Rising fuel prices and a focus by automakers and the buying public on smaller cars and crossovers hasn't put a damper on the American driver's love of trucks. These former farm-bred vehicles are more than holding their own, saleswise, even during tough economic times. Part of this is because many trucks now offer all the amenities — leather interiors, premium stereos, Bluetooth and other advanced electronic features — that used to be found only in cars. And trucks are available in a wide array of body styles (regular cab, crew cab, extended cab), come in full-size and compact sizes, and also have improved fuel economy, making them even more appealing to the average consumer.
The Ford F-150 has been a perennial best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for more than 30 years, and the truck's steady evolution in terms of power and features has helped it retain top-dog status. Variety also keeps the F-150 ahead of the pack, since it's available in 10 different trim levels (from bare-bones basic to leather-trimmed luxurious), with three different bed styles and a selection of engines that range from a twin-turbo V6 to a 6.2-liter V8. And Ford's Sync technology — which makes connecting and using portable devices easy and offers other free features — makes the F-150 stand out from the competition even more.
The Ram 1500 gives the Ford F-150 serious competition in the large truck category, both with brute force and with finesse. The force is courtesy of the Ram pickup's class-leading Hemi V8 engine and 5-ton towing capacity, while the finesse comes from using a solid-axle rear suspension with coil springs to provide a smoother ride than traditional leaf springs. The Ram's roomier interior and ample storage space as well as its first-class cabin materials and electronic amenities (including one of the best voice-activated Bluetooth hands-free systems available) make it more of a serious contender to the F-150 rather than second fiddle.
Although our third pick in the full-size truck segment, the Chevrolet Silverado and its GMC Sierra twin offer some strong advantages that may sway some truck buyers. While it lags behind the competition a bit in terms of towing capacity, body style availability and options, these differences are very slight. Plus the Silverado/Sierra's smooth ride and lower wind and road-noise level, as well as its comfortable seats in the upper trim levels, make it a better long-distance road tripper. And it's the only truck that offers the convenience and safety of OnStar.
In the same way that Detroit makes rule the large-truck market, Asian labels dominate the compact segment. And Nissan and Toyota again get our top compact-truck picks.
The Nissan Frontier represents everything that's good about a compact truck: It's small enough that it handles well on streets and highways but is tough enough to take on most light hauling and towing duties and all but the toughest trails. The Frontier also has all the bases covered in terms of a wide range of models — from a base, no-frills four-cylinder S version to the V6-powered off-road-ready PRO-4X. It comes in a crew cab version with a full 60/40-split folding bench seat and an extended cab with flip-down seats, although either option is a compromise in comfort for rear-seat passengers. And there's no regular-cab option.
The Toyota Tacoma is notable and comparable competition for the Nissan Frontier in that it can be equipped with four- and six-cylinder engines and has similar payload and towing capacity as well as equal bed-length options. The Tacoma's slight advantage is you can get it in regular cab, extended or crew cab versions, and all models are available with four-wheel drive (except the street-oriented X-Runner). A deep list of option packages makes the Tacoma potentially more comfortable and tech-savvy than the Frontier, and its interior is a tad better, too.