jdavis88 is a firefighter and paramedic who lives in Florida. He loves to travel and maintains a blog called Southern Travel Tips.
Although the predominant American attitude toward trucks is a desire to have the biggest and strongest, many Americans and many people worldwide prefer a truck that is smaller, easier to get in, uses less fuel, and is still able to perform the job at hand. For these people, compact or midsize pickup trucks are the best choice and enable them to have a strong truck for less money all while consuming less fuel.
For years, Chevy and Ford have had great small pickup trucks on the market and, besides the loyal Toyota following, have had a large share of the market. Today there are several different midsize pickup trucks by Toyota, Ford, Chevy, Nissan, and even Honda. Some will say that the Honda Ridgeline is a full-size truck, but with a 3.5 L V6 that only puts out 250 Hp and 247 lb/ft of torque, I'll take that argument all day.
No, I did not list Dodge among the midsize truck makers. As of 2011, Dodge no longer is making its Dakota, opting to focus on full-size trucks and crossover vehicles.
So, let's take a look at the best small or midsize pickup trucks and find out who has the best overall truck based on Comfort, Mileage, and Strength/Capacity. I doubt we will all agree on which is best overall, but lets at least look at the facts so those searching for a midsize truck can decide which pickup is best for them.
Best Gas Mileage Pickup
For any small or midsize truck comparison, there should be two types of fuel economy comparison: a comparison of the best overall mileage, and a comparison of the best mileage with their largest engine. The reason for this is that there are two main types of people who are searching for a small or mid-size truck: those who want a utility vehicle but must have fuel efficiency and those who need strength and comfort but are willing to sacrifice a little for a little better fuel efficiency. With this in mind, for each make, we will look at how they compare overall with their smaller engines here and will compare the larger engines in the horsepower comparison.
Coming in with the highest overall fuel efficiency is the Ford Ranger. Ford's 2.3L I4 power-plant touts an excellent 22 mpg city / 27 mpg highway. This is the same power-plant that is in the Escape and several other Ford vehicles. It puts out 153 Hp, so it is not Herculean, but for a utility vehicle with primary importance on fuel conservation, the Ranger is king of the small and mid-size trucks.
The other trucks were a bit behind the Ford EPA rating, with some not really focusing on stretching the mileage. Coming in second in overall fuel mileage is the Toyota Tacoma with their 2.7L 4 cylinder engine at 25 hwy mpg and a slightly higher 159 Hp output. Third is the Chevy Colorado with a 24 hwy mpg from their 2.9L 4 cylinder manual power-train that puts out 185 Hp. Finally, the Nissan Frontier is slightly lacking with a 2.5L 4 cylinder that gets 23 hwy mpg but only puts out 152 Hp.
Compact but With Room
Although many people these days are willing to give up a little size and power for better fuel economy, most are still wanting some elbow room and some creature comforts. Even though small and midsize trucks are aimed primarily at providing both utility and economy, they do not have to give up all comfort.
Each of the four makes came within an inch of each other in front headroom, with the nod going to the Toyota Tacoma with 40" of front headroom, and the smallest being the Ford Ranger with 39.2". In hip room, however, the Nissan Frontier has some wiggle room. The Nissan has 55.8" of front hip room, where the other makes have on average 53". The Ford Ranger also comes in an average of 3" smaller in front shoulder room.
As far as interior comfort and accessories, the Toyota and Chevy are slightly stronger than the others. Toyota, for one, offers a rear back-up camera, has a JBL stereo system, and has included their new Entune system, similar to Ford's Sync. Toyota did not, however, have a leather seat package that I could find. The Chevy Colorado had available leather seats and was the only make to have Blue-tooth as standard in every package.
Best Small Pickup Power
Even though the trucks in the small to mid-size category do not have the huge engines that the full-size trucks do, they still can pack quite a punch. Above, in the fuel efficiency comparison, we compared the efficiency and horsepower of the small engines available from each make, now we will look at their stronger power-plants and compare them in horsepower, torque, and efficiency.
In overall power, the Nissan Frontier wins pulling away. Its 4.0 L V6 packs a huge 261 Hp with 281 lb/ft of torque. That is near the standard in full-size horsepower. The issue for the Frontier comes in fuel efficiency, though. The 20 MPG that the larger engine gets on the highway leaves it no better than that of the full-size pickups. In fact, it is less than some of the newer models of full-size trucks, which would make most buyers question why they are buying the smaller truck.
Out of the other three makes the Tacoma comes in second. The small Toyota truck has a 4.0 L V6 with 236 Hp and 266 lb/ft of torque. Their 4.0 gets a slightly better highway MPG of 21. The Ranger has a 4.0 L V6 that has a much more modest output of 207 Hp and 238 lb/ft of torque with a highway MPG of 21 as well. The smallest engine of the four comes in the Chevy Colorado. It only has the availability of the 2.9 L 4 cylinder. As stated in the efficiency comparison, it has an output of 185 hp and 190 lb/ft of torque but with the 4-speed automatic package, drops to 23 MPG from 24.
Towing and Hauling
This information is slightly difficult to ascertain. The Ford website does not have any info, that I could find, about the Ranger's payload or towing capacity. (I am sure some Ford fanatic will prove me wrong!) The largest payload by any of the other three is the Nissan Frontier. The Frontier has a 1524 lb payload capacity, which is over a half ton. Following the Frontier is the Colorado with 1465 lbs and the Tacoma with 1430 lbs.
Only the Tacoma and the Frontier, however, published their rated towing capacity, so between the two of them, the Frontier has a 6400 lb towing capacity. That is just 100 lbs above the Tacoma which can pull 6300 lbs.
Sure, these are nowhere near the huge towing and payload capacities of some of the full-size trucks on the market today, but they are, however, more than sufficient for most jobs. These trucks would be excellent for any person needing to carry or pull an occasional load, and won't break the bank to purchase.
After beginning this comparison with a pre-conceived notion that the Chevy and Ford would provide more power while the Toyota and Nissan would provide fuel economy, I have been thoroughly shocked. The opposite is true.
While I tend to like the exterior design and interior options of the Chevy, it is lacking in Hp with only a 4 cylinder engine available. The weaker powertrain gets very good mileage and would make a great vehicle for those without big jobs to do.
The fuel efficiency king, the Ranger, has little to be proud of in the area of power. Why Ford has not included the V6 Ecoboost engine they use in the F150, I have no idea. Furthermore, Ford would be well served to rework the Ranger's exterior design which is severely outdated. An upgrade to the international version of the Ranger, which Ford has said will not be released in the United States, would do much for their small to mid-size truck sales.
The Nissan Frontier has much to teach the other makes as far as what can be accomplished with a V6 power plant. The horsepower and towing capacity of the Frontier are very strong and would accomplish most tasks an owner would need to complete. The problem with the Frontier, though, is that it has lower or equal fuel efficiency to the majority of the full-size trucks on the market. That along with the large price tag is enough to push buyers to take another look at the full-size market.
The Tacoma does Toyota proud in a long line of small truck success. Although they could do a bit more to improve fuel efficiency, the Tacoma has great payload, towing, and even has some great interior packages.
Small Truck Comparison Conclusion
So there you have it. The small and midsize trucks are compared. Which one do you prefer? Which one do you drive? Feel free to let me know what questions you have that I have not answered above. And please leave your comments regarding the small or midsize trucks of 2012 being respectful of the comments of others.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.