Published: 02/22/2005 - by Dan Kahn, Contributor
Some decisions in life are simple; others are a bit more complicated. Picking out a new T-shirt at the mall? Easy. Deciding to get married? Hard. Choosing to plunk down $30 grand for a new truck isn't as profound as getting hitched, but it can be an involved and life-altering experience.
We're not suggesting that buying a truck is akin to finding a spouse, only that taking a close look at your specific needs and which pickup can satisfy them is an arduous process.
As full-size trucks continue to swell in size and cost, the so-called "small truck" segment has grown to midsize proportions. Designed to suit people who need to haul around a lot of gear but don't want a 20-foot land barge, these pickups offer spacious interiors, carlike handling and fuel-efficient engines.
A trio of redesigned trucks entered the fray for 2005, all claiming to be bigger, better and badder than ever before. We decided to pit the three freshmen against two established pickups in a fight for your hard-earned cash. Were any of these middleweight contenders worthy of a long-term commitment? Read on to find out.
The 2004 Chevrolet Colorado is the cheap date at this party. With prices starting around $15K and the prospect of better mileage from its five-cylinder engine, it promises the least damage to your wallet.
Based on a platform designed in the Carter administration, the 2005 Ford Ranger is certainly the most "experienced" truck of the group. As the lone throwback to the days when small trucks were actually small, the Ranger actually benefits from years of refinement and experience.
Taut lines and bulging fenders make the 2005 Dodge Dakota look like a muscle-bound athlete. With two V8 engine options and an available six-speed transmission, it packs the highest towing and hauling capacity in this class.
The Frontier is the "fun" truck of the group. Snappy throttle response, razor-sharp handling and big honkin' tires make driving the Nissan a grin-inducing experience. A rugged new chassis means the party doesn't have to end just because pavement does.
The Tacoma is exactly what you'd expect from Toyota: comfortable, quiet and solidly built. That doesn't mean the Toy is boring, however. It's significantly larger than last year's model, and a pumped-up V6 makes it one of the fastest pickups in the class.
All the trucks were four-wheel-drive crew cabs except for the Ford, which is only available as an extended cab. They all wound up costing around $30K, with a $5,000 spread between the $28,500 Colorado and the $33,600 Dakota.
The trucks were gauged on everything from off-road ability to acceleration with 1,000 pounds of sand in the bed. They were driven on the open highway, twisty mountain roads and in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The overall winner might surprise you, because it certainly surprised us.
How They Stacked Up
Going into this test, we put even money on the Dakota and the Toyota. Dodge practically invented this segment and is packing the only V8 in the class, while the Tacoma has been a strong contender despite its age. Both were redesigned for 2005, and each one offers a unique combination of carlike comfort and pickup utility. Either truck is a solid choice, but the Toyota is so much smoother and more refined it walked away the victor.
Nobody knew what to expect from the Frontier. As it turns out, Nissan designers and engineers spent a lot of time finding out what potential buyers want in a midsize pickup. Big power, a rugged chassis, tons of storage space and a load of safety gear make the new Frontier an incredibly practical pickup. Factor in tight handling and "mini-Titan" looks, and it managed a tight second-place finish.
If the Dodge had a nicer cabin and a few more ponies under the hood, it could have won this test. The big Dodge isn't cheap, either. With a price tag thousands of dollars higher than the next most-expensive pickup, the Dakota simply couldn't compete with the Nissan and Toyota.
The Colorado was introduced in 2004 as a totally new design, which makes its poor performance that much more embarrassing. The five-cylinder engine simply can't keep up with the V6s from Dodge, Nissan and Toyota. A spartan interior shrouded in hard plastic makes a bad situation worse.
Bringing up the rear is the Ford Ranger, arguably the most capable off-road machine of the group. Its old-school platform, small size and cramped cabin dropped the Ranger into fifth place, but the Ranger displayed solid fit and finish. The FX4 package adds a capable suspension that works with the truck's small size to make it a confidence-inspiring performer off the beaten path.
If you actually enjoyed the '80s, Ford Motor Company makes a time machine that will take you back there. It's called the Ranger, and about five minutes behind the wheel will have you banging your head and looking for Van Halen tapes all over again.
Don't get us wrong, the Ranger is actually a fun little truck that does its job quite well. Riding on a platform that was designed in the '70s, the Ranger does the best it can with dated components and diminutive dimensions.
The Ranger's suspension may not have changed much over the past decade or two, but the powertrain has undergone a handful of excellent upgrades. Its 4.0-liter V6 is only rated at 207 horsepower, yet it feels much more powerful than the 220-horse five-cylinder in the Colorado. It's also much smoother and its five-speed automatic does an excellent job of managing the V6's limited power band. On the highway or off-road we were never wanting for power.
Speaking of going off-road, this is one area where the Ranger shines. Our test truck was equipped with the pricey FX4 Level II package which includes a suspension lift, Alcoa forged alloy wheels and 31-inch BFG All-Terrain T/As. The Ranger's shift-on-the-fly transfer case was also the fastest and smoothest in the group.
Climbing over boulders and through gulleys in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Ranger instilled absolute confidence. The combination of grippy tires and the truck's short wheelbase made it an absolute blast to drive.
When the off-road adventure was complete and we had to drive home for the night, the Ford was just as smooth and refined. The interior featured some of the best fit and finish of the group, and the optional leather bucket seats were very comfortable. We also like the leather-wrapped steering wheel and the new ringed instrument cluster designed to look like the gauges in the F-150. The center console is wide and flat, with dual expandable cupholders and two power outlets for added convenience.
Legroom falls short compared to the newer trucks, and since Ford doesn't offer a Ranger four-door, we had to make do with small rear-opening access doors. The "backseats" are actually small pads that fold down and face inward, so that the occupants would be facing each other knee-to-knee. It really didn't pose a problem though, since the quarters back there are so cramped only small children could fit back there.
