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.

Specs:
Year/Make/Model:
'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

'04 Dodge Dakota
In the compact pickup segment, the '04 Dodge Dakota is the power leader with the optional V-8. This year, it gets a new 210hp 3.7L Magnum V-6 with an optional 230hp, 295 lb-ft-torque 4.7L Magnum V-8.

The Dakota comes in Regular Cab, Club Cab, and four-door Quad Cab styles. In our experience, all the body configurations are roomy, which stands to reason since this is the truck that established the midsize truck segment. This is a very important selling point for Dodge. along with the fact that Dakota Quad Cab offers four fullsize doors in a compact pickup.

The model lineup starts with Regular Cab in base trim, followed by SXT, Sport, Sport Plus, and then SLT, topping out with SLT Plus. The Club Cab and Quad Cab follow with the larger engine only offered in Sport-and-above trim levels.

If you're into package deals, check out the Dakota "Stampede" package on Regular Cab and Club Cab Sport models. The Stampede gets you clean monochromatic custom front and rear body-color fascia moldings, ground-effect side body moldings, 16x8-inch aluminum wheels, wheel flares, and rear stabilizer bar.

Driving it
The ride quality is good for a midsize body-on-frame solid-axle leaf-spring pickup, though you get a sense the suspension is working hard to manage the unsprung weight. When the suspension absorbs rough road surfaces, you can feel the bushings deflect and the delay in the absorption of the energy through the steering wheel and the seat of your pants. Given the choice of feeling all the road shock or having the bushings and shocks absorb them, we're all for the choice made by the Dodge team.

When equipped with optional 16-inch wheels and tires, the truck has lots of grip, and its compact size allows you to toss it between corners with a great sense of control and balance. The only surprise we had driving the test loop was an off-throttle deep braking maneuver just on turn-in. The truck took a bump and the rear really stepped out on us. But that's typical of an unloaded pickup under braking into a downhill grade.

A significant part of the appeal of the Dakota when packing the V-8 is its sound. The Dakota is a great package for a performance-minded sport truck enthusiast. There's good aftermarket support for this machine as well as good factory performance parts available through Mopar Performance.

Stuff we Like
* V-8 growl in upper trim level Dakotas
* Good availability of 5-speed manual behind the V-8
* Lots of leg and elbow room
* Great-looking truck, with lots of styling options

Stuff We Don't* Interior trim fit and finish
* Ride height; it's still too high on 2WD Sport packages
* Handling and ride need improving
* Sluggish or lazy shifts from automatic tranny

Specs:
Year/Make/Model:
'04 Dodge Dakota
Base price: $17,845 MSRP
Vehicle type: midsize pickup
Construction: body on frame
Body styles: Regular Cab, Club Cab, Quad Cab
Standard engine: 3.7L, 225ci, OHV, 12-valve SMPI power tech V-6, 90-degree V-type, liquid-cooled, SOHC, 12 valves, roller followers with hydraulic lash adjustment, multipoint fuel injection with returnless fuel rail, cast-iron block, compacted graphite bed plate, aluminum cylinder head. Opt. V-8: (all models with Sport or SLT equipment) 287 ci (4,701 cc); chain-driven SOHC; 16 valves; hydraulic end-pivot roller rockers; sequential, multiport, electronic, returnless fuel injection; cast-iron block aluminum alloy heads; CR: 9.3:1
Horsepower: std.: 210 hp @ 5,200 rpm; opt.: 230 bhp @ 4,800 rpm
Torque: std.: 235 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm; opt.: 295 lb-ft @ 3,200 rpm
Fuel: 87-octane unleaded
Transmission: std.: 5-speed manual; opt.: 46RE, hydraulic control, electronically controlled governor, Overdrive lockout, and converter clutch

'04 Ford Ranger
The folks at Ford say the Ranger has been the best-selling compact pickup for the last 16 years running. OK, but what have they done for you lately? Well, for '04, they say they've given the Ranger new interior styling and freshened the exterior styling.

