The Best Mid-Sized Pickup Truck

You want the capability of a truck but can’t be burdened with something you need an air-traffic controller to help park. Your “mid-sized” truck options may be limited in the US, but they’re about to get a whole lot better. Here’s a roundup for what’s out there now.

The Chevy Colorado and its upscale stablemate the GMC Canyon are the only true new choices for 2015. A next-generation Tacoma is on the way for 2016, and a redesigned Frontier is reportedly not far behind... but we don’t know when either will hit the market, so use this quick comparo for what’s on offer going into the new year and a baseline of what the mid-size truck competitive set feels like.

It’s so America to have a scale that starts with “mid-size,” isn’t it?

If that seems a little confusing (why don’t they start at “small?”) it basically breaks down to: every automaker that had a small US-market truck has either eliminated it or grown it to be “mid-sized.”

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Why bother getting a “mid-sized” truck when you could get a Big Gulp? er, “full-sized?” A mid-sized truck offers a lot of a truck’s advantages (off-road potential, hose-out open cargo bed, relaxed posture) without using quite as much fuel or parking space as something like a Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado 1500 or Ram 1500.

Travis hustled the Chevy Colorado through New York City, Matt chased the TX4WD club with a Frontier PRO-4X, and Jason spend some time in the Toyota Tacoma.

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As for my impressions – I’ve lived, worked, and played with a few variations of each mid-sized truck currently on sale in the US. I punted the Chevy Colorado Z71 through some of SoCal’s mountain passes. Did highways, city streets, and daily driving in the lower trims. Ran the GMC Canyon All-Terrain all up and down the desert.

I also took the Nissan Frontier PRO-4X from Colorado to the trails of Moab, Utah hauling all kinds of weight, and back again. Made cargo runs between New York and Boston in a Toyota Tacoma Limited, and beat the shit out of a TRD Pro model on the infamous Hell’s Revenge slickrock trail.

Every truck has been tested in the type of use they’re advertised for; carrying crap all over the place, ceaseless miles of highway cruising, and squeezing suspension down on off-road trails.

Best Overall: Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon

There’s really no contesting the top spot for 2015; the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon (which you can think of a higher trim level of the same truck) simply blow the decrepit doors off their Japanese rivals in just about every aspect of the driving experience.

The Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier are still good trucks. Good enough that I didn’t think the new GM contenders would necessarily be better just by virtue of being new. Until I drove them.

You feel the difference as soon as you open the door. Inside the Canyon or Colorado you’re met with a modern gauge cluster and a beautifully integrated infotainment display. Materials feel solid and on the GMC models; exceedingly nice-touch parts are all over the place.

It’s smooth on the road, composed in corners. The four-cylinder engine has modest acceleration, but it’ll get you and your Home Depot haul across town in comfort. With the V6 you can move out swiftly. It’s not strong enough to let you forget your towing with a heavy load off the hitch, but the Colorado is plenty capable of carrying the kind of boat or horse trailer a $30,000 truck customer would own.

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GM’s objective with these vehicles wasn’t really to entice big-truck buyers to downsize. If you need (or want) extreme towing or power, you’re still going to need a full-sized vehicle.

Better to think of Colorado and Canyon as “gateway drugs” for people who want a truck, maybe irrationally, but are rational enough to appreciate a up-to-date amenities great ride quality, in a package that will fit into parking garages or your urban driveway.

Toyota Tacoma

The Toyota Tacoma has long been resting on a nest of laurels the company built with indefatigable reliability in the 1980s. Punctuated only by a nasty bout of rust issues reported by quite a few frustrated owners, people have been buying and recommending Tacomas with almost as much brand-bias as the staunch flag-wavers driving Ferd, Chebby, or Rham.

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On its own, the Tacoma is a good truck. It’s usable if a little lethargic, has plenty of space to carry five people inside and a motorcycle in the bed. It’s a solid “building” base and thanks to a massive aftermarket, is still “king of the off-road pickups.”

But coming out of a Colorado or Canyon, the Tacoma’s interface goes from looking “acceptable” to “ancient.” It feels significantly slower, is miles behind the GM truck’s refinement, and effectively gives you no reason to buy new... other than an extremely strong resale value in the used market, which is only surpassed by the Jeep Wrangler based on casual window shopping.

As for the TRD Pro off-road variant; it’s a lot of money for a fresh bumper and lift kit. Get yourself a ten-year-old truck and build your own for half the price.

Nissan Frontier

With just a quarter of the mid-sized truck market share before the Colorado went on sale, Nissan’s little pickup has been long been an also-ran in an essentially ignored market segment. That puts it in a pretty deep dungeon of irrelevance, a relegation that’s completely undeserved.

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The Tacoma feels a little more plush, but after a few hundred highway miles I think the Frontier has better road manners and is an overall better vehicle to drive. It felt sharper, more responsive, like it still wanted to impress me.

The upper-trim PRO-4X Frontier might not have the ground clearance to hang with the TRD Pro off-road Tacoma, but it’s also about ten grand cheaper and comes with parts you’ll actually appreciate having from the factory; like heated seats made of great material and a sunroof.

Images by the author