At $29,000 the Ranger FX4 isn't cheap, but if you don't need a tow vehicle or a backseat, it can get the job done. The only reason it finished in last place is its high price tag and lack of features.
While it isn't perfect, there's a reason the Ranger is the sales leader in this segment, year after year. Now if you'll excuse us, we've got a Bob Seger album to listen to.
Watching a hero slide down the backside of greatness is never fun. Michael Jordan in his baseball phase comes to mind. Or Journey after Steve Perry left. Such is the case with Chevrolet's truck division.
Chevy trucks have been a dominant force in this country for generations, and for many years they were arguably the best pickups in the world. When the time came to redesign the aging S10, GM engineers took a new tack and built a slightly bigger truck with a smaller engine. An inline five-cylinder was selected because, according to GM, it makes the power of a V6 with the fuel economy of a four-cylinder. Unfortunately, neither is the case.
We have a fair amount of experience with this platform, since our long-term '04 GMC Canyon is a near twin of the '05 Chevy Colorado in this comparison test. Both are 4x4s with the Z71 off-road package, both have cloth interiors and the 3.5-liter five-cylinder.
The problem is, the Colorado feels cheap. The doors are lightweight and tinny, and they make a high-pitched clang noise when slammed. Slide behind the wheel and the first thing you'll notice is how cheap the upholstery feels. Our tester came equipped with a $340 deluxe front seat option, but the seats were uncomfortable, unsupportive and covered with only a thin layer of foam. We can't imagine what the standard seats are like.
The rest of the interior is a vast wasteland of cheap hard plastic. The door panels are hard and sharp and the panel fitment was mediocre. Cupholders are few and far between, and there wasn't much storage space to speak of either.
On the road, the Colorado continued to disappoint. The five-cylinder engine feels like four, not a six, and several editors noted strange harmonics and vibrations coming from the drivetrain at highway speed.
Flooring the accelerator produces a lot of noise, but not much power. The truck ran zero to 60 in 9.9 seconds, and it ran the quarter-mile in 17.4 seconds. With 1,000 pounds of sandbags in the bed, the time increased over a second to 18.6. The Colorado also had the lowest payload and tow ratings in the test.
On a brighter note, handling is actually quite crisp and the truck performed admirably off-road. Big knobby tires, lots of suspension travel and wide-open fenders make it ideal for climbing over trails, especially since speed isn't a factor.
All of these issues would be easier to understand if the Colorado was inexpensive. Small engines, cheap interior materials and the like were acceptable 20 years ago when compact trucks cost $15 grand. The problem is, our test truck carried a $28,500 sticker price. Granted, most GM and Chevy dealers offer heavy rebates and discounts, but even if you could pick one up for $25K, that still seems like a lot of money for what you get.
When the only other small trucks on the market were the Ranger and the Nissan Hardbody, Chevy could offer a pickup like this and get away with it. Those days are gone. Take one look at a Tacoma's interior or a Frontier's standard features list, and it will become very clear why the Colorado placed fourth in this test.
Survival of the fittest. Kill or be killed. Trucks are big business these days, and two of the biggest automakers in Japan have figured out that Dodge was ruling the midsize pickup world because it offered more space and power than anyone else in the market. Now Toyota and Nissan have supersized pickups with powerful engines just like the Dakota, and suddenly the baby Ram is faced with serious competition.
On paper, the Dodge looked like a surefire winner for this comparison test. The '05 Dakota is packing an all-new chassis, not one but two V8 engine options, six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmissions, available all-wheel drive and best-in-class towing capacity. Throw in killer styling and you should have yourself a winner, right?
The problem is, for all of its positive attributes, the Dakota's performance fell flat. The base 4.7-liter V8 pumps out a paltry 230 horsepower, well short of Nissan's and Toyota's V6s. The Dakota took 9.6 seconds to meander up to 60 mph, and with 1,000 pounds of payload in the bed it eclipsed the quarter-mile in 18.3 at 75.5 mph. Those numbers are hardly impressive considering this is the only truck in the class with a V8.
Some would argue that the Dakota's optional high-output V8 would have fared better, but given that our tester priced out at a whopping $33,600 the thought of paying even more was frightening.
With those gripes out of the way, the Dakota is actually a very nice truck. The interior design is outstanding, although more soft-touch materials wouldn't hurt. The silver-ringed chronograph-style gauges are easy to read and look good at night. The thickly padded steering wheel has cruise controls on the front and stereo controls on the back, which makes it easy to dial up some killer tunes on the satellite radio without taking your eyes off the road.
The aluminum-trimmed center stack looks slick slightly offsetting the hard plastic panels elsewhere in the cab. Bringing drinks along for the ride is easy thanks to a large water bottle holder and two adjustable cupholders in the center console, which also houses several storage trays and two power outlets.
Both the front and rear seats are extremely comfortable thanks to firm padding and nicely contoured backrests. The Dakota also offers the most legroom of any truck in the test, and the backseat is positively sedanlike.
The seats aren't the only area where the Dakota feels like a sedan. On the road it hunkers down and handles like a car, with easy, yet responsive steering and a supple ride befitting a station wagon more than a pickup truck. In fact it drives a lot like our long-term Magnum RT. The exhaust note is throaty when the pedal is floored, but hushed when cruising along at highway speeds.
The pickup bed is the perfect size, not as short as the Chevy or Nissan yet not as cumbersome as the extra-long Toyota.
Overall the Dodge is a solid truck that is probably the easiest to drive on a daily basis. It's perfect for people who need four doors and the room of a sedan, yet need a pickup bed to haul gear around. It's not as refined as the Toyota, and it doesn't have as many features as the Nissan, but for American truck fans the Dakota might be a perfect fit. If only it had a bit more muscle .
