There's no way to avoid a base-model pickup as a good value in truck motoring. Compacts have less metal and aren't as expensive as full-sizes, and some compacts have a V-6 with 4WD. We went shopping for a 2WD.

We found the Ranger XLT for under $16,000 and much better equipped than anything else we've driven lately for this price. Since an XLT isn't the base model, standards include ABS, chrome wheels and trim, a CD player, cloth split-bench seat, tach, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The only option is $325 for cruise control and tilt-steering column.

This truck would be a better value with a regulation flat-sided bed instead of the fancier Flareside, but performance is similar. Drop down to an entry-level Ranger, save a few thousand, and have all the function of this version. Or spend roughly the same and get a 4WD low-trim Ranger. Either way, the Toyota Tacoma was the only other name that came up.

The Ranger's 2.3L four-cylinder recently got overhauled, and now with two cams and 16 valves antes up 135 hp and 153 lb-ft of torque at a not-too-high 3750 rpm. This engine is plenty to keep the Ranger moving with traffic, reaching 60 mph in less than 10 sec and handling seven-percent grades well above the posted limit in overdrive. Its four-cylinder status became apparent in upper-rpm buzz, where balance shafts are required to match I-6 or V-8 smoothness. It also has a weak idle if you forget to add revs before engaging the clutch. The five-speed has well-spaced ratios, a longish throw shifter that never misses, and an easily modulated light clutch. The combination offered superior mileage, with city estimates above any of the others' highway numbers.

Underneath, the Ranger is basic mini-pickup, with independent coils up front and a leaf-sprung solid axle under the back. Since it's light, it rides well empty and has good steering precision and effective brakes. Despite rather mundane tires, it went through the slalom cones just behind the all-independent all-wheel- drive BMW X5 and 2.0 mph behind the fat-tire, firmly damped Dakota R/T. It also outstopped the other pickups with no drama.

Inside, the Ranger offers surprising room for a regular cab, with at least one 6-ft tester not needing the seat all the way back. Cloth headliner and upholstery belie the price, and with a relatively small volume to adjust, heating and air-conditioning are quick. We also noted how nice it was to check mileage without a key (mechanical odo) and flip the inside mirror to dark whenever we desired.

If you're considering the full-size route, the sticker for a brand-new no-option F-150 regular cab long bed, with a 200-hp V-6 five-speed, chrome trim and bumpers, air-conditioning, four-wheel discs with ABS, and a 30-gal fuel tank, is $18,595--only $445 more than the base Dakota Sport, which gets heavily optioned into an R/T.