Over the last few years, sales of pickups for personal use have dropped dramatically. It's been a long, slow road to recovery in this country, and we still haven't seen truck sales improve. Making things worse, guys who work in construction are among the most dedicated to buying pickups for use on the job, and there isn't a lot of that going on right now, either.

How did truckmakers respond to this sudden, dramatic, and prolonged change in the marketplace? Instead of sticking solely with the mainstream-market formula, they're focusing on catering to the specific needs of truck people. That helps explain the interesting grouping of vehicles for the latest Truck of the Year event. Four qualified: the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, the Ford Transit Connect, the Ram Heavy Duty, and the Toyota Tundra 4.6-liter work truck.

First contender is the off-road race-ready Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. Instead of taking the street-biased high-performance route of the Lightning, the design team looked at the strengths of the truck platform and redefined the idea of high performance. The Raptor is ideally suited to romping over the ruts and sand of the Baja 1000 and only gets better the faster you go. And even though the extended-cab powered by a 5.4-liter V-8 is an impressive combination, we hear a crew cab and 400-plus-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 are coming.

Some of you may wonder why on earth there's a little van in Truck of the Year. The Ford Transit Connect is no kid-toting minivan. This is a van built for work, with a 1600-pound payload, comparable to that of any half-ton truck on the market. This van, which has been sold in Europe for many years, has been put through truck-durability testing and is ready to take on full-size vans for a piece of that market.

For those who need to be able to tow a fifth-wheel trailer or carry 5000 pounds of equipment in the bed, the Ram Heavy Duty arrives for 2010 with a revised platform, all-new sheetmetal, redesigned interior, and several innovations. These trucks are available as 3/4- and one-ton models, plus 4500 and 5500 trucks for even more capability.

The Toyota Tundra gets several major changes for 2010, including an all-new engine and updated styling inside and out. In addition, for the first time Toyota is offering the Tundra with a work-truck package. We tried out a regular cab work truck with the new V-8, to see how the new model answers the needs of the working man.

Evaluations began at facilities in El Toro, California, where the crew ran every truck through Motor Trend's test regimen, both unloaded and carrying its full rated payload. All judges also drove each truck through a short road course set up on those grounds, all variants driven empty and full. Once we'd finished there, we moved north, taking all the trucks on a real-world loop composed of surface streets, twisty roads, and freeway-including the Grapevine, which climbs nearly 3000 feet in a few miles. As these are all fairly specialized vehicles, we tested each to see how it does the jobs it's intended to do. For example, we towed a 28-foot boat with the Ram and took the Raptor through the whoops and soft sand at the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area. Once the testing and evaluation was completed, it was time for debate, discussion, and the vote.

THE CRITERIA
Each TOTY contender is evaluated against six key criteria. They are:

DESIGN ADVANCEMENT
Quality execution of exterior and interior styling; innovation in vehicle packaging; good selection and use of materials.

ENGINEERING EXCELLENCE
Integrity of total vehicle concept and execution, clever solutions to packaging, manufacturing, and dynamics issues; use of cost-effective technologies that benefit the consumer.

INTENDED FUNCTION
How well the vehicle does the job its designers and product planners intended.

EFFICIENCY
Low fuel consumption and carbon footprint, relative to the vehicle's competitive set.

SAFETY
Primary safety-the vehicle's ability to help the driver avoid a crash-as well as secondary safety measures that protect occupants from harm during a crash.

VALUE
Price and equipment levels measured against those of vehicles in the same market segment.