Calling the '05 Frontier all-new is an understatement. While the previous generation suffered from a tired chassis and a lethargic engine, the new model is all rock-hard abs and rippling muscles. The truck's backbone is a shortened and narrowed version of the fully boxed frame from the full-size Titan. Power comes from a 4.0-liter V6 that is a punched-out version of the silky-smooth six in the 350Z with a five-speed automatic handling the shifts.
A squared-off grille, chrome bumpers and peaked fenders visually link the midsize pickup to its powerful big brother. Other bright ideas borrowed from the Titan include an optional spray-in bedliner and an adjustable "utilitrak" tie-down system with rails on the sides, bottom and front of the bed for maximum versatility.
Behind the wheel the Frontier feels solid. The heavy-duty frame is ultrastiff which makes for a choppy ride but unmatched rigidity off-road. The exhaust emits a pleasant bark when you lean into the throttle, and little things like a console shifter and leather-wrapped steering wheel lend a sporty feel to the pickup.
That big, beefy frame and torquey motor are also good for hauling heavy loads, and the Frontier is rated to drag 6,300 pounds when equipped with the towing package.
Steering feel is tight and communicative. The truck was the best handler of the group even though the Dodge and Toyota managed to run through the slalom quicker. The Frontier also boasted the second-fastest acceleration of the group, sprinting from zero to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds. More telling was its ability to run the quarter-mile with 1,000 pounds of sand in the bed in 17.3 seconds, second only to the Toyota.
Around town and on the highway the Nissan was comfortable but a bit harsh. Our test truck came with the Nismo off-road package which includes Bilstein shocks and all-terrain tires that contributed to the rough ride. We were glad to have it once we got off-road though, because the Frontier romped over rough terrain and jagged boulders like a speed-addled mountain goat.
Another area where the Frontier excels is feature content. Spend a few minutes exploring the spacious interior and you'll be amazed by some of the innovations packed into the four-door cab. A large clamshell-like dual glovebox built into the dash has plenty of room for trail maps, gloves and a few hundred parking tickets. The door panels feature large storage pockets with integrated water bottle holders, and the center console has three 12-volt power outlets and dual expandable cupholders.
The front seats are bolstered and padded to fit the contours of your back, and interior grab handles on the inside of the A-pillar and the top of the door opening make climbing in and out a breeze. Backseat passengers are just as coddled, thanks to dual cupholders that fold out from the center console and a padded fold-down armrest.
Stowing gear in the cabin is easy thanks to a split-folding rear seat that lifts up to reveal a clever storage tray covered with a snap-down safety net. Another feature unique to the Frontier is a fold-flat front seat which buttons down in seconds.
Our only real complaint about the Frontier's interior centers on materials, not build quality. The plastic is hard to the touch and boring to look at. Not that we're expecting supple cowhide on every surface, but in a $30K truck it would be nice to have a few different colors and textures to break things up.
The Frontier managed to combine a long list of features, respectable performance and impressive driving dynamics to eke out a silver medal finish. If you want a refined daily driver with the handling of a sports car, the space of an SUV and the ability to climb over just about anything, the Frontier is the truck for you.
Remember the T100? No, we're not talking about Schwarzenegger's stint as a robot from the future. The T100 was Toyota's version of a midsize pickup back when the Tacoma was still a small truck and the Tundra was nothing more than a pipe dream. Toyota's midsize hauler offered a nicely put-together cabin and a 6-foot pickup bed in a package slightly smaller than a typical full-size truck. Unfortunately it was ahead of its time, and Toyota fazed the T100 out after a few short years.
The class formerly known as "compact" trucks has evolved into a pack of midsize pickups with big engines and bigger towing capacities. Toyota's venerable Tacoma has been fully redesigned for 2005, and after growing more than 6 inches in length and picking up a powerful new engine it is now bigger than the old T100. Go figure.
Driving the new Tacoma is a lot like driving a four-wheel-drive Camry. The truck sits nice and high, with a great stance. The ride is excellent — especially for a four-wheeler. Steering feel is solid but slightly numb, also like a Camry.
From the outside the Tacoma's family heritage is unmistakable, although the new lines are more angular and aggressive than the softer, smaller Toyotas of years past. Big bolt-on flares on four-wheel-drive and Pre-Runner models add to the truck's aggressive "bring it on" look.
Three cab configurations are available: standard, extended cab and double cab (or crew cab). Three bed lengths are also available making the Tacoma the only midsize truck that can be configured as a crew cab long bed.
Speaking of beds, the Tacoma packs the most innovative bed of the bunch. Rather than relying on spray-on or bolt-in bedliners, the Toy's inner bed is made out of a dent-resistant polycarbonate material that will never rust or scratch. It also features adjustable tie-down hooks like the Nissan and innovative lockable storage boxes integrated into the bed itself. To top things off, you can also configure the Tacoma's bed with a 400-watt electrical outlet for powering tools or camping gear.
Similar attention to detail appears inside the truck where it looks like Toyota let a few Lexus designers loose on the interior. A triple binnacle gauge pod provides plenty of information and is easy to read at a glance, and the steering wheel can be configured with thumb-operated stereo controls.
Our test truck had a two-tone slate and tan color treatment that looked classy and upscale, and soft-touch material covered virtually every surface. We also noted that the front bucket seats were the most comfortable chairs in the test.
The backseat wasn't quite as comfortable mostly due to its harsh 90-degree "park bench" shape. This is also a problem in the full-size Tundra, so maybe Toyota ought to look at how the human spine is shaped and work a little extra curvature into the seat contour. The backseat does split and fold, however, creating a cavernous amount of storage space if the need arises.
On the road the Tacoma is surefooted and easy to drive. The ride is whisper-quiet even at freeway speeds, and the truck performed relatively well in the canyons despite its extra-long wheelbase. It handled just as admirably off-road, with plenty of suspension travel and excellent grip from the optional Dunlop GrandTrek tires.
