It was a bumpy ride for U.S. pickup and medium-duty truck makers in 2007, no doubt about it. Daimler divested itself of ailing Chrysler. Ford picked an outsider to replace its founding-family CEO. General Motors faced a labor challenge that threatened to send it into bankruptcy. Even seemingly error-proof Toyota slipped from the top tier in customer satisfaction.

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Nissan Titan

Credit: Nissan North America, Inc. / Mike Ditz

Is this a good time to buy a truck?

You bet it is. Despite the problems on the corporate level, American truck manufacturing is shifting into high gear, and the vehicles built here today–whether the marques are import or domestic–are setting world-class standards in power, performance, and innovation.

What's driving this improvement: trucks have evolved into profitable products for the manufacturers, and they sell well year in and year out because they're so darn useful and necessary. Competition has elevated the playing field now that Toyota and Nissan are producing full-size trucks and encroaching on what had been the exclusive enclave of Dodge, Ford, and GM. Computerization–in design, in manufacturing, and in the vehicles themselves–has made for huge advances in build quality, product reliability, and operating capability.

So, there's a lot to talk about for 2008, with a lot of new and improved trucks–and work vans–for buyers to choose. Dodge, Ford, and GM all rolled out new or renewed heavy-duty pickups. Toyota stepped up with a heavy-duty version of the Tundra, while Dodge made major upgrades in its work-van fleet, adding a gas engine option for its Sprinter and bringing back a garage-size van for tradesmen.

New Van Options

Since its introduction in 2003, the Dodge Sprinter has had something of an identity crisis. A Mercedes-Benz import, it debuted at DaimlerChrysler subsidiary Freightliner dealerships and ultimately worked its way into the Dodge truck lineup. However, the vehicle itself, a unique "mini step van" with a bump-up roof, didn't change at all over the past five years.

Sprinter was popular with fleet buyers, but many tradesmen were put off by its delivery-truck size and shape and that its only power option was a small (3.0 liter) diesel engine. And work-van users lamented the loss of the more conventional Dodge Ram van, which DaimlerChrysler retired when Sprinter entered the picture.

Chrysler, Dodge's parent company, apparently got the message. For 2008, not only does Sprinter get a 3.5 liter, V6 gas engine option (along with its carryover V6 diesel), but Dodge has revived its conventional work-van line as a cargo- and upfit-ready Grand Caravan redesigned for commercial use. Dodge now refers to the Sprinter as its full-size van and the Grand Caravan as a minivan, with no mention whether a Ram designation or model would return.

While the Grand Caravan work van doesn't (yet) offer the number of models or options available with Ford and GM vans, it benefits from the passenger model's complete redesign for 2008, and it has features valuable to tradesmen such as a commercial-duty suspension, dual power-sliding side doors, and a unique rear-access door hatch. The only engine option is a flex-fuel gas V6 capable of using E85 ethanol blends. It provides 175 hp and 205 pound-feet of torque. The new Sprinter gas V6 puts out 154 hp with 280 pound-feet of torque.

In other van news, GM now features optional side-curtain air bags on both Chevy Express and GMC Savana work vans, as well as such safety-enhancing standard features as rear-proportioning, four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes with Stabilitrak automatic traction control. Both vans have a new interior design along with instrumentation that includes warning signals for air conditioning, fuel, and exhaust filter maintenance, low fuel level, and transmission overheating.

As for Ford work vans, suspension improvements, larger brakes, and sheet metal account for most of the E-Series changes in 2008. Gross vehicle weight rating for the E-350 bumps up to 12,500 pounds, while the GVWR for the E-450 vans now tops out at 14,500 pounds.

Super Fords

Over the past year, Dodge, Ford, GM, and Toyota all decided to get tough with their pickup lines–specifically, their commercial-class pickups. Chevy and GM led off with overhauled Heavy Duty models. Ford relaunched its Super Duty lineup, Dodge brought back its 2500 and 3500 Commercial Duty pickups and chassis cabs, and Toyota rolled out a massive CrewMax model. These are all impressively built, well-equipped trucks that the manufacturers expect will separate casual pickup users from the serious work-truck buyers.

