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Trucks

In the "glory days" of choice in the automotive industry (1957-73), the options list for anything on four or more wheels could run to many pages; not any more. Where Henry Ford supposedly claimed the customer could have any color he wanted so long as it was black, today's customer often has only a color choice to make, everything else is standard.

That doesn't seem to be the case with the mainstay of construction haulers, the full-sized pickup truck. Like the standard automobile, pickup trucks once came in one size: big. Now they come in compact, intermediate, full-sized and really big. They come with one, one-and-a-half, or two doors on each side; bench seats, bucket seats, jump seats and a variety of combinations; long beds, short beds, extended beds and, somewhere, probably bunk beds. They have V-6, V-8, V-10, I-6 or I-4 engines, but not all available in all body styles.

Much of what is standard today was once an option. Automatic transmissions, for example, are almost universal, even in the full-sized pickup. What is optional today — and there isn't too much in this category — inside the vehicle approaches the level of a luxury car. You'd hate to think of a mason fresh from the mortar mixer, jumping into one to run down to the diner for lunch.

We took two pickups for test drives to see how the truck is evolving from a harsh driving, solidly sprung workhorse to a boulevard cruiser. Here is how they compared.

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT
Our Dodge was a standard cab (two-door), two-wheel drive, short-wheelbase vehicle with the ubiquitous automatic transmission and the new 345 HP, Hemi-head 5.7L V-8. Both the engine and transmission, a five-speed automatic, are optional on the SLT trim level truck we drove. A heavy-duty, five-speed manual transmission is standard, as is the 235 HP 4.7L V-8 on the SLT. An optional full-time four-wheel drive system and new "Tow/Haul" transmission are also available.

The "Tow/Haul" feature provides crisper shifts and reduces gear searching when towing. The system will also select a lower gear in downhill conditions to use the engine's braking capability.

The coil spring independent front suspension on our two-wheel drive truck — and a torsion bar independent front suspension on four-wheel drive models — tends to improve ride quality and quietness. For extreme conditions, ground clearance is 9.5 inches. The rear suspension uses leaf springs designed to reduce wheel hop, especially when light or unloaded, and improve durability.

The test truck had several options that might not be valuable for a mason contractor, such as 20-inch chrome rims, and a few — like the trailer towing group — that are ideal. That group includes a heavier battery (at 70 amps), Class IV receiver for the hitch, and a standard wiring harness and mounted connector.

Our truck also had the "Work Special" package, it seems. This package consists of a dark gray rear bumper, dark gray front fascia, and gray grille. All the better to "play in the dirt" as work trucks tend to do.

It's when you look at the standard equipment list that you know, this isn't your dad's — much less your granddad's — pickup. Compared to just a few years ago, the trim level in a $27,000 list-price truck, as this one is, seems out-of-place for work. The interior features air conditioning, tilt steering, power windows, speed control, AM/FM with CD radio, and cloth bench seats that ride hard but feel soft. And this is just the mid-level trim package; the Laramie level is even nicer.

The towing capacity for the short wheelbase model is 8,600 pounds and for the long wheelbase version 8,400. Maximum payloads are 1796 and 1791 respectively with standard load rating of 1720 and 1740. Note that the lower trim level truck, the ST, has a higher rating across the board while the top-of-the-line Laramie has a lower rating in each category.

The bed length is, obviously, the big dimensional difference. The short bed version, which we tested, is only 75.9 inches long in the closed-gate mode, not enough to haul eight-foot timber; the long bed will accept that wood with a bed of 97.9 inches — leaving room for a (narrow) tool box in the front. The extra 20 inches of wheel base (120 versus 140) in the long-bed version makes a difference.

Ride is where the luxury feeling comes to the forefront. Surrounded by the appointments of a Chrysler, you move along the highway sitting on top of the world. Without aftermarket suspension modifications — the "jacked up" look — the Dodge Ram with the 20-inch rims and 275/60R20 tires still puts you up high. Unfortunately, getting in the cab requires some climbing. You might want to consider one of the retractable steps.

The test truck had the optional 3.92:1 rear axle ratio that gave it a strong pulling capability, but a somewhat loud sound on highway driving. The engine, as one who knows the Hemi's mystic reputation would expect, feels like it could pull down a wall without straining. The five-speed auto transmission had no stumbles as it shifted gears in a variety of circumstances, on and off the road. All in all, a dependable combination with expected low-maintenance, but like most full-sized trucks, don't expect much in the way of gas mileage — it's rated at 14 city and 18 highway.

