The best midsize pickups for 2009

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Compact pickups have gotten so much bigger and better-equipped that they provide almost all the utility, comfort and power of full-size trucks.

No wonder their makers now typically refer to them as midsize pickups.

About the only thing that hasn't grown -- or hasn't grown as much -- is their price. Choose one of our three favorite midsize trucks, and you'll save at least $5,000 -- and probably a good deal more -- compared with a full-size pickup.

You'll pay thousands less than the sticker prices we quote below, because automakers are offering big discounts on all pickups right now.

If you don't carry five adults on a regular basis, we recommend an extended cab with two small rear doors rather than the full-blown, four-door crew cabs that have become popular but that really balloon the footprint and weight of a midsize pickup.

These trucks are a little shorter and more maneuverable yet still provide easy access to the rear seats and a 72-inch long cargo bed -- just six inches less than the standard bed for full-size pickups.

We also recommend that you skip the pricey option of four-wheel drive, unless there's a lot of snow or mud in your life.

All midsize pickups with rear-wheel drive now offer some type of traction control for the drive wheels, which provides much of the safety and security of four-wheel drive without the extra weight and cost.

So what should you buy? Consider one of our three favorites for 2009:

Toyota Tacoma

Tacoma is the gold standard of midsize pickups. You'll pay more up front, but Toyota's resale values are second to none, as is this tough truck's durability.

Tacoma's interior is entirely straightforward -- no flashy gimmicks. But the materials are first rate (upgraded for 2009), and there's a solidity to it that underscores why Toyotas do so well at trade-in time.

We think the best version is the two-wheel drive Access Cab PreRunner with the strong 4-liter, dual-cam V6 and the optional five-speed automatic transmission, for $24,135, including destination charge.

We'd insist on the V6 because the Tacoma's base 2.7-liter, four-cylinder engine delivers a measly 159 horsepower, which is just too weak for a truck this big. The V6 generates a more truck-worthy 236 h.p. and still manages 16 miles per gallon in the city and 20 on the highway.

That's respectable mileage for a midsize pickup. But as they've gotten bigger, their gas mileage has declined until it's only a couple of miles per gallon better than full-size trucks.

Traction control and the highly worthwhile stability-control feature, which helps to prevent the truck from sliding in corners and on wet or snow-slick roads, were a $650 option last year. Now they're standard equipment.

That's helped to push the sticker price of a V6 Access Cab PreRunner with traction and stability control down from $24,735 last year to $23,045 for 2009 (and that includes destination charges). Suh-weet!

Nissan Frontier

Nissan has a long and respected history making compact and midsize pickups. You can count on tough engineering and Nissan's reputation for durability with the Frontier.

The '09 model year brings a clean and contemporary restyling that makes the Frontier look more like the full-size Titan.

The Frontier's not the cheapest midsize pickup, but solid resale values and historically low operating costs make it a good deal, even though you have to spend extra to get desirable features that are standard on the Toyota Tacoma, like traction control and front and rear side airbags.

The King Cab body style with the entirely decent SE trim level, powered by the stout 261-h.p., 4-liter V6 and a five-speed automatic transmission starts at just $21,410. That's a lot of truck power for that price.

To get traction control on trucks with rear-wheel drive, you have to tack on the $1,330 Value Truck Package, which also brings power windows, nice alloy wheels, a bedliner and other amenities. The $550 for the side and curtain airbag package will make everyone riding in the Frontier feel better, too.

At $24,070 (including the heavy $780 destination charge), that's a nice chunk of useful and comparatively economical (15 m.p.g. city/20 highway) pickup, particularly considering Nissan's V6 has forever been rated one of the best in the world.

Better still, you can practically count on a four-figure rebate, which means you can tool around in a nicely outfitted V6 Frontier for less than $23,000.

Dodge Dakota

Redesigned inside and out last year, the Dakota's fenders and corners were smoothed just a bit to create a more upscale look.

Inside, you'll see the materials aren't up to Toyota standards, but the roomy layout is a study in straightforward and pleasing design.

The Dakota offers the longest bed in the class (6 feet, 6 inches for the extended cab versus 6-feet, 1-inch for Frontier and Tacoma), and it's one of only two pickups in the segment to offer an optional V8.

Putting a big engine like that in a midsize truck might seem wasteful in an era of $3-a-gallon gas, but the Dakota's 4.7-liter V8 gets nearly as good mileage as the 210-h.p., 3.7-liter V6 -- 14 m.p.g. city/19 m.p.g. highway vs. 15 m.p.g. city/20 m.p.g. highway.

A great value is the Dakota's extended cab and V6, four-speed automatic transmission and the new-for-'09 Big Horn/Lone Star trim level, starting at $22,860. The optional Extra Security package provides four-wheel antilock brakes and side-curtain air bags that cover both the front and rear seats for a reasonable $640.

Add the antispin differential ($295), which keeps the rear wheels from doing just that, $255 for the Convenience Group that adds rear doors that swing way open, and you've got a nicely outfitted Dakota for $24,475 before any discounts.

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