Every year, we take the new crop of trucks and run 'em head to head in our Sport Truck of the Year competition. This annual rite of passage is open to any manufacturer whose product is new or radically improved for the coming model year. For '05, the field of new trucks engaged in our battle are all downsized, with the exception of the Dodge SRT-10 Quad Cab. Nissan's all-new Frontier, Toyota's all-new Tacoma, and Dodge's all-new Dakota are midsize pickups packed with lots of performance and serious convenience, style, and mobile-entertainment content.

To find the best of the best of the '05 light trucks, we divide our Sport Truck of the Year testing into two categories: hard empirical data from a battery of track tests and data derived from the real work of the test -- behind-the-wheel driving impressions from our hard-core staff of testers. It's a tough job and somebody's got to do it, so we put these trucks through every kind of driving situation we could dream up and fabricate, from day-to-day commuting and long freeway drives to miles on winding mountain roads to test-handling and -braking under real-world and worst-case conditions. That's the only way to get a feel over the course of two weeks what it's like to live with these trucks for the long haul.

This year, we reprised our track-testing session at California Speedway in Fontana, California, with the help of John Hotchkis and crew. Unfortunately, Hotchkis, a race-car driver and manufacturer of high-performance suspension components under the brand of Hotchkis Suspension, had a surfing accident the day before our test. Not to worry, though, as Gary Pinkely, John's backup hot-shoe, was available to slam our test trucks through the 600-foot slalom course with 100-foot cone spacing, through the 0-60 testing, down the quarter-mile, and through the 60-0 brake testing. And as we did last year, we also conducted multiple stops to measure brake fade under extreme conditions. After a long day at the track shooting Gary threading the cones, toasting brake pads, and boiling the hides, we washed and fueled the trucks and headed out to the real-world segment of the competition.

Our loop began at the March Air Force Base in Perris, California, in front of the Air Museum that's part of the base. From there, we drove through stop-and-go traffic and pulled serious grade as we climbed into the San Bernardino mountains near the 11,502-foot roof of SoCal, Mount San Gorgonio, on our way to Palm Springs. The 200-plus-mile loop, outbound and return, gave us a chance to test both the passing power and speed limits of the trucks as well as ride quality and A/C performance in the 100-degree (OK, it's a dry) heat of the Springs.

All of our test drivers spent plenty of time at the controls of each pickup. We found the weaknesses and strengths of each and scored accordingly. Each truck had something to offer, some more than others, but ultimately there can be only one Sport Truck of the Year. To find out which was the one, keep turning the pages.

Sport Truck of the Year Scoring
To determine the Sport Truck of the Year, we perform objective and subjective evaluations. In other words, some tests we can measure, for example, 0-60 mph, quarter-mile e.t., 60-0-mph braking, and speed through the 600-foot slalom course. Other tests are simply putting a value on an educated opinion of some aspect of the test truck, for example, styling, materials choice, powertrain integration, and refinement.

We organize our test results to judge the truck in three basic categories with 1,000 points possible: instrumented track testing; test-driver opinions on performance; and test-driver opinions on style and comfort. The maximum possible score for the instrumented track testing portion is 300 points, or 30 percent of the score. Tester opinions on performance also has a maximum value of 300 points, or 30 percent of the score. The third category of subjective judgments on style, ergonomics, and other conveniences carries a maximum score of 400 points, or 40 percent of the score. An example of a perfect score in the objective portion of the test would be a vehicle that had the quickest acceleration and shortest stopping distances, and was rated to tow the most weight. That would give it 300 points; 700 points are also up for grabs in the other two categories.

Weighting the scoring in this manner rewards powerful trucks that accelerate quickly, brake forcefully, handle well, and produce good ride quality. A vehicle that's mostly style and comfort with very little performance will score poorly with this test design.