I'm late for a meeting, and I have about 30 minutes to race there . . . in a pickup truck. Out in the country, that might not sound so incongruous. But in New York, the thought of pounding through congestion, maneuvering amid 18-wheelers, and weaving along curvy expressways in a pickup is enough to make me want to call a cab.
The Toyota Tacoma, it turns out, conquers traffic as well as the trail. The compact pickup scoots from lane to lane with the manners of a CEO in cowboy boots, civilized but not overgentrified. The gas-guzzling, 245-horsepower V-6 engine, one step up from the base power plant, moves the truck with the kind of urgency you're supposed to feel when you're late. The six-speed manual transmission seems borrowed from a sports car--and helps provide a greater sense of control than I'd expect in a truck. The Tacoma has a great sense of style, too: big headlights, a high snout, and swollen fenders reminiscent of the popular Dodge Ram.
Pickups are the latest proving ground for automotive engineers eager to show that "rugged" and "refined" can coexist in the same vehicle. The new GMC Canyon is another example. I was lucky enough to get my hands on the off-road, four-wheel-drive version--the so-called Z71 model--during a week of wintry mix. The Canyon plowed through snowbanks and slashed through slush. And the height and traction made it a snap to park on hilly streets iced over near the curb.
The best surprise came when the snow stopped and the roads dried. The Canyon, it turns out, has a rather gentlemanly ride for a truck, even though the Z71's off-road tuning makes it one of the rougher models in the lineup.
The Canyon and its twin, the Chevrolet Colorado, are General Motors' replacements for the GMC Sonoma and the Chevy S-10. The most notable difference is much-improved handling--not quite carlike but stiffer and certainly in a different class from their lumpy, bumpy predecessors. The Canyon is also rounder and more muscular than prior models (though it isn't a stylistic standout).
So-called midsize trucks are also getting bigger; the Canyon has a couple of inches on the Sonoma, enough to make the cabin feel more spacious. A pair of new inline four-and five-cylinder engines improves mileage and adds power. The five-cylinder that I tested is zippy and responsive, with the kind of pickup you'd expect in a moderately priced sports coupe.
Add a crew cab--sedanlike seating for five or six--and you may wonder, why bother with a car or SUV? When I took my kids sledding, we simply tossed the sleds in the pickup bed and headed off.
This story appears in the March 14, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.