Pickup trucks have now become just as important to automakers' bottom lines as passenger cars.

So Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., has introduced an American-built 1995 1/2 Toyota Tacoma compact pickup that features three new engines and a new chassis.

Available in both regular and extended-cab models, and in two- and four-wheel- drive configurations, the Tacomas are built in the Japanese automaker's New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., plant in Fremont, Calif.

The truck business is geared toward individuals, so NUMMI is building the Tacomas with a variety of engine and chassis combinations that amount to a "build your own" pickup.

The three engine offered are unusual for a truck, since they all feature double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. You'd almost think Toyota was in the racing business rather than the trucking business.

Two engines are in-line 4s, a 2.4-liter (149 cubic inches) and a 2.7-liter (164 cubic inches). The third engine, a 3.4-liter (206-cubic- inch) V6, sports four overhead cams.

So it looks like Toyota has hung a pickup bed on Speedway-type motors.

The 2.4- and 2.7-liter engines develop 142 and 150 horsepower, respectively, while the V6 cranks out 190 horsepower. As you go up in engine size, you also go up in torque needed for hauling.

The four-cylinder powerplants develop 160 foot-pounds and 177 foot-pounds of torque, respectively. The V6 is the heavy hauler at 220 foot- pounds.

"There are not too many V6s around as yet," said Gary Hohmann, new-car manager for Butler Toyota. "More will be coming on-line shortly, but I'd say our buyers still favor the 4."

The least-expensive package in the Tacoma line is a regular cab powered by the standard 2.4-liter engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission. This is a short-wheelbase (103.3 inches) truck with a base price just a bit under $12,000.

The bottom- line unit comes only in two-wheel-drive form. For four-wheel drive, it's necessary to go to the longer-wheelbase (121.9 inches) extended cab.

The top-of-the-line pickup is a four-wheel-drive SR5 extended-cab V6 with a base price of $22,218. For comparison, a rear-drive extended-cab V6 starts with a sticker price of $15,248. A four-speed automatic transmission is another $900.

"Usually, our customers want the (extended cab)," Hohmann said. "The transmission choice is split. We sell about 50/50 between five-speeds and automatics."

The regular-cab Tacoma can be either a two- or a three- seater, depending on whether a standard bench seat or optional bucket seats are selected. The extended cab can seat four occupants comfortably, although a fifth moderate-sized person might squeeze onto the rear cushion.

Usually a truck is a truck, but the Tacoma can be classified as a pretty nice- looking vehicle. The completely redesigned sheet metal offers several new exterior features.

A single-piece flush-mounted windshield molding provides a smooth, sleek look and reduces wind noise. The center high-mounte d rear stoplight is integrated into the roof line for a clean and enhanced appearance.

The outside door-handle operating angles have been decreased from 60 degrees to 37 degrees for easier use. And outside mirrors have been enlarged.

Inside, the cab is roomier, with more height and front-seat hip room. With four-wheel drive, the floor height is lowered 1.57 inches to facilitate access.

Towing capacity is 3,500 pounds with both in-line 4 engines. With the V6, it's 5,000 pounds.

One advantage of the 2.7-liter 4 is the availability of the four-speed automatic transmission. Toyota's engineers apparently feel the 2.4-liter with air conditioning and the like isn't big enough for an automatic.

1995 Toyota Tacoma Base price: $11,848Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, three-passenger, regular-cab compact pickup truckEngine: 2.4 liters, overhead cam in-line 4, 16 valves, fuel-injected, 142 horsepower, 160 foot- pounds of torqueTransmission: Five-s peed ma nualMileage: 22 mpg city/ 28 mpg highwayWheelbase: 103.3 inchesLength: 180.5 inchesWidth: 66.5 inchesHeight: 61.0 inchesTowing capacity: 3,500 poundsPayload: 1,640 poundsOptions: SX package (includes AM/FM radio, sliding rear window, aluminum wheels, exterior stripe), air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, power package, all-weather guard package, convenience package