In some businesses, pickup trucks can be handy for carrying bulky objects. While full-size pickups are expensive and don't fit well into tight spaces, the new breed of compact pickups offer a good ride, passable gas mileage, low prices, and plenty of space and power.
Most compact pickups start at about $10,000 with a four cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission, and a driver's side airbag. Common options include longer beds, locking differentials, four-speed automatic transmissions, shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive, and a selection of suspensions and drive ratios. Single models have many options, most of which are rare on cars, so you can make many choices, each with its own trade off. For example, choosing drive ratios lets you trade off gas mileage and quiet highway operation vs. payload and low-end power.
The American compacts have three year/36,000 mile warranties and driver's airbags. If you don't normally carry heavy loads, the base four cylinder engines have enough power to propel the light pickups in everyday driving. The pickups' gas mileage is not usually advertised (even in showroom brochures), so buyers may need to consult the window stickers or the EPA mileage guide (all dealers should have one). Gas mileage adds up; at $1.20 per gallon and 12,000 miles per year (you may drive more, or drive in the city more frequently), the difference between the base S-10 and the Ranger XLT V-6 works out to $224 per year.
Compact trucks have some interesting traits. They might be the only surviving vehicles to combine foot-operated emergency brakes and manual transmissions. Some extended cab models have folding seats which might do in an emergency, but aren't well suited to everyday use. Pickup trucks are also not required to conform to the same safety and pollution standards as cars.
While compact trucks usually have optional off-road and heavy-duty suspensions, think carefully before ordering them, because they stiffen the ride considerably. Our test Ford, for example, not only gave us an intimate knowledge of every pebble and crease in the road, but had very poor handling, both presumably due to the optional off-road suspension. The optional four wheel drive on most pickups adds about 500 pounds to their weight, and often leads to higher maintenance or repair costs; if you don't need it, skip it.
Ford's recent TV ads tell us that the best reason to buy their trucks is to look "cool." Hence, the Ranger Splash, our test pickup. From the panel that just looks like a passenger-side airbag (it isn't) to the nonfunctional "flare-side" styling, the Splash seems to be designed primarily for looks. Other Rangers, however, are more conventional.
Our test vehicle had a very nice interior, with outstanding sun visors and well-designed instrument panel and center console. Being in the Ranger gave us the remarkable sensation of being in a luxury car -- until we turned the key. The engine idled very roughly, making it hard to believe that it was a modern fuel-injected V-6. As we drove, creaks and rattles emanated from every part of the cab, even though the pickup was practically brand new. With the engine off, the Ranger's interior was luxury-car quality. Moving, it was like being in an abused 1980s economy car with very stiff shocks.
The V-6 engine had strong power at every level, from idle to redline. The stiff off-road suspension transmitted every bump and pebble to us while delivering fairly poor handling. The S-10's ride and handling also suffer from the off-road suspension. In base form, the Ranger's ride is more comparable to the S-10's, though it still did not seem as smooth. Beware the handling with the off-road suspension; small bumps and road dirt caused more loss of control than most people would be comfortable with.
Our Ranger Splash, with its narrow cargo box, was a triumph of styling over function, seemingly designed for those who buy trucks for image rather than for work. Rangers in general also carry less weight and volume than other American compacts. After comparing the quality and design of the S-10 and the Ranger, we felt that the Ranger had simply come too late. The S-10 raised the standards of the American pickup, in design and in quality.
The Dodge Dakota is bigger than a compact and smaller than a full-size, so it has a bigger bed and payload than the compacts; it also gets less gas mileage and is harder to park. In brief, it runs the median in both good and bad.
The top-selling Japanese pickup is the expensive Toyota Tacoma. It has three engines, ranging from 142 hp to 190 hp. The Tacoma has a 6.3' bed (75"), and offers optional four wheel drive and an extended cab. Most Japanese automakers sell a compact pickup.
Some people find that a station wagon provides all the extra space they need. Several compact wagons have good mileage, spacious interiors, dual airbags, four seats, and a low sticker price; Subaru makes reliable station wagons with all wheel drive for those in cold climates. Minivans have incredible room (and can store that proverbial piece of plywood), with better mileage, handling, ride, and, oh yes, full-time all wheel drive!
Full-sized trucks are available for those with heavy loads and heavy wallets, with the new Dodge series setting the standards and GM, Ford, and Toyota trucks doing their best to meet them. Gas mileage is poor in this range, and most people don't need the extra size or weight capacity. Full-size trucks can also be awkward in tight spaces.
Within a single compact truck line, you have many choices. You can opt for a base model with a base engine, and get passable gas mileage, a comfortable ride, and a large bed for hauling boxes or large objects. You can opt for more power, a cap, or a heavy duty suspension. Just don't count on the extended cab to provide seating for four adults!
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