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Best in class: Pickup trucks under $25,000

There once was a time when buying at the low end of the pickup truck market meant a really small, basic utility vehicle that primarily was designed for work. But as full-size pickups have become more car-like, more luxurious, more fashionable, so too have their smaller cousins, which are no longer as small as they once were.

In making our choices in this category, we have deliberately excluded the full-size trucks, even though their base list prices fall below our $25,000 threshold. The reason is that when you equip most full-size pickups with the features most buyers want -- extended cabs, upgraded interiors, more powerful engines -- their list prices rise above $25,000. Also worth noting is that we've excluded the all-new Nissan Frontier, which hit showrooms in December '04 and which we have not as yet driven.

Toyota Tacoma

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Toyota Tacoma: The Tacoma is all-new for 2005, though the change is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Unlike some other compact pickups, the Tacoma comes in a wide range of styles and equipment levels -- 18 in all, from a $14,000 regular cab plain-Jane model to the $26,000 V6 crew cab (called Double Cab in Toyota-speak). The base four-cylinder engine is a new 2.7-liter design that produces 164 horsepower. There's also a new four-liter V6 that develops 245 horsepower, nearly as much as the stoutest engine in the potent Dodge Dakota. It has a maximum tow rating of 6,500 pounds and a cargo rating of 1,525 pounds. The interior is class-leading in terms of the quality of materials and there is the promise of Toyota reliability. On the downside, the base four-cylinder model is only adequate in terms of power, and Toyota dealers have been known to be stingy with discounts off the factory sticker price. Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine that a two-wheel-drive V6 extended cab model, priced at about $23,000, wouldn't go to 100,000 miles and more with little fuss. That's why it's our top pick.

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Dodge Dakota

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Dodge Dakota: Long the odd-sized pickup in the market, the Dakota started life noticeably bigger than competing compact trucks, yet smaller than the big Dodge Ram. Redesigned for 2005, the new Dakota takes on more of the attributes of the Ram pickup and gains some new refinements. It has a stronger chassis than the old model, a new suspension for a smoother ride and a refined interior that is significantly quieter. There are three engine choices (more than any competitor): a new 3.7-liter, 210-horsepower overhead camshaft V6 is standard and two 4.7-liter V8s rated at 230 and 250 horsepower. Transmission choices are a five-speed automatic or a six-speed manual. While a traditional 4x4 setup is available, the Dakota now is available with a full-time all-wheel-drive option that's unavailable on competitors. There is no standard two-door cab; Dodge opted to start with a four-door extended cab model and offer an optional four-door crew cab version. The cargo bed is 6' 6" in the extended cab and shrinks to 5' 4" in the crew cab. Cargo capacity ranges upward to a generous 1,720 pounds and with a V8 on board it has a tow rating of 7,000 pounds. Opt for the base SLT model at $21,910.
Chevrolet Colorado

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Chevrolet Colorado: This is the model that replaced the venerable Chevy S-10 pickup in 2004. It's larger than the old S-10 by a few inches and is far more refined at every level. Unfortunately that isn't saying as much as it might seem, since Chevrolet let the S-10 languish in the marketplace years after nearly every competitor introduced improved vehicles. Nonetheless, the new Colorado is worthy of consideration, if for no other reason than it's competitively priced and on the option list are side curtain airbags -- a first in this class. It's available in regular, extended-cab and crew-cab models, as well as two- and four-wheel-drive. Engine choices are all new: A 2.8-liter, 175-horsepower inline four-cylinder and a 220-horsepower inline 3.5-liter five-cylinder. A four-speed automatic and a five-speed manual are the transmission choices. Maximum tow capacity is a disappointing 4,000 pounds, but cargo capacity is a respectable 1,654 pounds. Prices start at less than $17,000, with a well-equipped two-wheel-drive extended cab model likely to sticker for around $21,000.

-- Posted: Feb. 15, 2005

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