Compact pickup trucks are the Swiss Army Knives of the automotive world. When properly equipped, they can be configured for everything from daily commuting to hardcore off-road adventure. They can tow trailers or get groceries, move furniture or haul junk to the dump. They’re easy to drive and park, and the extended cab versions even have decent backseat accommodations. Need to haul sheets of drywall home from the lumberyard? Good luck doing that in a Taurus.
With so many options, how do you know what’s the best compact pickup truck to buy? That’s where we come in: below are our top five compact pickup trucks for 2010 in order of preference. All of them can be ordered in two wheel drive or four wheel drive, and all come with the option of an extended cab. If you need a cheap, base 2wd pickup for hauling your pool cleaning supplies, one of these will fit the bill; on the other extreme, if you’re planning an arctic expedition and need a bulletproof truck, all of these can be built up to take whatever you can dish out.
First Place: Toyota Tacoma
Likes: Damn near everything about it, including high resale value
Dislikes: Priced for its reputation, may be too “truck like” for some
Buy this truck if: You want bulletproof reliability and solid build quality
What can I possibly say about the Toyota Tacoma, the truck so tough that not even Top Gear could kill it, that hasn’t already been said by a thousand other reviewers? You’ve got 18 flavors to choose from, depending upon your needs. The starting point for a base rear wheel drive model, with the bench seat, the four cylinder motor, the manual gearbox and the six foot bed is $15,345. By the time you option out the 4wd V6 Double Cab, you can easily break the $30,000 barrier. The sweet spot is probably somewhere in between, depending upon your needs.
Personally? I’d opt for the 4wd version with the V6 and the extended cab, which gives you short term seating for four if you need it. The 4.0 liter V6 is a great motor with decent power, but it can get thirsty if you’re not careful (it’s rated at 18 mpg highway). It’ll tow up to 6,500 pounds, enough for a good sized boat, a compact travel trailer or a race car on a flatbed. If you need a compact pickup truck, you can’t do better than the Toyota Tacoma.
Second Place: Nissan Frontier
Likes: The most civilized of the compact truck choices
Dislikes: A turning radius befitting an ocean liner
Buy this truck if: You really want a big sedan, but need a pickup truck
The Nissan Frontier is available in a mind-blowing 27 different versions, which makes me wonder how even Nissan assembly line workers can keep the models straight. You’ll find a truck for every purpose in their lineup, ranging from a no-frills RWD model with the manual gearbox and the 2.5 liter four for $17,540 to the top-of-the-line Crew Cab with the V6 and the automatic that can easily top $30k when fully loaded. The Frontier drives more like a big sedan than a truck, with the notable exception of its turning radius; think “mining dump truck” and you get the picture.
Like the Tacoma, the V6 version isn’t for those worried about gas prices. It’s rated at 14 mpg city and 19 mpg highway, but this gives you the ability to tow 6100 pounds. Unlike the Tacoma, even the base model Frontier gives you an extended cab, which amy make the Frontier a better buy depending upon your configuration.
Third Place: Dodge Dakota
Likes: Bigger than a compact, smaller than a full size; available V8
Dislikes: Build quality has improved, but early models were questionable
Buy this truck if: You need more room than other compact pickups
Technically speaking, the Dodge Dakota isn’t a compact pickup, it’s a midsized pickup. I’m splitting hairs on this, so I decided to keep it in the mix. The good news is that a properly equipped Dakota will tow more (6,700 pounds) than any other pickup on this list. The bad news is that an option rich crew cab, with 4wd and the 4.7 liter V8 will sticker out at close to $40,000, which is serious money for a compact / midsized pickup.
Even with the V8, fuel economy is on par with V6s from Toyota and Nissan (the Dakota with the 4.7 liter motor is rated at 15 city, 17 highway). The Dakota is available with a longer bed than either the Taco or the Frontier, which may or may not factor into your decision. If you need a truck that is bigger than a compact but smaller than a full size, the Dakota may be your only option.
Fourth Place: GMC Canyon
Likes: Engine choices, including a V8; hungry dealers = bargain pricing
Dislikes: Build quality not on par with full sized GMC pickups
Buy this truck if: You like engine choices and are loyal to GM
The GMC Canyon and it’s sibling, the Chevy Colorado, are both getting up in years. The good news is that this makes the Canyon a less-than-popular choice among compact truck buyers. Why is that good? Because it generally means that GMC dealers are ready to maker deals on existing inventory. There are 14 models of Canyon pickups to choose from, but I’d immediately eliminate the four cylinder versions unless you’re just looking for a bargain basement truck. The inline five cylinder isn’t a bad option, but it’s no match for the V6 motors from Toyota or Nissan. If you need your Canyon to tow something, your only real option is the 5.3 liter V8, which give you the ability to tow up to 6,000 pounds.
Fuel economy with the V8 motor is about what you’d expect. For a four wheel drive version, the Canyon is rated at 14 city, 19 highway; the two wheel drive V8 fares a little better at 15 city, 21 highway. If you’re a loyal GM customer shopping for a small pickup, your choices really come down to the Chevy Colorado or the GMC Canyon; personally, I’d opt for the Canyon.
Fifth Place: Ford Ranger
Likes: Compact size, affordable price, hungry dealers
Dislikes: Dated interior and exterior, last model year?
Buy this truck if: You’re a Ford guy and are looking for a good deal
The Ford Ranger, in its current form, has been around for a long, long time. That can be viewed as a good thing (why mess with success) or a bad thing (evolve or die). It really comes down to this: you’ll buy a Ranger because you’re a loyal Ford customer or because they’ll cut you one hell of a deal on existing inventory. You won’t buy a Ranger because it’s the best in class at anything.
Don’t get me wrong, the Ranger is still a decent truck. It’s just not as good as the compact or midsized pickups from the competition. Ford has focused so much attention on the F150 over the years that the Ranger has been neglected like the red headed stepchild. Rumor has it that this will change in 2011, when Ford scraps the Ranger for a new model tentatively called the F100.
If you like the current Ranger (or it’s twin, the Mazda B Series) and can live with its shortcomings, you can probably cut a killer deal on one. If you need to buy a Ford and want something more competitive with other compact trucks on the market, then I suggest you nurse your current ride along for another year. Good things are coming from Ford, you’ve just got to be patient.