The big news these days is not so much that the Japanese are making a major push to get into the pickup business but how successful the U.S. makers have been at maintaining their advantage.

That's not to say that the Japanese haven't made significant inroads into the market. Companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mitsubishi have aggressively entered the space with vehicles that are, by and large, excellent.

This increased competition has forced Ford, General Motors and Chrysler to step up their game, knowing that maintaining their edge in this profitable space requires constant innovation and application. The result is that, from an engineering and design perspective, there has never been a better time to buy a pickup.

NO STOPPING

Of course, many environmentally minded people would quite rightly object to such a statement. The fact of the matter is that, good as many of these trucks are, they still consume a disproportional amount of fossil fuels. At a time when America should be coming up with ways to wean ourselves off the internal combustion engine in order to pursue alternate energy, the popularity of pickups remains defiantly anachronistic, if not incredibly reckless.

What's clear is that, at least as far as the auto makers go, there's no dilemma here. As long as they can make money selling big trucks, they will continue to build them. In fact, for the first quarter of 2006, Ford and GM sold far more big trucks than they did small trucks. The Ford F-150 series, still the best-selling truck in the U.S., notched a healthy 5.5% increase, the third consecutive month of gains according to the company.

What's interesting to note is that the number of big pickups sold in the first quarter (538,262) dwarfed the number of small trucks (140,527), but that in the latter category, the Japanese were dominant, selling nearly twice as many small trucks as Ford and GM combined. In fact, while Toyota and Nissan have both developed a large truck entrant, Honda has not. Nor have they come out with a range of models and variations, such as the $52,710 Dodge Ram SRT 10 or the $37,300 Ford F-150 King Ranch, seeming to understand that their best chance of success lies in remaining small and waiting for the big trucks to go extinct.

SPARTAN NO MORE

Even with gasoline at more than $3 a gallon, that may not happen for some time yet. The simple reason is that too many Americans like to own trucks. Even though in 2005 truck sales fell around 2.5%, Americans still bought over 1.2 million more trucks than cars. And while there are reports this month that auto dealers around the country are seeing an uptick in people trading in their gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs for smaller, more fuel-economic cars, high gas prices so far haven't driven a stake through the heart of America's love affair with pickups. Prices may have to go a lot higher to destroy that bond.

But carbon emissions and oil panics aside, it is indeed a great time to buy a pickup. In the old days, the organizing principle behind trucks was to offer a workhorse that working men could afford and that was as bare bones as possible. These days, few trucks are that stripped down -- even if you wanted them to be -- and for the most part they come with a raft of standard and optional features that would have left early truck drivers scratching their heads.

Crew cab? Once upon a time, you would simply cram as many people in the front bench seat as possible and the spillover would wind up shivering in back. Heated front seats? Air-conditioning? Satellite navigation? Leather seats? These are trucks designed for fun, not work.

CATEGORY CATALOGUE

At the same time, today's trucks usually offer better performance and utility than their predecessors, even if you might think twice about getting the leather seats dirty. They also come in a wider range of sizes and style than ever before. Want a truck with the speed of a sports car? Got it. Want a truck that burns less fuel? Yup.

When we set out to identify the best pickups on the market we looked at a wide range that would appeal to potential buyers. We broke our roundup down by fuel performance, safety, size, towing capacity, speed, resale, luxury, and other categories. Some, like the International CXT, are just about too big and powerful to believe. Others, such as the Ford Ranger, are surprisingly modest. One thing's for sure, if you're a truck buyer, there's something great for everybody.

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