The Toyota's 4.0-liter, 245-horsepower V6 may be 20 horses down on the Frontier, but with 400 fewer pounds to lug around the Tacoma proved the quicker truck. The big red Toy ran zero to 60 in 7.8 seconds, and the quickest quarter-mile (17.1) when loaded down with 1,000 pounds of sand. It was also fastest through the slalom at 58.9 mph.
Our only complaint about the Tacoma's performance is its lack of low-end torque. We also noted that it didn't like running on regular fuel, and we're guessing that Toyota is squeezing so much power out of a 4.0-liter engine it needs the extra octane to reduce risk of detonation. If you plan on towing (the Tacoma is rated to tow 6,500 pounds), plan on running premium fuel only.
It's ironic that the biggest truck in the test is also the least trucklike to drive. Toyota did an outstanding job designing a functional yet attractive hauler with enough power to give many of the full-size pickups a run for their money. The new Tacoma may be a spiritual successor to the short-lived T100, but it has eclipsed its ancestor in every conceivable way.
|Fun to Drive|
|Seat Comfort Front|
|Seat Comfort Rear|
|Wind & Road Noise|
|Rattles & Squeaks|
|Climate Control Design/Operation|
|Audio System Design/Operation|
|Secondary Control Design/Operation|
|Overall Build Quality|
|*The Frontier we tested was a preproduction vehicle, therefore we expect quality to improve in actual production models.|
|Exterior Dimensions & Capacities|
|Chevrolet Colorado||Dodge Dokota||Ford Ranger||Nissan Frontier||Toyota Tacoma|
|Curb Weight, lbs.||3802||4306||3705||4502||4100|
|Max Payload Capacity||1486 lbs||1730 lbs||1580 lbs||1293 lbs||1485 lbs|
|Maximun Towing Capacity||4000 lbs||7100 lbs||N/A||6100 lbs||8100 lbs|
|Chevrolet Colorado||Dodge Dokota||Ford Ranger||Nissan Frontier||Toyota Tacoma|
|Front headroom, in.||39.6||39.9||39.3||40.0||40.1|
|Front legroom, in.||44.0||41.6||42.4||42.4||41.7|
|Rear headroom, in.||38.3||38.4||33.3||38.7||38.5|
|Rear legroom, in.||34.8||36.4||40.1||33.6||32.6|
|Maximum Seating Capacity||5||6||4||5||5|
|Engine & Transmission|
|Chevrolet Colorado||Dodge Dokota||Ford Ranger||Nissan Frontier||Toyota Tacoma|
|Engine Type||DOHC I-5||SOHC V8||V6||DOHC V6||DOHC V6|
|Horsepower (SAE) @ rpm||220 @ 5600||230 @ 4400||207 @ 5250||265 @ 5600||245 @ 5200|
|Max. Torque, lb-ft @ rpm||225 @ 2800||290 @ 3600||238 @ 3000||284 @ 4000||282 @ 3800|
|Transmission||4-Speed Automatic||5-Speed Automatic||5-Speed Automatic||5-Speed Automatic||5-Speed Automatic|
|Observed Fuel Economy City/Hwy, mpg||13.54||14.87||13.62||16.10||15.4|
|EPA Fuel Economy City/Hwy, mpg||17/22||15/20||16/20||15/20||17/21|
|Chevrolet Colorado||Dodge Dokota||Ford Ranger||Nissan Frontier||Toyota Tacoma|
|Zero-to-30-mph acceleration, sec.||3.4||3.3||3.4||3.3||2.8|
|Zero-to-60-mph acceleration, sec.||9.9||9.6||9.2||8.4||7.8|
|Quarter-mile acceleration (sec@mph)||17.35 @ 84.94||17.37 @ 78.84||17.17 @ 81.58||16.65 @ 85.77||16.16 @ 87.16|
|Quarter-mile acceleration w/1000 lbs payload||18.63 @ 77.26||18.34 @ 75.55||18.34 @ 78.24||17.28 @ 81.11||17.10 @ 82.06|
|60-to-0-mph braking, feet||139.29||125.6||140.84||129.98||118.34|
|600-ft slalom, mph||56.8||58.4||55.7||57.6||58.9|
|Chevrolet Colorado||Dodge Dokota||Ford Ranger||Nissan Frontier||Toyota Tacoma|
|Basic Warranty||3 years/ 36,000 miles||3 years/ 36,000 miles||3 years/ 36,000 miles||3 years/ 36,000 miles||3 years/ 36,000 miles|
|Powertrain||3 years/ 36,000 miles||7 years/ 70,000 miles||3 years/ 36,000 miles||5 years/ 60,000 miles||5 years/ 60,000 miles|
|Roadside Assistance||3 years/ 36,000 miles||3 years/ 36,000 miles||3 years/ 36,000 miles||3 years/ 36,000 miles||3 years/ 36,000 miles|
|Corrosion Protection||6 years/ 100,000 miles||5 years/ 100,000 mile||5 years/ unlimited mileage||5 years/ unlimited mileage||5 years/ unlimited mileage|
When you're buying a vehicle that you expect to do a little bit of everything, having the right features can be the difference between a truck that exceeds your expectations and one that leaves you wishing for more. After driving our test trucks for the better part of two weeks, we asked each editor to pick the top features that he or she thought would be the most useful to the average buyer in this segment. Any feature that was standard on all five trucks was thrown out and points were awarded based on whether each feature was standard, optional or not available.
|Chevrolet Colorado||Dodge Dakota||Ford Ranger||Nissan Frontier||Toyota Tacoma|
|Adjustable Bed Tie-Downs||N/A||N/A||N/A||S||S|
|High Performance Off-Road Package||O||N/A||O||O||O|
|Locking Rear Differential||O||O||O||O||O|
|Split-Folding Rear Seat||S||S||N/A||S||S|
|Steering Wheel Audio Controls||N/A||S||N/A||O||O|
N/A: Not Available
Adjustable Bed Tie-Downs: While just about every pickup truck offers places to tie up loose cargo, the Frontier and Tacoma took this idea one step further with heavy-duty cleats that can be repositioned just about anywhere along the sides of the bed. Utility rails along the sides and floor of the bed provide the anchoring points and no tools are needed for adjustment.
