China's living large, India's the new call-center capital of the world, and Venezuela's dictator is bosom buddies with Fidel Castro. You're probably wondering why this story is opening with a summary of current geopolitics. The bottom line is that all these seemingly unrelated trends have a direct impact on the price you pay at the pump for gas. While the price of unleaded might be a little below $3 a gallon again (- or not, Ed.), chances are it's going to hover around $2-plus for the foreseeable future. While these prices may seem like highway robbery to us, the fact is most of Europe pays upward of $6 a gallon, so be glad you're a resident of the good ol' U.S. of A.
High gas or not, you wouldn't be caught dead in a Prius or Hyundai Accent. You want a respectable truck but don't want to take a bath every time you pull up to the pump. So, what are your options? In our quest to find some fuel-friendly options for truck enthusiasts, we rounded up the most fuel-efficient versions of the new popular trucks we could find. If you're looking for tire-shredding, neck-snapping power, you might as well skip this story altogether. But, if you're down for a practical commuter that'll get you to work and back without breaking the wallet, read on.
And rather than lecturing you about driving techniques, proper tire pressures, and freeway speeds, we're going to report it straight-up. We're enthusiasts, and we're going to drive these trucks in real-world conditions, driving like we always do, giving you as accurate a sample as we can of what kind of mileage you can expect. The results might surprise you.
Toyota Tacoma PreRunner 4x2EPA Ratings: 20 city/27 highway
Observed Mileage: 21.43 mpg
Engine Size/type: 2.7L DOHC 16-valve inline-four
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Horsepower/torque: 159 hp at 5,200 rpm / 180 lb-ft at 3,800 rpm
Base MSRP/As Tested: $17,980/$21,680
We originally wanted a bare-bones regular-cab two-wheel-drive Taco for this test. Toyota said the only four-cylinder Tacoma in the press fleet was an Access Cab PreRunner. Though initially disappointed, we figured it would be a good representative sample of what a truck enthusiast might actually want to drive on a regular basis. Although introduced as an all-new model as of last year, there are several uniquely Toyota quirks that will make devotees of the Tacoma and Hilux feel right at home. Like previous Toyota trucks, the new Tacoma has a high floor, resulting in a "legs out" seating position and somewhat tight clearance between the steering wheel and seat cushion. It's comfortably familiar if you're used to it, and it's kind of a weird feeling if you're not. Several editors commented on the variety of contrasting colors and textures in the interior, saying it gave somewhat of a disjointed style to the interior. Finally, whereas most other manufacturers have gone to either a pedal or console-mounted handle for the emergency brake, the new Tacoma continues the decades-old tradition of the twist and pull plunger brake in the dash. Even the new 2.7L 16-valve four-cylinder engine sounds a lot like that trusty 22R under the hood of the beater you had in high school.
After logging more than 500 miles in the four-banger Taco, we came away impressed with an overall observed mileage rating of 21.43 mpg. The first tank average was somewhat disappointing at 19.24 mpg, but considering most of the driving was high-speed commuting on the Orange County Toll Roads, and some assorted around-town driving, it's not unreasonable. Likewise, with only a little more than 500 miles on the odometer, the truck was brand-new, and the engine was likely still a little tight. The second tank consisted primarily of following a friend's trailer out to Ocotillo Wells, effectively limiting our top speed to 60 mph. Under these conditions, and loping along at about 2,000 rpm, the truck delivered a thriftier 23.62 mpg.
In terms of seat-of-the pants feel, the four-cylinder PreRunner certainly couldn't be considered fast by enthusiast standards but doesn't exactly fall into the gutless category either. Not helping matters was the truckish long-throw shift lever. But, driven in half-decaf mode, the surprisingly torquey big four-banger pushed the truck along with admirable aplomb. If you're expecting Honda S2000-type zinginess from the engine, forget it. This is a big, low-revving, long-stroke four. Redline is a "don't hurry me" 5,500 rpm. Power delivery is almost diesel-like, in that revving the engine past 4,500 rpm doesn't result in much more than added noise. Between 2,000 and 4,000 is the engine's sweet spot, and shifts made in this range provided the most enjoyable driving experience. Let's not kid ourselves, if you want tire-smoking, smile-inducing acceleration, pop for the 4.0L V-6 that has been covered extensively in Sport Truck. But, if you want something that makes a reasonably economical commuter but still has enough power to keep from falling on its face from every stoplight, the four-banger Taco is worth a look.
Driving the four-cylinder Taco made us wish for a turbodiesel option, combining the fuel economy of the four with the torque of the six. There are rumors that an oil-burner Tacoma is in the works, and if and when we can get our hands on one, you can bet we're going to give it a thorough flogging, too.
