MY EARLIEST DRIVING MEMORIES ARE TRUCK memories. I grew up on a farm, which meant we had a pickup. No bourgeois station wagon for us: The family auto was a three-quarter-ton GMC regular-cab, christened Brownie for its burnt-ochre color. In summer, we'd plunge across churning rivers to secret camping spots. In winter, we'd crawl along icy roads to ski Purgatory (now Durango Mountain Resort). But Brownie was a dangerous beast in bad weather—its rear end was overly light and given to fishtailing in snow. I inherited it in high school and often found myself suddenly slipping off the road to crash axle-deep into snowbanks.
Trucks have come a long way. These days, the best are stylish inside and out, handle as well as cars and can still haul lots of stuff. Just take a look at the completely redesigned Ford F-150 or Nissan's first full-size truck, the remarkable Titan. These two are shaping up for the automotive equivalent of a bare-knuckle brawl, with customers being the sideline benefactors. Both companies made big investments, and neither wants to give theother an edge. You can pick up base models of either for prices in the low $20s, or go fully loaded for a tag in the mid-$30s.
I first got a taste of the new F-150 on rural Texas roads. It was instantly clear that Ford hadn't screwed up its flagship vehicle, which has been the top-selling truck in the U.S. since 1977 and the top-selling passenger vehicle since 1981. Every aspect of its design is good to great. Like a boxer headed up to the next weight class, the new F-150 has bulked up, with a wider stance and a higher hood line. It resembles a miniature big-rig, aggressive and clean. Consumers get two choices of engine: a 4.6-liter (with 231 hp and 293 lb.-ft. of torque) or a5.4-liter V-8 (300 hp and 365 lb.-ft.). The interiors are nice. The top-model Lariat could even be described as luxurious.
But it's the way the F-150 handles that's most pleasing. The throttle in the automatic transmission is seamless, and there's heady torque coiled in the truck's haunches, waiting to be summoned. Steering is responsive, and only moderate body roll belied the 5,606 pounds of my massive SuperCrew Cab test model. I took it off-road and was relieved to discover that Ford hasn't compromised performance. The new frame is nine times stiffer than current models, and the suspension is world-class. An electronic throttle controls steep descents.
The company offers the F-150 in a dizzying 1,500 combinations. I don't envy customers having to choose between five models, three bed sizes and three cab sizes.
NISSAN, MEANWHILE, IS OUT TO BUCKLE THE champ's knees with its firstfull-size pickup. Nissan and Infiniti have recently churned out brilliant designs, and the Titan flouts tradition with a funky chrome front fascia and a rounded, svelte profile. Think Ali to the F-150's Foreman. The performance specs are dead-on: a 5.6-liter V-8 with 305 hp and 379 lb.-ft. of torque. The Crew Cab leads the class in headroom and foot room. And skiers will like the optional Vehicle Dynamic Control, which senses slippage and applies brakes to maximize traction.
On a test drive through spectacular California wine country, I pushed the Titan hard. It, too, is nimble and car-like. Acceleration is superior to that of theF-150, though its body-roll is more pronounced. I liked the no-nonsense interior and the center run-through console.
I thought it best not to plow through vineyards, but I suspect that the F-150is better suited for off-road use, given its greater rigidity and superior suspension. The Titan's gee-whiz design, however, truly sings. It has a first-in-class factory spray-in bed liner, which protects both truck and cargo. And its tie-down system of channels and rails in the bed is the smartest I've seen. There's even a power outlet back there. Another neat trick: The rear doors open nearly flush, making it easy to shove in ski gear.
In the end, both trucks are ideal for commutingg and weekend wildness. After driving both, I returned to my childhood home for a visit and took Brownie, still alive, for a spin in the hills. Sentimentally speaking, it'll always be my favorite. But unlike these two performers, I wouldn't take it anywhere near the snow.
See below for info on truck bed covers.