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Keep on truckin’

From offroading to safety to fuel efficiency, ranks the best pickup trucks of 2006.
The 2007 Cadillac Escalade EXT makes its world debut on the show floor at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit
Do you like the look of Cadillac's Escalade EXT? The upscale pickup will run you more than $54,000.Tom Pidgeon / Reuters File / X80001
/ Source: Forbes

Some analysts think Toyota Motor has just been acting polite.

At the Chicago Auto Show in February, the leading Japanese automaker unveiled its overhauled, full-size Tundra pickup, which will go on sale early in 2007. American automakers have been watching Toyota carefully, because the larger, more powerful, more rugged, more sinister-looking Tundra is aimed right at their core vehicles: big, capable pickups.

We know how rich and smart Toyota is, so why has it taken the company so long to build a competitive full-size pickup?

It may just be good manners. One auto-industry analyst put it this way: “You don't just resolutely attack the last bastion of American dominance.”

Why else would Toyota hold off? The company put Ford Motor's wildly successful Taurus line out of business with the Camry. It has put American automakers to shame by beating them to market with gas/electric hybrids, then offering buyers plenty of hybrid choices. Toyota's Scion subsidiary has been a hit with younger buyers, an audience American automakers would kill to reach, and its Lexus subsidiary builds better vehicles across the board than any American brand. In other words, we know Toyota can take the domestic manufacturers to school anytime it wants. What's been the holdup with trucks?

Well, the flip side of the “good manners” theory is the display of outstanding American trucks featured in our list of the best pickups — evidence that Toyota hasn't yet cracked the code for success in the pickup market. While the trucks made by Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers are great, seven of this year's 11 best-pickup honorees are U.S.-made.

America is, after all, the land of the pickup. The vehicle type is more popular here than anywhere else — by far — and General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler have the home-field advantage, as well as a patriotic buying populace that makes full-size, American trucks the best-selling cars in the country, year after year. Other American-built body styles have problems being competitive with foreign models, and Toyota's market share here constantly increases while GM's decreases — but the Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado and Dodge Ram always end up atop the sales standings.

The domestic pickup industry is the North Vietnam of the auto business: besieged by rich, sophisticated adversaries yet still able to hold out because it understands the battleground better than the enemy. Toyota's engineers are still learning. While developing the Tundra, they toured the parking lot at Texas Stadium during a Dallas Cowboys game and were baffled by how big Americans like their pickups. "These are for private use?" they marveled.

The full-size American trucks are only going to get bigger — and better. Look out for overhauled full-size models from Dodge and GM in the coming months.