Everywhere we go, all the automotive talk is about SUVS. And indeed, there is a theory that the entire automotive world will one day consist of two types of vehicle: trucks and SUVs. Trucks will be those vehicles built strictly to haul and work. SUVs will be everything else.
It's possible that this theory of the future may even be true. One thing we know for sure, however: There will always be a pickup truck.
The pickup truck, an uniquely American vehicle, continues to differentiate to nearly the same extent as SUVs. Actually, the pickup truck has evolved into half a dozen different major types, and over 100 different variants per model, depending on spring package, engine, body type, and bed design. More than anything, the pickup truck is the generic American automotive product, raw material ready to be shaped against any specific purpose.
The new trucks shown in our Pickup Truck of the Year story illustrate what pickups have become. Our field of three compact trucks, plus two other new pickups that did not arrive in time to be included in the head-to-head judging, can be characterized as passenger pickups, full-size haulers, sport 4x4s, or economy trucks. The fact that some of this year's new trucks are blends of those attributes shows how far the multi-purpose pickup concept has come.
Start with the Dodge Ram Quad Cab, a full-size hauler with four doors. It differs from a crew cab in that the rear doors access a smaller rear seating compartment, intended more for kids and short trips than for adults and the long haul. Still, the rear bench is surprisingly comfy for an adult, and the cab is roomy in the classic full-size domestic sense. Combine these enhanced seating options with a 360 V-8, shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive, and the presence and style of the Dodge Ram 4x4, and you're looking at a truck you can like for a lot of different reasons. It's also a truck that will change the market, since side-access doors will eventually become a must for full-size trucks.
The Mazda B3000 is something a little handier, and more economical. The B-truck struck us as the most carlike 4x4 pickup we'd tested yet. Uncommonly quiet, smooth-running, agile and easy to operate, this is a truck that would make an attractive alternative to a two-door car for anyone with an outdoor lifestyle.
The Nissan Frontier, on the other hand, is clearly your basic 4x4: no frills, with economy and function in mind. And as such, it works refreshingly well in an age of pickups that become expensive to own and expensive to operate.
The new Ford Ranger is markedly improved versus previous Rangers. Ford has gone to an IFS front with rack-and-pinion steering, eliminating bump steer and supplying a smooth ride. The Ford (and the Mazda, as well) is likely to be very well assembled, as the plants that build them are recognized for quality. The Ranger is the kind of vehicle that can get you to the fun with all your stuff, yet be easy to live with during the week.
Perhaps the most purposeful of the bunch is the Toyota Tacoma, tested here with the new TRD package. Toyota has always emphasized durability and performance in the 4x4 sense, but this package takes it to another level. This is the first locker available on a pickup as standard equipment. There are Goodyear tires, Bilstein shocks, and the clutch lockout defeat switch, so you can key-start the truck if you stall out in a tough spot. The Tacoma went beyond working well off-highway in our testing. The locker and the key-start option basically saved our butts when we got in over our head. It's the best executed, most thoughtful 4x4 performance package we've seen yet from the factory, and it works. Which is why the Toyota Tacoma deserves to be Four Wheeler's Pickup Truck of the Year for 1998.