When The Today Show does a special feature on full-sized pickup trucks, you know the times must be changing. Farmers and construction workers, the traditional drivers of trucks and the truck market, also have to wonder.

You've heard of soccer moms? Well, according to a September TV broadcast, the newest trend in urban female transportation is “truck moms.” Apparently, these women need to haul passels of rug rats and all their stuff, but feel they are just too young, free and adventurous to be seen in a minivan or SUV. Um, what can we say — you go girl?

Look at the increasingly plush, large four-door cab designs and the shrinking box length on this year's new models, and they point to the challenge truck manufacturers have in keeping every type of driver happy. The fastest-growing market segment is suburban housewives and white-collar professionals who want luxury and convenience. Yet farmers and construction workers who need a pickup truck to do their jobs don't necessarily want to pay more for a package that's too fancy to get full of dirt.

Workhorse or luxury vehicle?

Ford, GMC and Dodge do pay homage to their products' working class roots by offering a “work truck” economy option. Still, many farmers complain that the only trucks available to buy on the lot come with luxury and electronic extras that they don't want but are forced to pay extra for.

The solution: Don't buy what's on the lot. Instead, order what you want from the dealer and wait a few weeks for it to arrive. Or log on to one of the many price quote Web sites that get dealers in your area to submit their best quote for the precise model and trim package you want.

Of course, you might decide you like some of the new luxuries. Better electronics, improved ride and, inexplicably, more horsepower and towing capacity have all grown out of the increasingly competitive market. The truck gold rush also has attracted new names such as Toyota and Nissan, which are stepping up with their own full-sized trucks to grab a piece of the action. So now there are five tough truck competitors instead of three.

Prices

Thanks to the competition, the companies are feeling significant pricing pressure. For example, despite a total remake and many extra features, the 2004 Ford F-150 will price just $245 to $635 above last year's model. Discounts and incentives among competitors could force still lower prices.

The following overview is just a starting point for your truck-buying research. For further information and prices on specific models and trim packages, check each company's Web site. For an unbiased overview and complete price lists online, we recommend the Ward's Auto World and Truck Trend affiliate site www.intellichoice.com. Other sites such as www.automotive.com and www.edmunds.com also are very good.

Ford F-150

Base price: $21,215 to $35,570

Highlights: All-new model offers more power with optional 5.4-l V-8. Better frame stiffness, suspension, roomy four-door cab. Nice styling and trim.

For two decades, the F-150 has dominated as the number-one-selling vehicle in the world. But with competitors on the move, Ford knows its bread-and-butter best seller will have to keep improving to hold the top spot.

Toward that end, Ford has produced a totally new design. The 2004 F-150 took three years to develop at a cost of $1.8 billion. Most notable are a new 300-hp, 5.4-l V-8 and four-door cabs on every model. The truck's body style is also more angular and less sloping, so it looks more substantial than last year's model. In fact, there is much more to this truck than looks.

The new model offers a stiffer frame and weighs 500 lbs. more than last year's truck. Rear leaf springs are 20% wider than those on last year's model, helping to support the truck's rated payload of 3,000 lbs. Those features, plus a new Hotchkiss-design rear suspension, should help reduce rear sway problems reported by Ford drivers in the past. Rear shock absorbers are now positioned outboard of the frame rails to reduce skipping and skating on washboard gravel roads.

Combined, the new frame, suspension and power train give Ford much-improved towing capabilities. Interestingly, initial reports in the automotive press this summer had the upstart Nissan Titan beating the Ford badly on both torque and maximum towing capacity. On September 15, however, Ford issued a release saying it had “upped the ante” and increased its numbers to 9,900 lbs. towing capacity and 365 lbs. torque. At this writing, it was unclear what Ford actually did to get those improved figures on such short notice.

Inside, accented trim makes the new Ford decidedly glitzier than previous models. The F-150's “Quiet Steel” technology keeps noise levels low by sandwiching a thin layer of plastic between two sheets of steel.

Some initial testers have scoffed that, inside, the F-150 now looks more like a Cadillac than a work truck. The standard trim accents and high-quality analog gauges look like expensive aftermarket add-ons for a show truck. Fortunately, as in the past, Ford will offer many versions of the F-150 to suit the specific needs of customers. The XL is the basic workhorse truck with vinyl floors that let you hose out the cab. Trim levels get progressively plusher through STX, XLT, FX4 and Lariat models.

Roominess for passengers is a priority for the new Fords. All cabs have four doors, and the doors are longer and wider. A regular cab has rear-hinged half doors, and a Super Cab extended cab has four front-hinged doors. Both cabs feature a rear bench seat for six-passenger capacity. The Super Crew limits bed length to 5½ ft. Other models offer beds as long as 8 ft. The box is 2 in. deeper, so it can haul more bulk material than last year's model can.

In engine power and towing capacity, improvements now put the new Ford about in the middle of the pack. The base engine is an adequate 231-hp, 4.6-l V-8. If you need heavy towing ability and acceleration, you will want the optional new Triton 5.4-l V-8, which produces a snappy 300 hp. Transmission is a four-speed automatic.