Bed Lights: Loading cargo or hitching up a trailer in the dead of night can be a difficult proposition, especially if you're far away from civilization. Having a lit bed and tailgate area can make working at night easier and safer.
High Performance Off-Road Package: Whether you just want the look of an off-road-ready vehicle or you actually plan to do a little back-roads exploring, an optional off-road package will set your truck up for either scenario right from the factory. Most of these setups combine all-terrain tires, heavy-duty shocks, retuned springs and various underbody skid plates.
Locking Rear Differential: Every pickup in this test is available with a limited-slip differential, which evenly distributes traction to both rear tires under a load. Truck buyers who engage in more rigorous activities like towing heavy boats up wet launch ramps, hard-core off-roading and even rock crawling may want to consider a locking rear differential. A locking rear diff forces both wheels to turn evenly when traction is reduced.
Satellite Radio: The perfect way to enhance an off-road adventure or long road trip, satellite radio offers hundreds of different stations varying from commercial-free music to talk radio, sports and even local traffic updates. Of course the true beauty of satellite is that it never loses reception, so you can rock out to your favorite tunes just about anywhere, even in the middle of a forest.
Side Airbags: Side airbags have proven to be very effective in reducing injuries caused in side-impact accidents. The Nissan Frontier offers optional seat-mounted side airbags that protect your torso as well as side curtain airbags that protect your head. The Dakota, Colorado and Tacoma offer side curtain airbags only.
Split-Folding Rear Seat: Pickup trucks are designed to haul big loads of cargo, people or both. The beauty of a split-folding rear seat is that you can fold up part of the seat for added internal storage space without giving up the ability to carry extra passengers.
Dent-Resistant Bedliner: While most bedliners are simply plastic covers that are dropped into the bed, the Nissan Frontier offers a spray-in liner that not only looks better, but features a nonslip surface that won't trap water underneath (trapped water can, of course, lead to rust).
Stability Control: This electronic safety system can sense when the vehicle is deviating from the driver's intended path and uses a combination of individual brakes and reduced throttle to restore control. Only the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma offer this option, although the Toyota doesn't allow it to be combined with an off-road package.
Steering Wheel-Mounted Audio Controls: Want to listen to music without taking your eyes off the road? Stereo controls at your fingertips can add both safety and convenience.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
If I had it my way, the Nissan, Dodge and Toyota would come in with a three-way tie. Each offers something special and worthwhile that the other does not.
The Nissan is fun to drive and has a zippy engine. Add a killer Rockford Fosgate stereo, spray-in bedliner and adjustable tie-downs and the deal is sealed.
I've never been a fan of the Dodge Dakota but this new version is top-notch. It's a good-looking truck that offers V8 power and excellent ride and handling dynamics; notably better than the other trucks (although the Canyon/Colorado comes close on this count). Unfortunately, the Dakota's interior is seriously lacking when compared to the Toyota's.
I expected the Tacoma to be the winner before the vehicles even arrived. The interior is by far the best of the bunch and borders on Camry-like comfort. But despite the cushy interior, the overly soft ride detracts from the truck's overall feel. Handling is kind of sloppy and the suspension ends up causing too much commotion. Plus, the engine and transmission seem to be constantly searching for power.
By comparison, the Ford Ranger is dismal and serves only as a rolling time capsule of 1980s-era compact pickups. Rough ride, weak and noisy engine, dated interior — yep, it's all there.
And then there's the Chevrolet Colorado. It's basically a middle-of-the-road truck that offers adequate everything. Nothing is horrible but nothing is exceptional. It is competent but just doesn't move me.
If someone gave me a free midsize pickup, I'd take the Dodge. But I certainly wouldn't mock anyone who chose the other three. However, choose a nearly $30,000 Ford Ranger and all I can say is that you got straight punked. There's only one real loser in this bunch.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
I don't get Chevrolet. Knowing full well that new versions of the Tacoma, Dakota and Frontier were on the way, they decided to make a five-cylinder the top engine in their all-new pickup. Performance is acceptable around town, but drive it back-to-back with every truck here, except the Ford, and the Colorado comes across as coarse and down on power. If there were a price advantage of $3,000 or so, then maybe I could cut the Colorado some slack. But when its sticker is within $1,600 of the Tacoma, I'm afraid I just can't do that.
Before I got to know the Ranger, I was prepared to label it as the dog of the group. But a funny thing happened after logging some miles in the sporty red truck — I found the Ranger quite likable. The Ranger's big V6 is hardly cutting edge, but it provides ample low- and midrange response. The FX4 package helped the Ranger rock off-road, yet didn't beat me up on pavement. Like its age-old rival Chevrolet, Ford needs to put some of its considerable resources into improving this pickup.
The Tacoma impressed me with its refined demeanor. On the pavement, the Tacoma's ride and handling are as smooth as a Camry's. In the brush it was confident and unstressed. Doubly impressive considering that this is a fairly big truck, closer to full-size than midsize in my book. The engine made its presence known when you put your foot into it with strong midrange performance and a powerful sound. A spacious cabin with comfy seats, large gauges and simple, high-quality controls make the Toy a great choice for daily driver duty.
The Dakota was the only challenge to the Toyota for my pick 'o the pickups. Impressively quiet and with a ride more Magnum than Ram, the Dakota is similar to the Tacoma in its capability. Running through our off-road loop, the Dakota never shuddered, creaked or groaned. In the asphalt jungle, the Dakota soothed driver and passengers alike with its big, soft yet supportive seats. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed in the Dodge's numbers at the track (I figured the V8 would catapult it to the lead in acceleration). Only the Dakota's thirst for fuel and history of reliability issues prevented it from tying the Toyota in my opinion.
