Recent years have seen many pickup truck buyers shying away from the full-size offerings. While those big workhorses are certainly impressive in their capabilities, the compact/midsize pickup segment has become more of the go-to vehicle class for those who need a pickup's versatility but don't require something that will tow the space shuttle. As they've grown more powerful and more robust, the smaller trucks boast greater towing and hauling capacities than their forebears. But whether you need a full-size or compact/midsize pickup, you'll find an almost limitless array of body styles (regular cab, extended cab, crew cab), bed lengths and interior features. The latter can make the truck as comfortable and easy to use as the owner wishes, via navigation systems, leather upholstery, heated seats and back-up cameras.
Nowadays, the term "compact pickup" makes about as much sense as "jumbo shrimp," as these trucks have grown in size and work capabilities. Although regular cab versions that could be called "compact" are still available; much more popular are the longer crew cab body styles, which can easily accommodate four or five passengers. You can still get a four-cylinder engine hooked up to a manual transmission in most of these rigs, but powerful V6s paired to automatics are more the norm. A few even offer V8 power. Yes, they still fall short of the full-sizers when it comes to all-out capability, but unless your needs are rather extreme, a compact (or midsize) truck should be more than enough for your needs.
In this segment, it's still tough to beat our favorites, the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma. They both offer rugged, proven body-on-frame architecture, a choice of either fuel-saving four-cylinder or brawny V6 power and the option of a ready-to-rumble four-wheel-drive (4WD) system. There are also similar options such as off-road packages and a choice of bed lengths. The Nissan and Toyota both enjoy a strong reputation for reliability but still have two distinct personalities. The Frontier -- even in rather large crew-cab form -- feels the sportiest to drive, whether on-road or off-, by virtue of its more communicative steering and firmer suspension. The Tacoma, on the other hand, provides greater cabin refinement and isolation from the rough edges of the outside world.
Large trucks may be losing favor in this country, but they're still huge sellers. Among the few available, the Dodge Ram and Toyota Tundra get our recommendations. The Ram brings more sophistication and refinement to the segment than ever before. A rear coil-spring suspension makes freeway journeys with the family a pleasant experience, while its interior trappings in upper trim levels rival many luxury sedans. Yet this increased civility doesn't mean the Ram is less of a workaday truck -- its towing and hauling abilities are just what you'd expect from this class.
The Toyota Tundra finds itself back on our recommended list thanks to a new-for-2010 midgrade 4.6-liter V8 that represents an excellent alternative for those who don't really need the prodigious power of the top-dog 5.7-liter V8. The Tundra's large cabins, quality construction, comfortable driving position and massive towing capacity add up to a smart choice.