Full-size pickups: Powerful haulers for work and home

Car key in door lock

Oh, how pickups have changed.

They were originally used as work trucks for contractors and ranchers, with two doors, a front seat and Spartan interior.

As automakers created bigger cabs with four doors, spacious back seats and refined looks, they've become family haulers and everyday commuters to the office instead of to the construction site. On the weekends they're perfect for towing boats and snowmobiles, or hauling sheet rock from Home Depot.

Our favorites are the Chevrolet Silverado, Toyota Tundra and Honda Ridgeline. They're guaranteed to provide the three P's of pickups -- power, pulling and payload.

Although sticker prices can run $40,000 or more, our recommendations should satisfy most buyers and hold the price closer to $30,000 or less, especially since there are lots of discounts on big trucks these days.

We'll steer you toward versions with standard beds and large, but not the largest, cabs and engines. If you live in snow country, we think you need four-wheel drive. But you can save anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 by sticking with rear-wheel drive.

Chevrolet Silverado

The redesigned 2007 Silverado brings a high degree of refinement to the full-size pickup segment. With its stronger frame and suspension it feels very solid. The improved steering makes it surprisingly responsive and pleasant to drive for a full-size truck.

The cabin is well soundproofed, making it quiet even at high speeds. Nice touches that make this truck easy-to-live-with include locking under-seat storage, wide-opening rear access doors, and a split rear seat that folds up to carry groceries or whatever more easily.

If you need four-wheel drive, a dash-mounted dial allows you to select two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive that can be used all the time, or four-wheel drive designed for particularly slippery conditions. There is also low-range for low-speed, off-road driving.

Base prices for the Silverado 1500 range from $18,760 to $38,990, including the destination charge with options pushing the price over $45,000. As with most full-size pickups there are too many choices -- three cargo bed and cab sizes, five suspensions, and many trim levels.

We recommend the LT1 version, with an extended cab, standard bed, four-wheel drive and 315 h.p., 5.3-liter engine for $30,560.

This V8 works very well with the four-speed automatic. Fuel economy with is rated at 16 miles per gallon in town and 20 m.p.g. on the highway. When you don't need maximum power, the "active fuel management" system shuts down four of the eight cylinders to save gas. It's very entertaining to watch a gauge on the dash show when it switches from eight cylinders to four and back.

This model has a maximum payload (total weight of the passengers and cargo) of 1,735 pounds and can tow 7,500 pounds.

We recommend the standard Z83 suspension, not the Z71 off-road suspension. Standard suspensions have the most comfy ride on a rough surface and there is no extra cost.

Antilock brakes are standard but safety systems such as electronic stability control, which GM calls Stabilitrak ($425) and head curtain side airbags ($395) are options. Both have proven to be life-saving and we would invest in them since vehicles with high centers of gravity such as pickup trucks are more likely to roll over. That would bring the total price to $31,380.

Toyota Tundra

Toyota has finally offered a full-size pickup that is competitive with the domestics by being longer, taller, wider and more powerful than before. It comes with three cab and bed sizes, three engines and either a five or six-speed automatic transmission.

The cabin is quiet and comfortable. For a big truck the Tundra handles well, with the only serious complaint being a brake pedal that feels a bit soft. But feeling aside the big, four-wheel disc brakes do a good job of stopping it.

The Tundra's four-wheel drive system is called "part-time." It can be used on a dry surface, Toyota says, but it may cause increased wear and poorer fuel economy. Ideally it should be used only when there are slippery conditions.

This model can tow 10,300 pounds and carry a payload of between 1,335 to 1,650 pounds. So this model, like the Silverado, is for those who need a good dose of power and payload capabilities.

Prices on the Tundra start at $22,935 for a two-wheel drive Regular Cab and $27,125 for a four-wheel drive model. The most expensive Tundra is $42,495 for a top-of-the-line incredibly spacious CrewMax with four-wheel drive and the 5.7 liter V8.

We recommend the SR5, Double Cab version with a regular suspension. Like most standard suspensions on pickups it is a bit bouncy when the truck isn't carrying a load. But it's less jarring on rough surfaces, a worthwhile tradeoff.

Go with the standard bed, four-wheel drive and the new 381 h.p. 5.7 liter V8 with the six-speed automatic -- a wonderful powertrain that makes it accelerate like a much lighter vehicle. Final price: $31,805.

This model is rated at 14 m.p.g. city and 18 m.p.g. highway. That's the worst fuel economy of our favorites, putting a dent in Toyota's environmentally-friendly reputation.

But while Tundra prices are higher than Silverado's, it comes with all the important safety gear such as electronic stability control and head air bags.

Honda Ridgeline

The Ridgeline doesn't try to be as rough and tough as the big Chevy and Toyota trucks. It's intended for light-duty chores and heavy-duty family use.

Instead of the classic body-on-frame construction used for most pickups, the Ridgeline is built more like a car, integrating the frame into the body. As a result, it's the most pleasant of our three favorites to drive, offering a comfortable ride and reassuring, friendly handling.

The cab comes in one size and there is so much room it feels more like a mid-size SUV than a pickup. It also has almost two inches more rear legroom than our Silverado or Tundra choices. That doesn't sound like much but it makes a difference. Like the Silverado and the Tundra the rear seat bottoms fold up for carrying cargo instead of people.

Although its bed is the shortest of the three, at 5 feet long (6 feet with the tailgate down), it can carry 1,100 pounds and accommodate four-foot one-inch wide objects between its wheel wells, meaning it can meet the DIY needs of many pickup truck owners. Its total payload is 1,500 pounds.

As you might expect, Honda was particularly keen to please recreational haulers. The bed has built-in indentations for motorcycle tires and enough room to carry two of its largest off-road motorcycles or a full-size ATV (with the tailgate down).

Honda also came up with an industry first -- a lockable, weather-resistant trunk built into the trunk bed. It's big enough to hold a large 72-quart cooler or three golf bags, or some luggage. Another unique feature is a tailgate that can either swing down or open to the side to make loading easier.

The only engine, a 255-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 with a five-speed automatic transmission, allows the Ridgeline to tow 5,000 pounds. But it doesn't get any better gas mileage than the Chevy V8 -- an estimated 16 m.p.g. city and 21 m.p.g. highway.

The Ridgeline starts at $28,395 including destination charge and runs up to $35,535 for a model with a Navigation system.

We recommend the RTX version, which is new for '07. For $28,895 you get a trailer hitch and all the necessary safety equipment, including antilock brakes, electronic stability control and six airbags.