Last year, our TOTY spotlight was trained on two all-new groundbreakers in the full-size truck category. One, our winner, was the redesigned Ford F-150, a grille-to-hitch makeover of a perennial leader in the segment; the other, Nissan's potent clean- sheet-of-paper challenger, the Titan. Some 12 months later, the focus has shifted to the smaller categories, although incongruently, a couple of behemoth megaweights have nevertheless wriggled into our TOTY circus tent.

Indeed, if this were a three-ring circus, in the center ring would be the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier, two competitive offerings vying to outshine the other like a pair of back-flipping acrobatic canines. In the second ring would be the half-step-bigger Dodge Dakota attempting a daunting juggling act of full- and midsize truck attributes, while in the third ring the gargantuan Ford F-350 and Hummer H2 SUT would lumber and flap their ears like a couple of Indian elephants. Popcorn in hand, we must say that the view from the grandstand is quite entertaining.

But which will earn our loudest applause? Ground rules for grabbing the TOTY Golden Calipers are no different from those applied to our SUV of the Year and Car of the Year contests (as reported in the previous two issues). To reprise, our Truck of the Year honoree must deftly handle three straight-up questions. One: Is it a superior truck in its own category? Two: Does it ring in as a solid value relative to its immediate competitors? And three: Does it shift the paradigm, make people recalibrate their expectations, or otherwise leave a mark (even treadmarks) on the transportation world? In other words, is it significant?

In addition to our usual battery of asphalt-stretching track tests, we caravanned our contenders along a 300-mile trek composed of freeways, back roads, and even 4x4-challenging no-roads, all the while swatting away the fog of Madison Avenue marketing malarkey to perceive each vehicle's underlying virtues. And in the psycho-complex realm of trucks--where drivers often irrationally use them for everything but truck purposes--that can mean a lot of swatting.

Preamble complete: Let's see how our performers do.