What I'm Driving At: Two-by, Four-by, Fly-by

From an automotive point of view, it's been a windy spring. It seems as if the number of new roadsters and ragtops issuing from carmakers is challenging the pollen count. So much top-down, wind-in-your-hair motoring has a tendency to blow reality out the window; automakers don't really expect us to live happily ever after in a topless world, do they? Not on your life. While ragtops strike "come-hither" poses to lure prospects into the showroom, it's trucks that do the deals these days. How appropriate, then, that a bevy of shiny, new compact pickups arrives at the very onset of this year's Season of the Mulch.Isuzu Hombre XS SpaceCab 4x4In a world crawling with trucks of every description, it's defensible -- if not strictly fair -- to base one's preferences on aesthetics and emotion. If not, I'd have a hard time justifying my infatuation with Isuzu's re-badged truck (which Chevy sells as the S10 and GMC as the Sonoma). For '98, the big news is that General Motors is letting Isuzu use its push-button four-wheel-drive powertrain. It's the only "four-by" in the group I've tested here, and the system works simply and flawlessly to shift on the fly from two-wheel cruising to four-wheel High. As usual, engaging four-wheel Low means stopping and shifting into Neutral first. This year also sees a 3-percent boost to 180 horsepower in V6-equipped models of the Hombre 4x4.Despite its pseudo-macho moniker, the Hombre is actually very refined. Exterior lines are rounded and subtle; sleek aluminum wheels offset the blackwall tires quite nicely; and the upscale XS interior is velvety plush. Bucket-like 60/40 front seats transform into a three-seater bench with the armrest raised, and two paratrooper-style jump seats fold out of the sides of the rear cab extension. It's a sardine squeeze, no question; but you can legitimately pack five inside if you dare. You'll pay for the privilege, however. Of the five trucks reviewed here, the Hombre is most expensive, totaling $23,895 for a package that also includes auto transmission, four-wheel ABS brakes, stereo CD, A/C, and power windows.Mazda B4000 SE Extended Cab 4x2At the other end of the price spectrum is the B4000, which Mazda has borrowed from Ford's Ranger. My tester was fairly plain-vanilla: A $16,395 base price climbed to $19,500 after adding air-conditioning and a "Power Package" group of appearance and power-control options.The truck's 4-liter V6 ranks with Ranger as the weenie of the bunch: It makes only 160 horsepower. The unique five-speed manual transmission, however, turns the 225 ft.-lbs. of torque to advantage. As a working truck, the B4000 is all business. Its fully boxed frame rails are 350-percent stiffer for '98, and the cargo bed features tie-downs and partition slots. Inside, there's nominal seating for five, but in conditions even more cramped than inside the Hombre.Exterior styling, too, is a little more utilitarian -- a little less fashion-conscious -- than Isuzu's. Ride is firm rather than cushy; it's rarin' to haul (up to 1620 lbs.) or to tow (up to 3,420 lbs.). Thanks to a fifth-gear overdrive, it delivers the best fuel economy of the bunch at 18/23, city/highway. Surprisingly, it's not the least expensive truck under review; it is undoubtedly, however, the most down-to-business workhorse in this crowd.Ford Ranger XLT SuperCab 4x2For more years than its competitors want to remember, Ford's Ranger has dominated the compact truck category. For '98, the tradition is sure to continue. If Mazda's B4000 is hardworking blue-collar, the Ranger XLT is solidly middle management. In classic Ford tradition, the interior is comfy and trim rather than excessively plush. Likewise, despite a few minor tweaks for '98, the exterior remains conservative and handsome rather than flashy and daring.With the same four-liter V6 as Mazda's B4000, acceleration performance is nothing to brag about. The optional five-speed automatic transmission and new, softer springing up front render Ford's Ranger a smooth-driving truck well suited to highway cruising and towing. My favorite aspect of the interior is the layout of instruments and controls; the driver's seat is a genuine cockpit, where everything is arranged by order of importance in the most logical places.With a base price of $15,345, the two-wheel-drive Ranger swiftly tallies up to $21,485 with items like the XLT trim and convenience package (for $2,975), auto tranny ($1,105), and ABS brakes ($500). Fuel economy is decent at 16/21, city/highway. Another important consideration is the Ranger's very popularity: The better it continues to sell, the better its prospects for strong resale value a few years down the road.GMC Sonoma Extended Cab Sportside 4x2Whereas Isuzu turned its 4x4 Hombre into a country gentleman, GMC has cast its 4x2 Sonoma Sportside as a city slicker. The Sportside puts the fender wells on the outside of the cargo bed, resulting in a cargo box with flat sides and with convenient side-steps for reaching into it. Traditionally, buyers selecting the Sportside model are making a fashion statement. GMC indulges them even further for '98 with a compact truck that suggests a custom "low rider."A ZQ8 Sport Suspension package slightly lowers the truck and tilts it toward the front; side mirrors are mounted below the line of sight for another subtle custom touch. The Apple Red Metallic paint shimmers in bright sunlight. It looks too pretty to go to work, and with 175 V6 horsepower, the Sportside is more fun to play with anyway. Ride is solid and smooth; and handling is sporty and flat, thanks in particular to the truck's lowered center of gravity. With its healthy 3,500-lb. tow rating and duded-up looks, the four-seater Sonoma Sportside Extended Cab is likely to become a vehicle of choice for trailering Jet Skis and ATVs between favorite adult playgrounds.Dodge Dakota R/T 4x2It should come as no surprise that Dodge's idea of a compact truck is an in-your-face category-breaker. Bravado and chutzpah have become Dodge trademarks of late, and the Dakota R/T helps prove the point. Although Dakota plays little brother to the massive Dodge Ram, it is significantly larger than any of the models mentioned above. So why not exploit the difference further by stuffing a Magnum V8 underhood, fine-tuning the suspension to sports-car calibrations, and ripping off zero-to-60 times in the 5.9-second neighborhood?It's hardly a truck at all -- it handles like a race car. When some goofball kids in the lane to my right turned left directly in front of me at 40 miles an hour, the R/T's ABS brakes and its poised, tight suspension preserved vehicle control -- as well as the flame-red paint job -- even while my heart-rate erupted. A growling, tuned exhaust system makes music of the 250 horsepower spooling out of the Dakota's 5.9-liter V8. The entire effect is that of a sensory excitation chamber.But the biggest surprise is the $19,020 total sticker -- far and away the lowest price in the group presented here. So what's the catch? Limited availability, for one thing. Another is the slight reduction (compared to the standard Dakota) in payload and tow capacities -- although the R/T's 6,200-lb. tow rating beats everything else reviewed above. The chief obstacle presented by the Dakota R/T, however, is its panache: You're so busy having a good time, it's hard to remember you're driving a truck -- a truck that, presumably, has a job to do.


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