Compact trucks have spent the last decade growing in power, size and capability. For the most part, the small trucks which hail from the middle of the first decade of the millennium have less in common with their 90’s namesakes than they do with their bigger full-size cousins. Particularly amongst domestic manufacturers, a concerted effort has been made to push the accepted definition of compact until it has come to encompass trucks that should more realistically be labeled as mid-sized.
However, from a consumer perspective, this has been a bonus: while features and dimensions might have increased, pricing on basic trucks has remained entry level. This means that those who occasionally require the utility of a truck but who don’t want to sacrifice handling or fuel mileage can get a real bargain on a vehicle that can probably handle 90 percent of what they would ask of a full-size truck. In fact, the only real areas where compact trucks are noticeably less capable are in towing capacity and in some cases, interior room. Cargo space in the truck beds are very similar, with the compact trucks usually giving up a small amount of width to their larger competitors. On some trucks, payload capacities are half what would be expected in a full-size, but others come very close to the standard set by their bigger brothers. Given that compact trucks are not expected to tow huge trailers or carry heavy loads, these restrictions are well in line with what the average person will need their truck to do.
Amongst themselves, compact truck makers are constantly competing to see who can offer the most power, the best maneuverability and the most attractive exterior styling. Fuel economy is also an important factor, since compacts are likely to be used as daily drivers by their owners. Certain truck makers have also created sporty versions of their compact trucks which are lower to the ground and which come with elaborate aero packages designed to give the vehicle a competition appearance. In some cases, the looks are backed up with high performance engines which are more suited for the drag strip than the job site. This reflects just how versatile compact pickups have become, and the degree to which they have been incorporated into the everyday lives of their owners.
The bounty of compact truck choices available on the used market can be confusing. Below are details on the 3 strongest options when shopping for this type of vehicle.
2005-2007 Toyota Tacoma
Toyota has been producing compact pickup trucks for a long time, and when the Tundra got kicked upstairs for the 2007 model year it really gave the smaller Tacoma room to breathe in the product lineup. Knowing that the Tundra would be headed for larger pastures allowed Toyota designers and engineers a much freer reign to design the new-for-2005 Tacoma as a capable mid-size that shared the same beefy good looks as its full-size companion.
Underneath that attractive steel skin is a new chassis that permits truck lengths up to 221 inches – more than enough to increase interior room in the Double Cab four-door edition which is also available with a 6 foot bed. Two new engines can be found nestled underneath the hood. The first is a 2.7 liter 4-cylinder that generates 164 horsepower and 183 lb-ft of torque, available in the standard and Access Cab versions of the truck. Four-door trucks come exclusively with a 4.0 liter V6 which produces a more healthy 245 horsepower coupled with 282 lb-ft of torque and an available 6-speed manual transmission.
This same 4.0 liter engine is also available in the special street performance X-Runner version of the Tacoma, which grafts an aggressive body kit onto the pickup along with Bilstein shocks, a larger rear stabilizer and 18-inch wheels. For off-road adventures, there is the TRD edition of the truck, which jacks up the suspension, locks the rear differential and provides stubby all-terrain tires on 16-inch wheels. It also throws in impressive features such as Hill Start Assist and Downhill Assist Control in order to make 4-wheel drive outings as safe as possible.
The 2005 – 2007 Toyota Tacoma is an excellent compact truck that in many ways has become the standard against which other trucks in its class are compared in the used market.
2005-2007 Dodge Dakota
Re-designed for 2005, the Dodge Dakota pickup is one of the brawniest competitors in the compact truck world. Not one but two V8 engines are available under the hood: a standard, 240 horsepower 4.7 liter and a high output version of the same motor that bumps power up by 30 ponies and churns out 310 lb-ft of torque. This kind of power gives the Dakota a towing capacity of around 7,000 lbs, putting it at the top of the segment. Early editions of the V8 Dakotas could be had with 6-speed manual transmissions, while a 5-speed automatic runs through all three models years. A smaller, 3.7 liter V6 is available that produces close to the same horsepower as the base V8.
Given that the Dakota is built on the same platform as the Durango SUV, it is no surprise that interior space is excellent, especially in the four-door version of the truck. Once again, the Dakota leads the compact truck market in terms of passenger room, and it also provides a 33 cubic foot ‘trunk’ behind the rear seat for stowing gear while carrying a full load of people. The new gauges and interior trim are much classier than the outgoing model, and the seats are as comfortable as those in the more upscale Durango.
On the road, the Dodge Dakota’s size lends it a very controlled, comfortable ride that feels more like a car than several other compact trucks. The vehicle also makes use of a slightly shorter bed in order to maintain ease of parking and piloting in an urban setting. The 2005 – 2007 Dodge Dakota is perfect for people who are unwilling to give up the passenger space of their sedans but who require a daily driver with a considerable amount of cargo space and horsepower.
2005-2007 Nissan Frontier
There was a time when Nissan had to make do with also-ran status in the field of compact pickup trucks. The first generation of the Frontier was passable, but didn’t really stand out in any particular area. What a difference a few years can make. For the 2005 model, Nissan ditched the Frontier’s previous platform and instead decided to use a modified version of the same chassis that underpins their full-size Nissan Titan pickup. This gave the Frontier a new lease on life, in addition to larger dimensions in almost every category.
Now truly a mid-size truck, the Frontier sports a 4.0 liter V6 that generates 265 horsepower and 284 lb-ft of torque, thanks to shared components with the ubiquitous VQ engine that can be found in the Nissan 350Z and Infiniti G35 of the same year. This helps to make it one of the fastest compact trucks on the market in terms of acceleration. A smaller 4-cylinder engine is also available. Handling is also improved, making the Frontier actually feel fun through corners, instead of tippy or unstable like some compact pickups. The truck is also available with a Nismo off-road package that beefs up the suspension and adds skid plates and electronic driver’s aids similar to those that are found in the Toyota TRD package.
The truck is available as a single cab, a King Cab and four-door Crew Cab in order to accommodate a variety of passenger configurations. Nissan has also decided to equip the Frontier with a wide array of standard features, making it easy to find a version that is well-equipped, especially when compared to some of the more austere compact truck offerings from General Motors and Chevrolet.
The 2005 – 2007 Nissan Frontier has come a long way from its modest roots, and the truck has blossomed into a real contender in the used compact truck market.