If you're looking for the athlete of the group, the Frontier fits the bill. Equipped with a 265-horse V6, the Frontier always has scads of scoot on tap. The Nismo version gets you beefed-up suspension that feels sporty on the blacktop. Off-road, the Frontier felt surefooted and unshakeable, a benefit of the stout frame derived from big brother Titan. The Nissan has other factors in its favor, such as standard stability control and Utilitrak adjustable tie-downs in the bed. Concessions include a stark cabin filled with hard plastic, a stiff ride, second-class accommodations for rear passengers and oddball (though unique) styling that doesn't do it for me.
2005 CHEVROLET COLORADO
"Great performing and great-looking truck on the outside. Cheap-looking on the inside. Boring interior, stiff seats, no style whatsoever. Cheap thin-looking plastic door panels. If only GM could have spent more than 5 minutes and $5.00 on the interior this would be one great truck. Favorite features: Nice exterior. Finally GM allows a buyer to get a Z71 look without having to buy a 4x4. Good idea. Good ride, good pickup speed, excellent braking. Suggested improvements: GM spent no money, no time and no brain content in designing the interior of this truck. It's about as plain as they come. Stiff seats, cheap console between seats, no style to it at all. But it does have good legroom." — norman189, August 29, 2004
"This was my first truck purchase and I wasn't disappointed. The Z71 package provides a stiff ride, which reminds me that I'm in a truck. I get better gas mileage than my previous two SUVs. The truck is the perfect size. The baby seat fits in the rear seat, and I have no problem with parking (even in downtown Chicago). Overall, I would recommend this truck to anyone. Favorite features: Great gas mileage and good acceleration. Suggested improvements: The engine whine is a little annoying. In the future, maybe the exhaust can sound a little deeper." — purdueguy, Nov. 30, 2004
"I have had my Chevy Colorado 4door Z71 Ls for a few months now and absolutely love it on and off the pavement. I live in the heart of the Colorado Rockies at 10,000 ft and have put this truck to the test in all area and it has done better than my brother-in-law's Toyota Tacoma hands-down. I have driven both and like the Colorado better than any truck I have ever owned. IT IS SIMPLY AWESOME. Chevy finally built a solid truck through and through. Favorite features: The way it handles on and off the paved roads. It handles superbly." — michaelmegga, July 26, 2004
2005 DODGE DAKOTA
"This Truck has real guts (V8 power) and drives very smooth on the highway. The interior is very comfortable with plenty of room plus it's quiet. The suspension seems a little soft at times. The fuel mileage is as good as can be expected for a V8. The two-wheel drive now sits as high as the four-wheel-drive model. There's no need to spend the extra money on the 4x4 if you only use it a couple times a year. So far I love it and think it's a great buy for what you get. Favorite features: New body style and the taller suspension on the two-wheel drive. Suggested improvements: I believe there is a slight design flaw in that the top of the door hangs a little too much over the cab. So, as I found out during our first snow of the season, if you have snow on your truck it will fall inside your truck if you do not clean it off first." — RDRGZ, Dec. 1, 2004
"When you sit inside you feel like you're in a full-size truck. The ride is great, and it handles very nicely. This is a great truck. The 4 doors are great, the backseats are comfortable. The price of the full-size trucks just shocked me when I was looking to buy. This truck listed for $23,949 and I bought it for $21,214. I paid that 10 years ago for a F-150 4x4 XL with no A/C. THE PRICE IS RIGHT compared to other trucks this size. And for a 4x2 it looks like a 4x4. Favorite features: The heat is great, the chrome in the front of the truck looks really good. The space inside is great. The radio sounds wonderful." — Robert J. Darragh, Nov. 28, 2004
"The new Dakota rides very well thanks to the new front suspension. I love that it has front and rear sway bars, it makes a total difference when compared to the previous three generations! Favorite features: Five cupholders for mucho beverages! Suggested improvements: The 4.7 is light duty I wish the HO version was stronger and had better fuel economy (like the Toyo and Datsun er, I mean Nissan)." — AaronMiller, Dec. 18, 2004
2005 FORD RANGER
"I don't understand calling this truck outdated. It is a great truck with all the power and style a truck should have. It rides like a truck. I didn't buy it with expectations of it riding like a car. The turning radius is also very good. I do have some issues with the GVW and do wish it would hold a heavier weight load. But for the most part it is a great running truck. Favorite features: I like the back doors opening for easy access to the club cab section. Those doors along with the seats folding forward make for easy loading of tools and children." — Tim E., Jan. 1, 2005
"I owned a 2002 and now a new 2004 FX4 II. The brakes are an improvement from the '02 and up you can feel and tell the difference in stopping with the bigger drums and rotors. The new gauge dash cluster is trendy but a step down from before due to the loss of real oil pressure gauge and volt gage. Now it just has idiot lights, not a good trade-off. Midspeed vibration in chassis is still there. Empty passenger seats vibrate. With new leather seating option I lost the lumbar seat adjustments had on the '02. A good truck, but I expect better from Ford. Suggested improvements: Give us back a full gauge package. i.e. volt and oil gauges that were taken out and replaced with lights." — Kelly, Dec. 23, 2004
"This Truck is good in many ways, however it has the most irritating vibration in the seat between 20-50 mph. I tried to have the dealer fix it but they could not and then on my 4th visit they had a Ford engineer inspect it. Their conclusion was that this is how the truck is supposed to perform and there is no fix available. I just got it in July and will be stuck with it for a long time to come. I would recommend you look elsewhere if comfort and a smooth ride are important. Suggested improvements: Try to achieve a smoother ride like the Japanese trucks." — Andrew Sievert, Sept. 19, 2004
2005 NISSAN FRONTIER
"I just bought my LE crew cab with all the factory options. This thing has a ton of power. Much faster than my brother's '04 F150 with 5.4 V8 (we did a short sprint test). Steering is very responsive. It's extremely quiet, even with roof rack (which I can't decide if I like or not). The leather is very nice. I actually like the plain interior, it will be very easy to clean, nothing to get scratched up or show its age. The bed system is really nice, had to move some things, worked out great. The sprayed-on liner is a great touch. Storage behind/under seats is very useful. I was able to put some jumper cable/chain and some other things without trouble. The sunroof is great, quiet even at highway speed. What I would love to see Nissan do: Add air vents to back passengers, add a power rear sliding window, add turn signals to side mirrors. Otherwise, this is an awesome truck." — CentralCal, Feb. 7, 2005
"I just purchased the LE Crew cab 2WD with the leather package, 380-watt Rockford audio, sunroof, limited slip diff, side airbags, bed extender, floor mats and tow package. All for $27,500 (including destination). According to the Edmunds site I got it for $428 over invoice. Bought in Alabama. I can't compare it to the Toyota since they don't offer half of those options. Hands-down the Nissan is a better deal for the money not to mention a more quiet and zippy ride. I have NO regrets."
