You could say trucks haven't changed much over the years. Slip under the skin of a new F-150, and you'll find its basic architecture isn't far removed from a Ford pickup built half a century ago. The reality, of course, is that everything has changed. Whether they're workhorses or personal transport, today's trucks are smoother, quieter, more powerful, more efficient, more comfortable, and--yes--tougher. More versatile, too: You can pick 'n' mix drivetrains, cabs, and beds to tailor most trucks to suit your personal duty cycle and your personality.
So the arrival of Honda's Ridgeline onto the U.S. truck market is an event of seismic significance. Honda has never built a truck before, and the Ridgeline doesn't so much break the rules of truck making, as blow them apart and drive over the bits. It's a unibody. It has a transverse-mounted engine. It has independent rear suspension. Can it really be a truck? Without a doubt, that was the key question to be answered during the 2006 Truck of the Year showdown.
There were others. Like whether DaimlerChrysler has continued its steady improvement of the Ram in its regular and heavy-duty iterations. Was Mitsubishi's Raider more than just a tasteful redesign of the Dodge Dakota? Could Isuzu spark consumer interest in its brand with a mildly remodeled and repackaged Chevy Colorado? And had the Lincoln Mark LT really turned one of America's great luxury marques into nothing more than a trim level on an F-150?
As usual, our evaluation began at the track, where each contender was run through the usual barrage of Motor Trend and Truck Trend performance tests. This year, though, we added a little extra. A lot extra, actually: The bed of each contender was filled to the manufacturer's specified MAXIMUM payload, and each truck was run again against the clock. The results, in terms of how much each of these trucks is rated to carry and how it performed with a full load, were revealing.
Track testing complete, we moved to the edge of the California high desert and a 27-mile road loop that combined freeway running, two-lane blacktop, town driving, and gnarly, corrugated dirt canyon road. Each judge was able to drive every truck over the same roads, noting performance, ride, handling, comfort, smoothness, and refinement. Only then did he vote, weighing up the raw data and subjective assessments against the three key criteria that define Truck of the Year: superiority, significance, and value.
So, how did our contenders do?