The new features on this truck include a spring-assisted tailgate that is easier to close. Buyers have a choice of three instrument packages in the cab, including modular storage compartments that hold lots of stuff.

Still not impressed? Ford isn't taking any chances. If you don't see the value of all the new bells and whistles of the 2004 model, you can still buy a brand-new previous generation F-150, which is now called the Heritage Edition. You might also want the Heritage if you prefer the old V-6 and manual four-speed transmission, which aren't available on the new model.

In the heavy-duty category, Ford's rugged Super Duty F-250 is little changed from last year. The mighty PowerStroke diesel still leads its class in power. Towing and payload capacity is excellent, but ride, noise levels and handling are no match for the new half-ton F-150.

For more information, contact Ford Customer Relationship Center, Dept. FIN, Box 6248, Dearborn, MI 48126, 800/392-3673, visit www.ford.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin.

Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra

Price range: $19,665 to $41,995

Highlights: Revised interiors preserve classic style. Many options include Quadrasteer and alternative fuel capability.

GM likes to say its trucks work their tailgate off while still cleaning up nicely for a night on the town. Among farmers, that balance of form and function is the primary reason that Chevy Silverado and its counterpart, the GMC Sierra, remain popular choices.

In addition to their understated style, a lot of the popularity of these trucks is due to the wide variety of choices on body style and engines. There are 11 different models of the Silverado with varying box lengths and cab styles. Four gasoline engines are available: a 4.3-l V-6, and V-8s in 4.8 l, 5.3 l and a 345-hp 6.0-l size. Paired with GM's smooth-shifting, close-ratio transmissions, drivers are rarely left feeling at a loss for towing power.

Heavy-duty (HD) models offer 6.0-l and 8.1-l big block V-8 gasoline engines and the surprisingly quiet 300-hp Duramax 6.6-l diesel with common rail fuel injection. The GM HD trucks come with the Allison 1000 series five-speed automatic transmission, which includes a feature to help slow the vehicle with engine braking while the driver applies the brakes. All models offer power four-wheel disc brakes with ABS.

Four-wheel drive is available on all models. Two-wheel drive models offer electronic traction control on models with a V-8 engine, an automatic transmission and no rear differential.

For 2004, these trucks offer more options, including a half-ton 1500 Crew Cab, a three-quarter-ton short-box Crew Cab, and a new work truck package available on most models. Standard amenities now include cruise control, power door locks, chrome bumper and an AM/FM stereo with CD player. A ribbed bed-liner accessory provides a skid-resistant surface that is easy to hose out. Another accessory worth considering is a molded polyethylene under-seat storage box for holding tools securely in the cab.

GM is promoting a number of premium electronic options. Quadrasteer four-wheel steering is available on more models this year for added maneuverability. If you don't mind the monthly fee, the optional OnStar system will radio for help in the event of an accident, lockout or breakdown. And XM satellite radio will keep you informed and entertained with hundreds of channels in even the most remote stretch of country.

Fourteen different 2004 Silverado models can run on compressed natural gas or bi-fuel systems. Of more interest to farmers, specially equipped Silverado and Sierra models are available with E85 capability. E85 is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.

For more information, contact your local GMC dealer, visit www.gm.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin.

Dodge Ram 1500

Price range: $16,894 to $26,012

Highlights: Hemi motor, towing feature, all-wheel steer ing option, big feel.

The 2004 Ram 1500 is available in two cab choices — regular cab and Quad Cab — and both 2-wd and 4-wd. The base model, the ST, is the “work special” no-frills truck. It comes with a rough-duty rear steel bumper. Sport, SLT and Laramie packages provide more chrome, comfort and trim.

The big news is the optional, more powerful, 345-hp, 5.7-l Hemi motor. Yes, you probably could beat many sports cars in a drag race with the Hemi truck, all while pulling a trailer. The new Hemi placed as one of Ward's AutoWorld's 10 best engines for 2004. The Hemi is lighter than the old 5.9-l engine, tows 550 lbs. more and is 10% more fuel efficient. The Hemi package puts the Dodge at a respectable 9,200 lbs. towing capacity and 375 ft. lbs. torque. If you don't need all that power and want to save some dollars at the pump, the Ram still offers a 3.7-l V-6 or 4.7-l V-8.

The Dodge Ram is the first full-sized truck to come with side-curtain air bags to protect driver and passengers from side-impact collisions. Insurance companies often offer discounts on premiums for vehicles equipped with this life-saving feature.

Rear-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, and full-time all-wheel drive options are available. Large four-wheel disc brakes with rear ABS are standard. All-wheel ABS is optional.

A new tow/haul feature provides crisper shifting and reduces gear searching when towing. The system also will automatically select a lower gear when going downhill to use engine braking.

This year Dodge Ram also enters the four-wheel steering race started by GMC last year. Adding a few thousand dollars to the truck's price, this feature is expensive, but it might be worth it if you spend a lot of time maneuvering trailers around tight quarters.