Nissan Frontier King Cab XE
EPA Ratings: 19 city/24 highway
Observed Mileage: 17.46 mpg
Engine Size/type: 2.5L DOHC 16-valve inline-four
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Horsepower/torque: 154 hp at 5,200 rpm / 173 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm
Base MSRP/As Tested: $16,850/$18,600
For Nissan's contender in the mileage-champ competition, we rustled up a bare-bones XE 2WD King Cab. Finding this jewel was no small feat. It seems there isn't much demand among auto journalists for the parts-runner special. When we first went out to take delivery of the truck, we kept mindlessly squeezing the I.D. tag key fob waiting for the truck to unlock until we realized that we were going to have to--gasp!--actually put the key in the door and turn it. Likewise, when we looked on the door for the power lock button to let our passenger in, we realized it did not have one. We were forced to lean over and unlock the passenger door, just like the good ol' days when trucks were trucks.
But, our tester did come with cruise control, a CD player, and air conditioning, so all was not lost. The new Frontier's base engine is a longitudinal version of the new Corporate QR25DE. This engine motivates the Sentra SE-R and Altima S with plenty of zing, but saddled with 3,693 pounds of truck, plus 200-ish pounds of driver, its accelerative verve can best be described as adequate but not much more. Not helping matters was the fact that our tester was equipped with an automatic transmission. We were hoping for a five-speed manual version, which likely would have helped salvage a few more ponies from the engine, as well as a few more miles per gallon. Having said that, the engine is not unhappy in the upper rev range, an area we visited a lot with this truck. Compared to the Tacoma's loping, torquey four-banger, the Nissan's power delivery was higher up the powerband. Between 5,000 and 6,000 rpm, the engine pulled willingly but was tempered by nearly 2 tons of truck and driver, as well as the slushbox tranny. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, keeping our right foot buried in the carpet took its toll on fuel economy. The Nissan posted the worst observed mileage of the trio at 17.46 mpg.
The rest of the truck is pleasant enough, with a more comfortable upright seating position than the Toyota. Despite its bare-bones trappings, the Frontier didn't squeak or rattle one iota, giving the impression of a quality machine. If you've driven the V-6 Frontier, with its thundering herd of 265 horses, the four-cylinder XE will be disappointing. Let's face it, 111 hp and 111 lb-ft of torque is a big gap. However, there are a few areas of the stripper Frontier that make it fun to drive. The steering has a pleasantly meaty effort and quick response that would make it feel right at home in a sport sedan. Though it won't out-handle a Z or Corvette, the responsive steering at least makes it a breeze to zip through urban traffic. One staffer commented on its "go-kart-like" demeanor. Also, the Frontier was the only truck in this test to offer four-wheel disc brakes, with the Toyota and Isuzu both offering only rear drums on all trim levels.
Taken in the context of its probable duty as a low-cost fleet truck, the four-cylinder Frontier is more than adequate and will likely live up to Nissan's reputation of reliable operation for many years. The icing on the cake is its surprisingly fun-to-drive character. Its low price makes it a potentially attractive candidate for a mini-trucker looking for a canvas to customize. If you must go with the four-cylinder, though, we'd definitely recommend the manual transmission to make the most of the engine's modest but willing output, and maximize fuel efficiency.
Isuzu i280 LS 2WD
EPA Ratings: 20 city/27 highway
Observed Mileage: 22.38 mpg
Engine Size/type: 2.8L DOHC 16-valve inline-four
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Horsepower/torque: 175 hp at 5,600 rpm / 185 lb-ft at 2,800 rpm
Base MSRP/As Tested: $18,989/$20,866
OK, OK, we can read the hate mail already, "What are you guys, a bunch of import-lovers? How come you don't have any domestics in this comparison?" Let's get something straight. The Isuzu i280 is a virtual clone of the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, and it's as close as we could get to a four-cylinder Colorado, since there were none available in the GM press fleet. As far as Ford, we contacted both Ford and Mazda for a four-cylinder Ranger or B-series but also found none available.
The first impression driving this truck is its distinctly American feel. Both the Toyota and Nissan have an unmistakably Japanese character, although all three of these trucks are built in the USA. Likewise, the i280 rolls down the same assembly line as the Canyon and Colorado in Shreveport, Louisiana. Maybe it's the boxy, hard plastic in the interior, the familiar GM radio controls and gauges, and the marshmallowy ride. But, we're not here to bag on the beleaguered General or its affiliates--just to give you the straight-from-the-gut impressions.
