. When equipped with the optional off-road package -- which includes serious 33-inch tires and electronically locking front and rear differentials -- the H3T is one of the most capable ways to really get away (and back) from it all.
For those looking for full-size towing capability in a midsize package, the Dodge Dakota is rated to tow up to 7,000 pounds when equipped with its optional 4.7-liter V8. When tarted up with a host of available options, the Dakota's sticker price can swell alarmingly, but if sanely outfitted, it's an equally roomy, and trailer-friendly alternative to the class-leading Nissan and Toyota. Mitsubishi offers a version of the Dakota called the Raider, but it provides fewer model configurations, and the V8 engine is not offered.
New for 2009 is V8 power in the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon twins. Still available with underpowered four- and five-cylinder mills, the optional 300-hp 5.3-liter V8 should help the pair keep up with the class leaders in terms of giddy-up. Unchanged are their spartan interior design and subpar seats. No longer available are the Isuzu-badged versions of the small GM pickups (the i-290 and i-370), which have been discontinued for 2009.
Ford continues to offer its Explorer Sport Trac for 2009, a crew cab pickup based on the Explorer SUV with a small-for-the-class 4.1-foot bed. The Sport Trac's standard mill is a 210-hp V6, with an optional 292-hp 4.6-liter V8. Both engines feel overtaxed in the Sport Trac, which thanks to its compact dimensions, lacks utility compared to others in the class.
Probably the only offerings that actually still deserve the "compact" moniker are the Ford Ranger and Mazda B-Series twins. The underpinnings of these two small trucks have gone essentially unchanged for many years, though both the interiors and features have seen periodic updates. Compared to any of the other offerings in the class, both the Ranger and B-Series feel rudimentary, with sloppy road manners and a minimal selection of safety and convenience features. Since they're available with both four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines, plus optional four-wheel drive, if you're looking for nothing more than an inexpensive off-roader, either can fit the bill.
Among full-size pickups, the offerings for 2009 are more capable and more evenly matched than ever. Among the major players in the class, all are more than sufficient for getting the job done, which seems to be the new focus among manufacturers. If you're not a lifelong fan of one particular brand, be certain to check out all the full-size options, as a particular feature or trait might serve you best. Several of the full-lux models are exclusively all-wheel drive, but nearly all the models in the full-size segment provide 2WD and 4WD variants; regular, extended and crew cab body styles; and a range of bed lengths.
If you are actually using your truck for work or have some serious towing requirements, you might want to look into heavy-duty models. The old half-ton, 3/4-ton and 1-ton payload capacity monikers generally no longer apply, as today's half-ton trucks often are rated to carry anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 pounds. Modern heavy-duty (1-ton) models can often carry loads up to 6,000 pounds. Heavy-duty models are available from Dodge, Ford and GM. Toyota has continued to showcase a heavy-duty version of its Tundra at auto shows, but with the drop in interest in these largest pickups, a production version might be farther down the road.
In this hotly contested field, it's often the most recently redesigned models that fare the best. For 2009, that's certainly the case, with the revamped Dodge Ram and Ford F-150 getting our recommendations. Each of these already competent models has received major revisions, making them more contractor-friendly while more civilized at the same time.
The 2009 Ford F-150 has addressed most of our previous gripes, with a new six-speed transmission and more powerful engines improving off-the-line response. The F-150 retains its towing crown (up to 11,300 pounds) aided by standard Trailer Sway Control (TSC) and an available factory-integrated Trailer Brake Controller (TBC) similar to those offered in its Super Duty siblings. The latest F-150 also offers the latest in-cab technology including voice-activated navigation, Sync, back-up camera, Sirius Travel Link and its Work Solutions package that can include a Windows based in-dash computer. A range-topping Platinum trim level is new for '09, likely filling in the (small) gap left by the discontinued Lincoln Mark LT.
Also revamped for 2009 is the Dodge Ram, which features a new coil-sprung rear suspension that makes it the smoothest-riding full-size pickup on the market. A stronger, more efficient Hemi V8 helps it keep up with the continuing class power struggle, and some slick new storage options will give it a leg up among contractors. A redone and well-crafted interior helps erase memories of the previous model's hard synthetic expanses, and the new expanded crew cab provides enough room for six passengers. The new crew cab is roomy enough that the previous Mega Cab version has been discontinued.
Last year's recommendations, the Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra and the Toyota Tundra, both remain solid considerations, and both offer towing capacities in excess of 10,000 pounds. The Tundra's 381-hp 5.7-liter V8 and a truly excellent six-speed automatic transmission help it lunge to 60 mph in just 6.3 seconds. The 2009 Silverado/Sierra also gain the availability of a six-speed automatic transmission this year, and GM provides more engine (and budget) choices, including 4.8-liter, 5.3-liter, 6.0-liter and 6.2-liter V8s. A two-mode hybrid version of the Silverado is expected to debut in 2009, and should provide a gain in economy similar to its Tahoe Hybrid sibling.
Nissan's large-truck entry, the Titan, offers a brawny V8 in a chiseled-looking package. The Titan provides excellent interior space and numerous convenience options, including a cargo track system in the bed with adjustable tie-down points. The only engine offered is a 5.6-liter V8, but it provides a healthy 317 hp and 385 pound-feet of torque. Paired with a well-calibrated five-speed automatic, the Titan isn't far off the quick stoplight pace set by the Tundra. The Titan's negatives include a no-frills interior with a plasticky dash and a slightly skittish off-road demeanor due to ultra-stiff suspension tuning.
If you want more of an SUV feel with your pickup truck, check out the Chevrolet Avalanche. The cargo bed of the Avalanche is part of the body structure, and features a unique "Midgate" system that allows owners to extend extra-long items into the rear portion of the passenger compartment. Luxury-minded shoppers will want to consider the mechanically similar Cadillac Escalade EXT. Offering the same utility with premium features, the Escalade EXT boasts a 6.2-liter V8 that makes 403 hp. The EXT provides standard xenon headlights, leather and wood trim and a high-quality Bose surround-sound stereo with a CD/DVD changer.