In the electronic doodads department, there's an option called navigation radio. This system shows a little map on the radio faceplate and will “talk” to you via the truck's sound system to give you directions. Of more practical use, an optional Uconnect audio system uses Bluetooth wireless technology to provide a wireless link to any cell phone in the cab, allowing for hands-free cell phone conversations via the truck's sound system.

In any body style, the Ram interior feels bigger than that of its competitors. It's a popular choice with big and tall drivers. But Dodge is looking out for the little guy (or gal) too. Electronically adjustable gas and brake pedals are designed especially for drivers with short legs.

In the heavy-duty category, the Ram 2500 offers huge payload and towing capabilities when equipped with the high-torque Cummins turbodiesel. It has just about everything that's good about the half-ton Ram, only in a bigger, noisier and more powerful package.

For more information, call 800/423-6343, visit www.dodge.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin.

Nissan Titan

Price range: $22,500 to $25,000

Highlights: First full-sized truck from Nissan is surprisingly agile and powerful.

Nissan makes no apologies for going after the “truck mom” market with its first full-sized truck. But the company certainly wouldn't mind selling a few Titan trucks to farmers. The truck is full of surprises and lives up to its name in many ways, with full-sized dimensions and a 305-hp base engine that out-torques every other competitor's base model. Maximum towing capacity is an impressive 9,400 lbs.

The back seat passenger area has plenty of room for people and gear. But that means a small box. A Crew Cab with front-hinged doors comes with a short 5-ft. 7-in. bed. The shorter King Cab has a 6-ft. 7-in. bed. The Titan makes the most of its box space, though. An adjustable flip-down bed extender turns the tailgate into added box length for light but bulky loads. A sliding toolbox moves on rails recessed into the bed. A spray-on bed liner reduces scratching and cargo slide. Adjustable overhead racks are available as an optional accessory that lets you haul long stuff like pipes, lumber and ladders.

Large, all-terrain, 17-in. tires are standard on SE and LE models, as are large-diameter four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake force distribution. An automatic sensor alerts the driver to tire pressure changes.

The braking system is programmed with an off-road setting, which allows for more slippage before the ABS kicks in. An electronic vehicle control system automatically modulates engine power and individual brakes to compensate for oversteer, understeer or general traction loss. In tight spots, the Titan's 41-ft. turning diameter is the smallest diameter of all the contenders, including the much smaller Toyota Tundra.

Options such as a CD-ROM-based navigation system in the dash and a DVD mobile entertainment system for rear seat passengers will no doubt be popular with the truck mom set but would be about as useful for farmers as the truck's tiny, lockable storage compartment in the left-rear fender. We have no idea what you'd put in this compartment, but it could serve as a confusing decoy to thieves trying to siphon your gas. Perhaps you could get the salesman to throw in a can of those jumping snakes you see at parties.

No heavy-duty diesel option is available from Nissan yet, but the company recently announced that it plans to tap into its Nissan Diesel division to sell 60,000 diesel trucks per year starting in 2006. Perhaps future Titan models will come with more practical surprises.

For more information, contact Nissan Consumer Affairs, Dept. FIN, Box 191, Gardena, CA 90248, 800/647-7261, visit www.nissanusa.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin.

Toyota Tundra

Price range: $28,000 to $32,000

Highlights: Tight handling, good power and quality in a smaller pickup.

In updating its new four-door half-ton Tundra, Toyota says its challenge was building a full-size truck that will fit in the average garage. As such, the Toyota Tundra isn't quite as big or powerful as its full-sized competitors even though the four-door Tundra gains a foot in wheelbase and three inches in width. The Tundra's interior feels a lot bigger than that of last year's standard model. Interior design is clean, fit and functional.

Like the Nissan Titan, the Toyota Tundra is well suited to city folks who want a truck. Unlike the Titan, though, the Tundra doesn't bring quite enough power and hauling capacity to be considered a full-sized truck for the farm. The engine options, including a 190-hp V-6 and a 240-hp V-8, while good, are still basically Lexus car engines adapted to the Tundra. Towing capacity at 6,800 lbs. is more than a ton less than that of its competitors.

If you don't need tremendous towing and hauling capacity, the Toyota is fun and easy to drive. You get the quality of a Lexus automobile, along with a box for hauling medium-weight stuff. Take one for a spin, and you'll have to seriously wonder why anybody would drive a mere car or a compact pickup when they could drive the not-quite-full-sized double-cab Tundra, instead.

For more information, call 800/468-6968, visit www.toyota.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin.

2004 half-ton truck specs*

Ford
F-Series
Chevy
Silverado
Dodge
Ram
Toyota
Tundra
Nissan
Titan
V-8 (liters) 5.4 5.3 5.7 4.7 5.6
Horsepower 300 285 345 240 305
Torque 365 325 375 365 379
Bed length (in.) 67.3 78.7 65 76.5 65
Wheelbase (in.) 138.5 153 140.5 140.6 139.8
Length (in.) 224 237.2 227.7 230.1 222.4
Width (in.) 75.3 78.5 79.9 76.4 78.8
Max tow (lbs.) 8,300 8,400 9,200 9,900 9,500
*Specifications represent most popular models. Some numbers may vary according to specific options, updates and body styles.