One of the challenges truck makers face in this extremely competitive market is defending their market space. They have to offer compelling reasons for you to buy their trucks. On the rational side, the midsize compacts offer more room than a true compact pickup: These trucks easily manage a 4x8-foot piece of plywood, and yet are more economical and easier to garage than a fullsize. OK, but will just the facts be enough to get you to buy? Probably not. Which is why marketing departments always dream up cool performance models with the qualities you want - fun, style, and performance - blended with the qualities you need to move your stuff around.

And now, with fuel prices uncertain, the compact sport truck segment is getting a lot more attention these days. We're with you on that score, so we hopped into the current crop of compact offerings from the Big Three to get an inside view of the latest from our factory friends. We road-rated a couple versions of the Chevy Colorado, a five-cylinder five-speed manual Extended Cab and a four-cylinder five-speed manual Standard Cab. We hopped into a Ford Ranger and took a Dakota for a test spin on the Sport Truck mountain driving test loop. We did all of this to get the inside story on the latest compact offerings from Motor City.

'04 Chevy Colorado
The Colorado is available in Crew, Extended, and Regular Cab models with manual and automatic transmissions, 2WD and 4WD, as well as two engines, the Vortec 2800 inline four-cylinder and the Vortec 3500 inline five-cylinder engines. These engines are both derived from the Vortec 4200 4.2L inline six-cylinder powerplant.

Inside, the Colorado is much more spacious than the S-10 it replaces. And with its Extended and Crew Cab body styles, the Colorado should be able to compete effectively in the midsize truck segment, where, according to Chevy's market research, 80 percent of all models are either extended or crew cab models. In fact, they say that crew cabs alone comprise one-third of the segment.

Colorado's Crew Cab offers a 60/40-split folding rear seat capable of accommodating three adults. The Extended Cab model comes standard with four doors. And the Regular Cab features 60/40 bench seats, in cloth or vinyl, with bucket seats available

The Colorado is available in Z85, Sport, and Z71 trim levels in both 2WD and 4WD in all cab configurations. Within each trim level, you can upgrade to the LS trim package.

One of the coolest options is the XM satellite radio. It provides 100 coast-to-coast digital-quality channels and lots of great programming. In our opinion, the basic service of $9.99 a month is worth every penny.

Driving it
We drove the five-cylinder Extended Cab five-speed as well as the four-cylinder five-speed manual standard cab. The Vortec 2800 inline-four-cylinder and the Vortec 3500 inline-five-cylinder engines are both derived from the highly acclaimed Vortec 4200 4.2L inline six-cylinder powerplant. The five-banger makes 220 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. The four-banger delivers 175 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. Chevy says that 90 percent of peak torque is available across a much wider range of the driving cycle: from 1,400 to 5,200 rpm for the Vortec 3500 and from 1,200 through 5,600 rpm for the Vortec 2800. It makes sense to us, and it sure seemed to make sense to our right foot. Both versions of the Colorado had enough beans to quickly blend into freeway traffic from a standing start, with enough acceleration in reserve to move through it confidence.

Both combinations are worthy sport trucks, and on the highway, they settle into stable straight-line cruising with defined and secure on-center feel. The suspensions are compliant; more compliant than the ZQ8 Crew Cab we tested for Sport Truck of the Year. Our impression is that on both testers, the bushing durometer was softened, spring and antiroll bar rates turned back a click, and low-speed shock valve tuning was lighter. The body rolled farther and a little quicker for a given steering input than the ZQ8 we tested earlier. This is most evident on the freeway drive loop that has a section with exaggerated expansion joint misalignment. These testers produced a much smoother ride than our Sport Truck of the Year test unit.

We also think the Continental tires contribute to the smoother ride. The tires are a little small, but they provide good grip as well as a good ride. They're also quiet over most of the surfaces we drove, even on the anti-hydroplane grooves on California freeways, and provided lots of grip. They also give the driver lots of feedback when driving aggressively, letting you get it near the edge without unwittingly stepping over

The solid rear axle, as typical of pickup rear suspensions, wants to dance around if you hit a rough surface while cornering. We give it points for its ability to recover more quickly than other compact pickups we've tested. Much of this ability comes from smartly chosen high-speed shock valve tuning.

In terms of handling, the five-cylinder ZQ8 Colorado offers a great combination of fun-to-drive agility and a smooth, comfortable ride. The five-cylinder is noticeably heavier in the nose than the four-cylinder, with more understeer, and definitely needs more patience turning into a corner. The rippin' four-banger on the other hand is extremely well-balanced and turns into the corner with ease, even when you're braking deep into the turn. The four is spicy and fun to drive, but if you need or want to pull jet skis or use the cargo bed, the torquey, powerful five-cylinder offers the power you want with a bonus of higher fuel efficiency compared with a six- or eight-cylinder. And given the tow rating of the Chevy's new compact, we're happy to report that brakes are surprisingly resilient against the steep and winding switchbacks on our mountain test loop.

Stuff we Like
* The audio system with the XM satellite service rocks. The more you listen to the XM service, the more you realize this is the wave of the future.
* It's a great-looking truck. It turns heads and is a great shape that'll respond well to modification. It'll look great with a frame-dragging airbag suspension or a lifted off-road look.
* There's heaps of room in both the Extended and Standard Cabs. We were particularly impressed with the room in the Standard Cab.
* There's gobs of power from both engines. The five-cylinder with the five-speed consistently chirped the tires on the Second-to-Third shift. (Gear spacing is a little too steep from Second to Third in our opinion. It wasn't as noticeable at or near sea level, but when we got above 5,000 feet, the gear spacing was far more noticeable.) There's a good exhaust note. The four-cylinder kicked butt; this is one ripping little four-banger. It loves to rev, and makes lots of torque. Overall, it's a great package when matched to the five-speed manual.
* The LSD works very well. On a switchback test corner, it allows just a moderate amount of inside tire spin before gripping the outside tire and scooting off the corner.
* The fit and finish are better than the S-10, but the truck still needs improvement.

Stuff We Don't
* The seats for sure need an upgrade: not enough upper-body lateral support. They're fine for workday commuting, but when cornering, you get tossed around and have to use the wheel to stabilize your upper body.
* The interior material choices is another area we'd like to see improved. The layout and overall design choices of the interior produce a handsome, functional workspace. But the materials subtract from the good design work.
* The A-pillars and rearview are distracting when driving a winding road. The large A-pillar obscures the view at a 45-degree angle. The rearview blocks the road in left turns with rising elevation.
* The fit and finish are not up to fullsize GM pickup standards.

'04 Chevrolet Colorado
Base price: $16,330
Vehicle type: midsize pickup
Construction: body on hydroformed frame
Body styles: Crew Cab, Extended Cab, Regular Cab
Standard engine: Vortec 2800 2.8L I-4. Optional: Vortec 3500 3.5L I-5, fuel-injected, aluminum block and head, DOHC, continuously variable exhaust valve timing, variable exhaust cam phasing, 4 valves per cylinder, with "couple" design balance shafts
Horsepower: I-4: 175 @ 5,600 ; I-5: 220 @ 5,600
Torque: I-4: 185 @ 2,800; I-5: 225 @ 2,800
Fuel: 87-octane unleaded
Transmission: 5-speed manual; available Hydra-Matic 4L60-E 4-speed automatic
Suspension: F: independent with coil springs for rear-drive, independent with torsion bars for 4WD and High Stance, with stabilizer bar. R: live axle with steel leaf springs, stabilizer bar with ZQ8 Sport Suspension package, Overdrive lockout, and converter clutch