A bunch of guys, five new trucks, and 800 miles of lonesome highway. Stop-offs in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Hoover Dam.

Run-ins with the law and wild burros on old Route 66. Long days in the desert and late nights at the casino.

If that sounds like the ultimate road trip, you’re not far off. That was the scene set for the fourth annual Sport Truck of the Year contest, where the magazine’s staff puts the newest pickup truck offerings through their paces on the track, skidpad, and slalom course, and in city and highway driving.

This year’s contest was particularly exciting for us because it pitted the newest generation of trucks from General Motors against a lightly-new-and-improved version of the Ford F-150, which won the competition in 1997. It also gave us our first chance to get some comprehensive seat time in Chevy’s hot new S-10 Xtreme, which offers sport truck looks and suspension right off the showroom floor. And we rounded out the field with the new four-door version of the Mazda B4000.

The rules for participation in Sport Truck of the Year are pretty simple, and they haven’t changed since we began the test four years ago. Every truck manufacturer is invited to enter a two-wheel-drive truck of its choice that it thinks best fits the sport truck market. The catch is that each entry must be significantly altered either cosmetically or mechanically from a previously offered model from the same manufacturer or have never before been tested by us. Alterations that qualify a truck can be functional, such as the addition of a third or fourth door, or mechanical, such as improvements to drivetrain components, or wholesale, such as a complete redesign, as was the case for the Chevy and GMC.

Since the manufacturers all have their own ideas about what it takes to make a winning sport truck, we let them choose the configurations of their entries. However, only factory-available options are allowed on the trucks (no dealer-installed options).

Over the span of three days, we put this year’s fleet of 1999-model-year entries to the test in a range of conditions and driving situations designed to wring every last bit of practical information we could out of them. The contestants were a shortbed, regular cab Chevrolet Silverado 1500, an Extended Cab GMC Sierra, a SuperCab Ford F-150 Lariat, an extended cab Mazda B4000, and a regular cab Chevrolet S-10 Xtreme.

To provide consistent, experienced, and impartial hands on the wheels during the track testing phase, we enlisted the aid of performance suspension guru John Hotchkis of Hotchkis Performance, who, along with his brother Mark, put the vehicles through their paces at the Los Angeles County Raceway in Palmdale, California, where our testing began. As usual, we subjected the entrants to a barrage of performance tests, including quarter-mile and zero-60 mph acceleration, 60-zero mph braking, and a few turns around a 200-foot skidpad.

But this year we included a new event: a 700-foot slalom course, which took the place of a high-speed lap around a closed-road course. Combined, these tests allow us to objectively measure each truck against its peers on a level playing field. And even though our skidpad wasn’t exactly set up on the glasslike surface an SCCA autocrosser would expect, it did give us a good basis to compare the highspeed cornering and handling characteristics of each truck. The track testing provided a few surprises, with some trucks performing better than we had guessed in certain categories and others falling short of our expectations.

After all the tires had been sufficiently "broken in" at LACR, and the real drivers went home, the rest of us hopped in the trucks and set out on an 800-plus-mile Ride & Drive through the Mojave desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, across the Hoover Dam, and along stretches of old Route 66 in Arizona and Nevada. During the Ride & Drive, each judge had a chance to drive every truck under highway and city conditions and experience the ins and outs of comfort, ergonomics, mechanical quality, and seat-of-the-pants performance before voting on their respective merits.

Since our bosses might be reading, we won’t bore you with all the details of the road trip, but suffice it to say this: We didn&8217t break anything; we only got stopped once by the long arm of the law, which strangely objected to Sport Truck license plates on the front and rear of the trucks; and we have a winner.

Check out the plethora of sidebars below to get the full low-down on the testing and the trucks.