Under the hood, the '04 Ranger offers three engine choices: a 2.3L I-4 and two V-6 engines. The 2.3L I-4 produces 143 hp at 5,200 rpm and 154 lb-ft of torque at 3,750 rpm. Next is the 3.0L V-6 engine, a flexible-fuel capable unit that produces 154 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque; it's the standard engine on all 4x2 SuperCab models equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. Finally, the Ranger is also available with a 4.0L SOHC V-6 that produces 207 hp at 5,250 rpm and 238 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. All three engines are available with a five-speed automatic transmission or a heavy-duty five-speed manual transmission.

The '04 Ranger is available in XL, Edge, XLT, Tremor, and FX4 trims in both 4x2 and 4x4 offerings. Cab configurations include Regular Cab and SuperCab, in both Styleside and Flareside versions. A long-wheelbase option is available on Regular Cab Styleside models.

One of the cooler options in the Ranger lineup is the new Pioneer stereo system, featuring an AM/FM CD/MP3 player with 290 watts of peak power through nine speakers and an integrated power subwoofer - yikes! If that's not enough, you can super-size your stereo option with the Pioneer system in the Tremor. It delivers 510 watts of power through a new in-dash CD/MP3 player and is offered with a 4x4 drivetrain, in addition to the 4x2 offered in previous years.

Driving it
The '04 Ford Ranger FX4/Level II SuperCab 4x4 we drove came equipped with the 4.0L SOHC V-6 backed by a five-speed manual trans and 4.10 limited-slip differential. The 4.0L SOHC V-6 produces 207 hp at 5,250 rpm and 238 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm, and when coupled with the low rearend gearing and the five-speed manual, provided passable performance. The engine is tuned to make low- and mid-range power, which is great for a work truck, but we'd like to see a broader powerband. It'd make it more fun to drive, especially with the five-speed stick. But if you're going to work, haul, and tow with this package, the Ford engine guys have done you right.

Ford says it retuned the Ranger's suspension bushings, springs, tires, and shocks for improved ride comfort. The FX4/Level II we drove was fitted with the retuned Bilstein shocks, BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A tires, and Alcoa forged-aluminum wheels. The upgraded components sparked up the ride and handling of this 4x4. It responded to our twisted mountain test loop with grace and balance that we didn't expect from a compact sport truck with a differential under the nose. Sure, the nose plowed when we went in too hot in the corners, but to get to that point, you had to push it really hard.

Our tester had a firm but not harsh freeway ride quality. It had the typical expansion joint chop, but the spring rates and shocks did a good job of keeping the bumps and grinds to a noticeable but not unpleasant level. We were more than happy to trade that ride quality for the handling prowess the suspension gave us on our test loop.

Stuff we Like
* Good ride and handling from the Level II package with retuned Bilstein shocks, BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A tires, and Alcoa forged-aluminum wheels.
* Best interior of the bunch. The optional leather seating is a must-have, as is the Pioneer sound package with 290-watt seven-speaker system with in-dash six-disc MP3 player.
* Good low- and mid-range torque from the SOHC 4.0L V-6. We'd like it better if it revved a little freer, though.

Stuff We Don't
* The exterior styling, in spite of its freshening, is showing its age. It's a classic truck shape, but the Ranger will face stiff competition next year from several new models in this segment.
* Not available as a crew cab
* Slow-revving 4.0L V-6; made it feel too much like a work truck instead of a sport truck

Specs:
Year/Make/Model:
'04 Ford Ranger Base price: $15,195 (MSRP)
Vehicle type: 1/2-ton midsize construction: body on hydroformed frame
Body style: Regular Cab, SuperCab, Styleside, Flareside; 4x2, 4x4
Standard engine: 2.3L DOHC I-4, aluminum block, aluminum head, 4 valves per cylinder, sequential multiport electronic. Opt. 1: 3.0L OHV V-6, iron block, iron heads, 2 valves per cylinder, sequential multiport electronic. Opt. 2: 4.0L SOHC V-6, iron block, aluminum heads, 2 valves per cylinder, sequential multiport electronic
Horsepower: std.: 143 hp @ 5,200 rpm; opt. 1: 154 hp @ 5,200 rpm; opt. 2: 207 hp @ 5,250 rpm
Torque: std.:154 lb-ft @ 3,750 rpm; opt. 1: 180 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm; opt. 2: 238 lb-ft 3,000 rpm
Fuel: 87-octane unleaded (all)
Transmission: base: 5-speed manual; opt.: 5-speed auto

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