— Buckobb, February 3, 2005
"This truck handles like a car yet has the carrying capabilities of some of its larger competitors. It has a very smooth ride, and I love the drivetrain!!! Favorite features: It handles well in the turns, limited sliding, great engine. Suggested improvements: I would like to have about 6 more inches in back for the 3rd seat passenger." — Pete, Dec. 19, 2004
2005 TOYOTA TACOMA
"I've had Toyota trucks for most of my adult life and have been disappointed by the lack of amenities in past versions. But, the 2005 version makes a huge leap forward. I'm now getting up into my late 40s and looking for a more refined truck that's reliable. The Titan actually had everything I was looking for. However, its ride was sub par and I could actually see the gas gage needle drop as I test drove it. I've always had a manual trans since I tend to be a control freak. But I didn't like the Tacoma's 6-spd (too many gears for all that power). I must say I have fallen in love w/ the auto — it's a nice setup that I drive like a stick (designed by someone w/ a brain). I do recommend it." — TacomaBred, January 2, 2005
"I traded in my 2001 S-runner for the new 2005 model. The interior was completely overhauled for the 2005 edition. Compared to the old Tacoma, the 2005 is a lot roomier, stylish, and a lot more accessible. The access cab has a fold down passenger seat and four doors for easy loading. The 4.0L engine has a nice burst of power that comes in handy when needed. The composite bed liner seems very durable and it covers the bed rails helping to avoid paint damage. The 21 gallon fuel tank is great for long trips. Overall, I am very satisfied with my purchase and I highly recommend this vehicle if you are looking for a compact truck." — Arthur, January 1, 2005
"This truck rides corners like no pickup I have ever driven. My previous truck had a 4.3 liter, and while this one has a 4.0 it seems to have a lot more power. I love the new interior and the access cab doors are really a help when putting things in the back. Favorite Features: I love the new interior, it's really new age looking. The six-speaker surround sound stereo sounds great. Everything is covered in the warranty right down to the paint. The new bed is awesome, as I don't have to buy a bed liner for the first time. Suggested Improvements: I think they should have more exterior colors, darker interior colors, remote start built-in, power seats, a larger back seat, passenger lumbar support, standard curtain airbags, chrome bumpers, outside temp gauge, automatic headlights and a better tilt wheel." — Kimberly, January 1, 2005
2005 Nissan Frontier
2005 Chevrolet Colorado
2005 Toyota Tacoma
2005 Dodge Dakota
2005 Ford Ranger
2005 Nissan Frontier
System Score: 8.5
Components: Our test truck came with the optional Rockford Fosgate system which has 10 speakers including an eight-channel subwoofer, six-disc CD changer with MP3 and CD-ROM capability. The stereo is also prewired for satellite radio and includes steering wheel-mounted controls. The head unit uses a typical Nissan display that uses black characters on an orange display. This optional system adds $850 to the Frontier's price tag.
Performance: Listen, people, it's all about the bass. Bass reproduction can make or break a good stereo; thankfully Nissan gets it. This is one of the better factory car stereos available. It's not perfect but the sound quality is very good. The bass is deep without rumbling and the highs are clear, sharp and well defined. Midrange is also excellent. Thanks to a rear-mounted subwoofer, the bass is clear and controlled but still delivers an awesome punch.
We do have a few complaints, however. The overall tone of the system is somewhat mechanical; it just doesn't have the warm sound of the Toyota Tacoma's JBL stereo. Also, at higher volumes the highs can hiss or squeak. And finally, the display is prone to washing out on bright, sunny days.
Best Feature: Bright and clear sound with punchy bass.
Worst Feature: LCD display is hard to read in direct sunlight.
Conclusion: A very good stereo that does much well. It's the perfect companion for this powerful and fun-to-drive truck. — Brian Moody
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2005 Chevrolet Colorado
System Score: 7.5
Components: The Chevy Colorado LS offers an MP3-CD player as standard equipment. Only the Dakota and the Colorado had standard stereos, the other three trucks had optional systems. The system is a Delco Electronics unit with RDS and XM radio and gets the sound out through six speakers.
Performance: The Colorado has the most stripped-down stereo of the bunch. It has no name brand speakers or amps or even a subwoofer. Even so, the sound quality is surprisingly good. The head unit includes adjustments for bass, midrange and treble plus offers several preset EQ settings such as "rock," "talk," "classical" and a few others. Most of the time they don't make much difference and only the "talk" setting seems to actually correlate to real-world listening habits. The best sound comes from the "custom" setting which allows you to adjust the tone manually. Still, it's fun to experiment. We found that bands like Weezer and Small Town Poets sounded really good on the "country" setting even though they are anything but country artists.