Built in Missouri (the engines are assembled in Mexico), the Dodge carries on the tradition of brute force capabilities that the series has been recognized for since the PowerWagon of the 1940s and 1950s that hauled troops and materials around the world's trouble spots. Only then, the truck was basic; today, it's one that you'd be happy driving to the club social or a banker's convention.

Toyota Tundra SR-5 Access Cab
 Globalization means never knowing where your car or truck really comes from. Toyota, the largest Japanese auto manufacturer, assembles its Tundra full-sized pickup in Indiana. In fact, Toyota has been building cars and trucks in the U.S. since the mid-1980s while other companies with familiar U.S. nameplates have been moving their manufacturing to Canada and Mexico, among other locations.

Intended for the U.S. market, the Tundra replaces the ill-fated T-100 pickup that Toyota introduced in 1993. While a nice truck, the T-100 wasn't much of a hauler (other than of people — most buyers were very happy with the ride and interior) since it was initially offered with a four-cylinder engine as the only power plant. In a work environment, four wasn't nearly enough. The Tundra makes up for that bad experience.

The Tundra SR-5 Access Cab is a four-door, with seating for five. It comes with a standard V-6 generating 190 horsepower and a fuel economy rating of 16 city and 20 highway miles per gallon. The newest model, out for 2004, is the Tundra Double Cab which rides on a long 140.5-inch wheelbase, longer than the Ford F150 Super Crew. For comparison, the Tundra Regular Cab and Access Cab models ride on a 128.3-inch wheelbase.

Our test drive vehicle boasted a 4.8L V-8 rated at 240 HP coupled with a slick optional four-speed auto transmission, independent front suspension with tuned shocks, antilock power disc brakes in front, and 17-inch rims mounting 265/65R17 tires. The combination provided a ride that one driver called "Lexus-like."

In fact, the luxury level of the Tundra was actually higher than the Dodge. This is one truck that the boss can drive in comfort while hauling the replacement mixer and a stack of blocks to the job site. And you won't have to climb up on a ladder to get in the cab.

Unlike the Dodge, which had the feeling of being intimidating to other drivers, as well as the person behind the wheel, the Tundra slides along, blending in more than standing out. This isn't a bad thing if the vehicle can do the same job — haul workers, material and tools while being available to tow the usual equipment. For the most part, the Tundra has that capability.

Starting at the back, the Tundra with the optional ($430 MSRP) towing package — which consists of a Class IV hitch receiver, heavier-duty battery and alternator, transmission cooler and wiring harness — is rated at 7,000 pounds trailer weight. While less than the larger Dodge, this is adequate for most mixers and equipment trailers. Payload is also slightly less, at 1,750 pounds, but that 40 or so pounds won't be noticed — do you actually know the weight of the load of material and tools you drop into your truck?

If you're hauling a load in back — say one around 2,000 pounds — the Tundra's load-sensing proportioning and bypass valve determines if the vehicle needs more braking power and directs an increase in power assist to the rear wheels. When pulling a heavy load up to its maximum, the 240 HP V-8's intake manifold increases low-end torque for efficient towing.

Some writers who specialize in testing trucks are calling the Tundra only a 7/8-size, not full-sized pickup. Still, the Tundra is longer than either the Ford F-150 or the Nissan Titan crew cab models by about six inches. Regular cab beds measure 96 inches, while the test Access Cab model measured 76 inches, a few inches shorter than the short bed of a Ford F-150 or Chevrolet Silverado, and almost exactly the same as the test Dodge Ram 1500. Doesn't seem like 7/8s to us.

Picking a pickup is an exercise in comparing specifications, checking capabilities, and judging reliability. Past performance and experience weigh heavily with most people when making these investments. That might be one reason Chevrolet and Ford dominate this market — they've been doing so for so long, people are comfortable with those decisions. But there are new kids coming to play in this sandbox and the challenge will be to find the benefits in each vehicle, compare them with your needs and wants, and check the capabilities where you may not have thought to look before.

The 2004 Nissan Titan, the company's first full-sized pickup, is on the short list of almost everyone who makes "Truck of the Year" awards. We'll be looking at one in the next few months, as models become available, and report back to you. From the days of Big Three dominance to a much more open playing field, the purchaser of full-sized pickup trucks will be the beneficiary.



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