First off, the positives: One staffer said the i280-350/Colorado/Canyon triplets were his favorites from a styling standpoint and look the best when customized. Indeed, the Isuzu and the other GM compacts have a macho, squared-off look that was missing from the S-10. With a few upgrades, it's definitely a head-turner. The powertrain overall works well. The clutch is firm, and the shifter is satisfyingly direct with short throws for a truck. With the largest and most powerful engine of the group, essentially two thirds of GM's excellent DOHC Vortec 4200 inline-six, the engine has ample midrange torque to scoot the Isuzu around with vigor on the flats and has a surprisingly aggressive, though not intrusive, growl.
Though not as zingy as the Nissan engine, it seems a little more willing to rev than the Toyota, staying relatively smooth all the way to redline. However, the upper gears are a little on the tall side, as evidenced by a lazy 2,500 rpm at 80 mph in Fifth gear. Consequently, any freeway passing maneuvers, especially on an uphill grade, require a shift into Fourth. Even maintaining speed on an uphill grade requires a downshift. Using the upshift light on the dash as a cue, one staffer squeezed an astounding 25 mpg out of the truck. Averaged with the more aggressive driving prior to the first fill-up, the combined average was 22.38 mpg, making it the mileage champ in this group by a hair.
Unlike the ingot-like solidity of the Nissan and the characteristic tightness of the Tacoma, any significant road irregularities sent a noticeable wobble through the Isuzu's chassis. Even passengers commented on the overall loose feel of the truck. But, if you're looking for a cushy cruiser in your commuter truck that gets good mileage to boot, this is your ride.
In terms of mileage, count on any of these three averaging between 18-21 mpg under normal driving. The difference will likely come down to how aggressively you drive. It's probably safe to say any of these trucks are capable of delivering a combined 20 mpg. So, with fuel economy being essentially a draw between these three, which one would get our vote? We figured it would only be fair to break it down and 'fess up to what our choice would be if we had to plunk down our paychecks on one of these three. Keep in mind this assessment is only for these trucks as tested. There are multiple variations of each of these trucks, with fancier trim, bigger engines, and so on--not to mention how much the addition of aftermarket components can change the character of these trucks. Truth to be told, we'd probably pop for the X-Runner Tacoma or the SE V-6 Frontier with the six-speed, cost no object. Both of these trucks are class leaders in power, but a base-model comparo is a different ballgame.
The Toyota, though seemingly just above average on paper, comes across much better in the flesh. The engine wasn't the most powerful, but it was entirely sufficient to get the job done. Clashing colors and textures notwithstanding, the interior fit and finish is typically Toyota top-notch, and the whole truck feels carefully assembled and sturdy enough to take on a weekend romp, get hosed off, and transition seamlessly into commuter duty on Monday.
The Nissan, despite being the least powerful, was the most fun to drive. The ride and handling, for a base stripper, was surprisingly taut and controlled. The body structure was rock-solid, and we didn't hear one squeak or rattle the entire time we had it. The interior fit, finish, and design, though not quite as elegant and polished as the Toyota, is very practical and user-friendly in a utilitarian way. The only major shortcoming, not surprisingly, was the engine power. Even the rev-happy demeanor of the engine wasn't a turn-off, just the lack of relative output. Another 20-25 hp and lb-ft would do a lot to push the base Frontier to the top of its class. A slightly more powerful engine might actually improve fuel efficiency as well, not having to work as hard as the slightly overtaxed (in this application) QR25.
The Isuzu, though a competent truck overall, is not in the same league as the Toyota or Nissan from an overall refinement and quality standpoint. The flat, hard plastic dashboard, though not particularly appealing from an aesthetic standpoint, might make the best texture to paint for doing a custom interior treatment. The engine and powertrain, other than the mismatched gear ratios, is competitive and the class leader in power and economy. Thanks to its sharp styling, it may be the most promising candidate for customization and aftermarket upgrades. Probably the most compelling reason to pick the Isuzu is the warranty. At 7 years and 75,000 miles, the powertrain warranty and 3-year, 50,000-mile basic warranty is better than Chevy and GMC's 5/60 powertrain and 3/36 basic coverage.
Overall, for the best all-around four-cylinder truck package off the showroom floor, we'd have to give the nod to the Tacoma. Despite what the sales brochures might say, none of the engines in this test could be truly described as "powerful." If you're looking for power, just simply step up and get the V-6 option, otherwise you'll be unhappy. But, the Toyota's engine provided ample power for a commuter and returned respectable fuel economy. The build quality and fit and finish meet Toyota's typically high standards. In terms of driving dynamics, it drives like what it is--a truck. It doesn't have the zippy, sporty feel of the Nissan, but its dynamics are entirely appropriate for a truck, especially considering the off-road-oriented suspension of the PreRunner. Toyota has enjoyed a long-running status as segment leader in compact trucks, and with the latest version of the Tacoma, even in four-cylinder form, it retains its crown. Although, the Nissan, with just a tad more power, would be a real contender for the econo-truck throne.