Fun, flexible and fuel-efficient compact pickups

Whether you’re hauling 2x4s back to the house for a weekend project or a commuter in need of ride with serious flexibility, small pickup trucks can be an appealing fit. When equipped with extended and four-door cabins, many offerings blend the capability of an open bed with ample enclosed space, as seen in versions of the Chevy Colorado, Toyota Tacoma, Honda Ridgeline, Suzuki Equator and Nissan Frontier.

2012 Chevy Colorado

For our rankings, all pickup trucks except for the Ridgeline are outfitted with four- wheel drive (4WD) and access cabs (passenger cabins with a small area behind the front seats for jump seats and extra storage space). The Ridgeline is ranked with a four-door cab and all-wheel drive (AWD), the only configuration offered by Honda.

Earning  an eRating of 102, the Chevy Colorado ranks first among compact pickups along our green yardstick. In addition to class-leading fuel economy, the Colorado provides many thoughtful standard features,  including a tailgate that can be locked open at 55 degrees. This places the top edge of the tailgate in line with the top of the rear wheel wells, allowing 4 by 8 sheets of plywood or drywall to lie flat and be easily stacked. Inside the cab, redesigned switches and controls permit quick operation with gloved hands. This is especially handy if you find yourself jumping in and out of the cab to pick up yard debris or unload firewood.

Coming in second, the Toyota Tacoma earns an eRating of 91. The Tacoma boasts some impressive titles and awards, including best-selling compact pickup truck and “Most Dependable Midsize Pickup” as ranked by J.D. Power and Associates. The 2012 model has a redesigned interior and exterior and a bevy of useful standard features. A lightweight composite inner bed improves durability over standard steel beds (who hasn’t cringed while denting their new truck’s bed with a carelessly thrown log or rock), and an automatic, brake-actuated limited-slip differential on the rear axle helps prevent tire-spin in low-traction situations.

2012 Toyota Tacoma

In third place, the Honda Ridgeline earns an eRating of 84. The Ridgeline’s design is quite different from the other compact trucks we reviewed. First, it has a larger interior, with four doors and full seating for five adults. Second, the Ridgeline has AWD instead of the traditional 4WD that the other models are equipped with. This difference may seem semantic, but the AWD Ridgeline lacks both a low-range gearset and a truly even distribution of torque between the front and rear axles. This improves the Ridgeline’s on-road manners but makes it less well suited for activities like stump pulling or low-speed trail crawling.

That being said, don’t let the AWD versus 4WD discussion give you the idea that the Ridgeline doesn’t have unique attributes that might make it the ideal choice for many customers. Smart features include cargo area lights that illuminate the bed and an intelligent transmission that adjusts shift patterns when ascending or descending hills. The 2012 Ridgeline also offers improved highway fuel economy over last year’s model.

The Suzuki Equator and Nissan Frontier follow with eRatings of 82 and 80. U.S. News ranked the Frontier as the best compact truck of 2012 and the Equator is closely based off of it, sharing the same drivetrain and styling from behind the front fenders to the tailgate. Four-wheel drive, access cab versions of both trucks also require the 4.0 liter, 261 horsepower V-6 engine. This powerful engine boosts performance but also increases fuel consumption, which explains the eRatings lower than some competitors.

While the field of compact trucks may be sliming (RIP Ford Ranger and Dodge Dakota), many rugged and dependable models remain, offering improved fuel economy and thoughtfully designed amenities. You can compare eRatings to other features to figure out which of these rigs is the best fit for your hauling-happy lifestyle.

Make and Model$MSRPSpecsCity/Hwy/Comb
MPG
eRating
Chevy Colorado24,9352.9 L 185 hp 4 cyl.,
4-speed auto
17 / 23 / 20102
Toyota Tacoma25,4602.7 L 159 hp 4 cyl.,
4-speed auto
18 / 21 / 1991
Honda Ridgeline30,1803.5 L 250 hp 6 cyl.,
5-speed auto
15 / 21 / 1784
Suzuki Equator27,2994.0 L 261 hp 6 cyl.,
5-speed auto
15 / 19 / 1682
Nissan Frontier27,4654.0 L 261 hp 6 cyl.,
5-speed atuo
14 / 19 / 1680

 

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