When the Great Recession hit, not only did casual truck buyers vanish, but automakers were forced to do some serious belt-tightening. The result: When it came to pickups, the goal was to appeal to core truck people, listen to customer input, and use resources wisely to keep loyalists happy and win over new buyers. That is precisely what has happened in this Truck of the Year. Model-year 2012 is more punctuated by pointed improvements than dramatic change.

There are four contenders, starting with the Ford F-150, a line that has numerous trim levels, cab options, and bed variants. One weakness of past F-150s was the engine lineup, which felt behind the times. As recently as 2010, one engine was still backed by a four-speed automatic. That has all changed, as Ford wiped the engine slate clean and introduced four new engines, all with more power and more fuel economy than the comparable engines they replaced--there's a 3.7-liter V-6, a 5.0-liter V-8, a 6.2-liter V-8, and the engine that has gotten the most buzz, the twin-turbo EcoBoost 3.5-liter V-6. All four come standard with a six-speed automatic.

Next is the Nissan NV. This is Nissan's first foray into the full-size van market in the U.S., a category that was ripe for improvement. The NV was originally going to be based on the half-ton Titan platform, but by the time the engineering team was done, very little was shared with the Titan, and the team had essentially created a new heavy-duty platform. We tested a cargo van, as the passenger van hadn't gone into production in time for this test.

We also brought along the Ram Laramie Longhorn, a new model that competes most directly with the Ford King Ranch edition and GMC's Sierra Denali. Also new for the Ram is the High-Output Cummins turbodiesel, with 150 lb-ft more torque, bringing the total to 800. The truck we received also came with the Max Tow package.

Rounding out the group is the Toyota Tacoma, far and away the best-selling compact/midsize, even before the Ranger was discontinued. The Tacoma was redesigned with a new front end and upgraded interior.

All manufacturers were invited to provide variants, but only Ford accepted, sending us two F-150s powered by the volume V-8 and V-6. That brought the total number of trucks tested to five. After completing unloaded acceleration and braking tests in Fontana, California, we hit the road. Judges drove the pickups unloaded on a loop in town and up the Grapevine (a grade with a nearly 3000-foot elevation change, on a major interstate in Southern California), on twisty mountain roads, and on the highway from Los Angeles to outside of Phoenix, Arizona. We used Nissan's top-notch Arizona Test Center to complete our testing. The facility provided trailers, payload, and a variety of road surfaces in a safe, controlled environment for the rest of our evaluation. The test team performed acceleration testing with trailers and payload, and judges drove loops with all vehicles loaded with 75 percent of payload capacity (GVWR minus as-tested curb weight), then with trailers at 75 percent capacity.

As is almost always the case (last year's TOTY was an exception to the rule), this is not a comparison story. The Ram doesn't get higher marks than the Tacoma because it can tow more; that would make this event incredibly unfair. Instead, we evaluated each truck based on how it did what it was designed to do, based on six specific criteria shown below. We took extensive notes, spent long hours driving, and had some fairly heated discussions. By the time the voting was over, we had selected Motor Trend's 2012 Truck of the Year.

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.

PERFORMANCE OF INTENDED FUNCTION
How well the vehicle does the job its designer 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 measure that protect occupants from harm during a crash.

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

THE JUDGES
Mike Febbo Associate Editor
Allyson Harwood Executive Editor, Truck Trend
Ron KiinoEditor At Large
Jonny Lieberman Senior Editor
Scott Mortara Road Test Editor
Kim Reynolds Testing Director