The Ford Super Duty line now includes three pickup models beyond the F-150, which alone occupies a category Big Blue refers to as "personal duty" trucks. Joining the F-250 and F-350 Super Duty pickups this year is the F-450, a first-ever factory-equipped class-4 vehicle available with a pickup bed or as a stripped-down chassis cab. Super Duty pickups are available in Regular Cab, Super Cab, and Crew Cab body styles with 6.75- and 8-foot bed lengths. Engine choices include an all-new 6.4-liter twin-turbo diesel that puts out 350 hp and 650 pound-feet of torque, a 6.8-liter V10 gas engine with 362 hp and 457 pound-feet of torque, and a 5.4-liter V8 that delivers 300 hp and 365 pound-feet of torque. Towing maximum for the big F-Series is 19,200 pounds, with a 5,800-pound max payload.

The F-150 maintains it exalted position as the world's best-selling vehicle, but little has changed since its wheels-up overhaul in 2005. Engine choices include a 4.2-liter V6 (202 hp with 260 pound-feet of torque), 4.6-liter V8 (225 hp, 286 pound-feet of torque), and 5.4-liter V8 (300 hp and 365 pound-feet of torque). The F-150's towing maximum is now 11,000 pounds, and its bed capacity is 3,050 pounds.

For 2008, Ford offers both F-150 and Super Duty leather-appointed King Ranch models. A luxury Lincoln Mark LT, based on the F-150, is also available with one engine option, the 5.4 liter, and with towing and payload capacities limited to 8,900 pounds and 1,680 pounds. The midsize Ranger returns with an optional 7-foot cargo bed and three engine choices: a 2.3-liter inline 4-cylinder (143 hp, 154 pound-feet of torque), a 3.0-liter V6 (148 hp, 180 pound-feet of torque), and a 4.0-liter V6 (207 hp, 238 pound-feet of torque).

Another pickup option from Ford is the Sport Trac SUV hybrid, an Explorer body mated to a 40-inch-long cargo box. This midsize hauler got a redesign last year, giving it a wider track and 16.8-inch longer wheel base. Engine choices include a 4.0-liter V6 engine with 210 hp and 254 pound-feet of torque, or a 4.6-liter V8 with 292 hp and 300 pound-feet of torque. Maximum tow weight is 6,800 pounds, and maximum payload is 1,390 pounds.

Year of the Ram

For 2008, Dodge, always a contender in the light-truck segment but less so in the heavy-duty arena over the past several years, builds on the solid foundation of its Ram 1500 pickups and engines to muscle into commercial-truck territory (class 2-5) formerly held by Ford and GM. Now with a full lineup of Ram 2500 and new 3500 pickups, along with new 4500 and 5500 chassis cab models, Dodge already has scored some impressive gains in market share.

All the Dodge trucks share a wide array of gas and diesel engines, including a 3.7 liter V6 (215 hp, 235 pound-feet of torque), 4.7 liter V8 (235 hp, 300 pound-feet of torque), and 5.7 liter Hemi V8 (345 hp, 375 pound-feet of torque). The 6.7 liter Cummins turbo diesel (350 hp, 650 pound-feet of torque) introduced in 2007 is not available in the 1500 series. Towing and payload capacities among the 1500s top out at 8,900 and 2,535 pounds, respectively. The Cummins-equipped Ram 2500 and 3500 pickups max out at 16,400 pounds for towing, with a 5,020 pound payload.

Perhaps because of its push into the commercial-duty segment, Dodge has pared down its Ram 1500 lineup for 2008, which now includes Regular, Quad, and Mega Cab, sport, and off-road models.

Speed and power freaks will be sad to learn that Dodge has discontinued the revived Power Wagon and hot SRT-10 pickup with Viper V10-engine.

The midsize Dodge Dakota remains much the same for '08, with an Extended Cab with rear-access doors or four-door Crew Cab. The high-output, small V8 has been dropped, leaving engine options to standard-equipment 3.7-liter V6 or optional 4.7 liter V8 as offered in the Rams.