This system delivers good highs and midrange but the bass (although strong) lacks depth. Music also has a tendency to sound rather tinny. The main weakness with this stereo is that its sound quality relies too much on the quality of the source. Some CDs sound really great but others sound distant and muddy.
Best Feature: Midrange.
Worst Feature: Tinny overall sound.
Conclusion: This is a base stereo that didn't cost any extra money. For the price, the Colorado's stereo is just fine. — Brian Moody
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2005 Toyota Tacoma
System Score: 7.5
Components: Our Tacoma came equipped with an optional JBL audio system that uses seven speakers including a subwoofer. The option includes an amplifier and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. This option adds $500 to the price of the Tacoma.
Performance: This JBL system wins high marks for its warm natural sound. The overall tone is very pleasing and most types of music are reproduced well. The head unit includes the ability to adjust bass, treble and midrange and with some tweaking you can usually find a setting that will deliver good sound quality.
This JBL system lacks the punch and clarity of the Nissan Frontier's Rockford Fosgate system. Too often the bass in the Toyota cab degenerates into a muddy mess. The system is very bass-heavy overall but it's not that clean, clear bass we like in the Nissan. Turning the bass down a bit helps but then the music sounds flat. Mids and highs sound really good but the muddy bass saps the fun.
Best Feature: Nice-looking head unit and great midrange response.
Worst Feature: Muddy bass
Conclusion: A pleasant-sounding system that lacks grunt and misses the mark with regard to bass reproduction. — Brian Moody
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2005 Dodge Dakota
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our Dakota Laramie came standard with a six-disc CD changer, six Infinity speakers and the ability to play MP3 CDs. The system is good for 276 watts. This head unit incorporates an excellent LED display that communicates all relevant information in a simple, easy-to-use and straightforward manner. Our tester also included Sirius Satellite Radio.
Performance: Unlike other head units that use green dots to make up the letters and numbers on the display, the Dakota's stereo looks clean and contemporary and includes more information than other larger head units. Although some may find the small type hard to read, the fact that the artist name and song title all appear on one screen without having to "scroll" is very helpful.
With the Infinity-branded speakers, we were expecting a more premium sound quality. The main complaint is lack of clarity. We love the fact that the stereo has separate bass, mid and treble controls but no matter how they are arranged, the sound just isn't sharp enough. When playing bass-heavy tracks like rap or dance, the bottom end sounds OK. But pop in a CD with lots of midrange guitars and vocals and the sound quality goes down hill quickly. As volume increases, sound clarity worsens to the point where some of our favorite tracks just sound like noise. Overall the sound quality is fairly poor and it's only the much-better-than-average head unit and interface that raise the score to a so-so 7.
Best Feature: Excellent display screen.
Worst Feature: Sound quality is flat and hollow without much clarity.
Conclusion: Below average in terms of sound quality. The interface and look of the unit are very nice but we expect more from speakers with Infinity logos on them. — Brian Moody
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2005 Ford Ranger
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our Ranger FX4 came equipped with an optional Pioneer audio system. There are two Pioneer systems available; one with 510 watts and the one we tested which is a 290-watt stereo. That option includes an in-dash six-disc CD changer with MP3 capability, a multichannel amp and five speakers including a console-mounted subwoofer.
Performance: Right from the start, the power of this Pioneer system is obvious. It delivers lots of volume and lots of thump. The trouble is, it's too much like an old muscle car — it's got lots of power but very little finesse.
Highs and lows are well represented but there is a noticeable lack of midrange and there is no midrange control. The result is that some instruments like piano or electric keyboards as well as some vocals get drowned out. The bass reproduction is impressive and delivers an authoritative kick but the sound quality overall is just OK. Better than many stock systems, this Pioneer system is probably worth the $500 it adds to the Ranger's price.
Best Feature: Bass.
Worst Feature: Lack of midrange.
Conclusion: A powerful stereo that lacks refinement. — Brian Moody
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|Toyota Tacoma||Nissan Frontier||Dodge Dakota||Chevrolet Colorado||Ford Ranger|
|Personal Rating (10% of score)||84.0%||68.0%||88.0%||28.0%||32.0%|
|Recommended Rating (10% of score)||92.0%||64.0%||84.0%||40.0%||20.0%|
|Evaluation Score (20% of score)||83.7%||80.5%||83.6%||71.0%||67.5%|
|Feature Content (20% of score)||55.0%||76.0%||55.0%||38.0%||70.0%|
|Performance (20% of score)||100.0%||82.9%||63.7%||59.3%||60.0%|
|Price (20% of score)||94.0%||96.0%||82.0%||100.0%||98.0%|
Personal Rating: Purely subjective. After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she would buy if money were no object.
Recommended Rating: After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping in this segment.
20-Point Evaluation: Each participating editor ranked every vehicle based on a comprehensive 20-point evaluation. The evaluation covered everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring was calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on all test participants' evaluations.
Performance Testing: All five trucks were put through a comprehensive battery of instrumented tests including 0-60 acceleration, quarter-mile runs and panic stops from 60 mph. They were also run through a 600-foot slalom course to test maneuverability and emergency handling. In addition, each truck was loaded with 1,000 pounds of sand for additional acceleration tests. Scores were calculated by giving the best vehicle in each category 100 percent. Subsequent vehicles were awarded points based on how close they came to the best performing vehicle's score.
Feature Content: For this category, the editors picked the top 10 features they thought would be most beneficial to the consumer shopping in this segment. For each vehicle, the score was based on the amount of actual features it had versus the total possible (10). Standard and optional equipment were taken into consideration.
Price: The numbers listed were the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the least expensive vehicle in the comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the least expensive vehicle received a score of 100, with the remaining vehicles receiving lesser scores based on how much each one costs.