Compact pickups with sports-car abilities have always intrigued me since I drove the Archer Brothers' Jeep Comanche at Willow Springs in the early '90s. The truck was a top threat in the SCCA Racetruck Challenge road-racing series that had started about three years earlier. "They handle better than a Vette," said Bobby Archer, holding the door open for me as I squeezed into the OMP seat and adjusted my helmet. After a few laps I couldn't really disagree with the handling in the turns but the wimpy 4-cylinder engine certainly would not have kept pace with the Vette over the entire 2.5-mile course.

It was an eye-opening introduction to the road-hugging potential of compact pickups when fitted with proper equipment and racing tires. I later ran stock and modified compact pickups in a few SCCA Pro Solo and Solo II events on the West Coast as part of some other story projects. It was fun but not exhilarating as the horsepower just wasn't there except for the GMC Syclone, which if not for the frustrating turbo lag coming out of the turns and the gutless automatic transmission would have been a real threat to a few popular sports cars of the day.

I thought compact trucks had so much potential then that the S-10 might become as popular as a Camaro for hot rodding. It was inexpensive, rugged and a small-block V8 swap took so little effort. But fullsize trucks became all the rage that decade and used S-10s are hauling lawn-care equipment today.

With those experiences in mind, I eagerly took delivery of a 2005 Toyota Tacoma X-Runner for a week's test drive. Replacing the S-Runner model, the X-Runner features a sport-tuned chassis, a spirited 4.0-liter V6 engine and a new 6-speed manual transmission. I briefly reviewed the X-Runner as part of the Tacoma First Drive last year but only drove it on one outing in a very restrictive setting. Now I've had the opportunity to drive it on twisty canyon roads and open highways.

The X-Runner comes only in a 2-wheel-drive Access Cab configuration. Base MSRP is just over $23,000 and there are only a handful of dealer-installed options. Just three colors are offered: black, red and blue. Toyota says production will be limited to 3500 units.

Toyota says it used the Nissan 350Z as a benchmark for the X-Runner's handling performance. "I wanted it to out-perform not only all competitive sport trucks but also many sports cars," said Yuichiro Obu, chief engineer on the Tacoma project at the vehicle's introduction to the press last year. "During extensive testing, the X-Runner's road-holding ability was measured in excess of 0.9g, which is better than the Z."

I would never bet against the Z in a road race, especially considering it weighs 400 pounds less than the X-Runner and sports 55 more ponies under the hood. But the X-Runner does handle exceptionally well. I found it to be very flat through the canyon turns and reasonably responsive. Ride quality will be annoying to those who don't appreciate agile handling but few will argue with the sports-car steering feel.

There are two keys to the much improved handling abilities of the X-Runner: chassis design and sticky tires. The frame features diagonal braces in the front and an X-brace to reinforce the rear. These improvements increase the torsional rigidity of the frame and improve transitional response and overall stability. X-Runner specific springs are used, including front coils that are 50 percent stiffer than stock.

The suspension is lowered one-inch compared to a standard 2WD Tacoma but the actual ride height is lowered only a half-inch. That's due to the bigger 255/45R18 Bridgestone Potenza tires installed on 18x8 alloy wheels at all four corners. The front 30mm anti-roll bar is left alone but the rear receives a 25mm bar.

The X-Runner suspension is also treated to Bilstein 36mm monotube high-pressure gas shocks and unique bushings that increase roll resistance. Standard brakes are 10.8-inch discs up front and 10-inch drums in the rear.

The front brakes seem a little weak when compared to the 12.5-inch discs found on Tacoma 4x4 models. But TRD has a "big-brake" kit that offers 13-inch discs with 4-piston calipers made just for the X-Runner. My test vehicle didn't have these massive binders but I did drive a big-brake X-Runner briefly at the press introduction and was very impressed with the stopping ability and looks.

The X-Runner has also grown considerably with new generation of Tacos, especially when compared to the old S-Runner. The X-Runner's wheelbase is 127.2 inches, up from 121.9 inches while the track width grew from 57.1 inches to 62.2 inches. With that large footprint, handling is sure to improve. But the weight also went up from a svelte 3190 pounds in the old S-Runner to a sweltering 3690 in the new X-Runner. Horsepower was needed.

Motivating the X-Runner is the 1GR-FE DOHC V6 engine rated at 245 horsepower with peak torque of 282 lb-ft. The engine block is aluminum but the steel cylinder liners are cast-in-place. This engine made its first appearance in the 2004 4Runner and is also the base engine in the Tundra. Notable features include variable valve timing and electronic throttle control. Toyota also tuned the exhaust for a more aggressive note.

The RA60 6-speed manual is an all-new design. In other words, Toyota didn't just tack 5th and 6th gear on the back of an existing 4-speed. First gear is a neck-snapping 4.17:1 and the 0.85:1 overdrive helps with mileage. The tranny is also built for the Tundra. Too bad it's not built for the Celica GTS. Okay, I know the Celica is front-wheel-drive, but my point is that the X-Runner's transmission has room for improvement in shifting speed and smoothness if it's going to feel like a sports car. Heel-toe operation was a little awkward but it's not a good idea to have truck pedals in close proximity. Power is eventually sent to a limited-slip rear differential that holds 3.15:1 gears.

From a styling standpoint, Toyota certainly made sure the X-Runner stood out from the Tacoma line and any other sport truck in or out of this world. Body bolt-ons include a front spoiler, hood scoop, fender flares, rocker-panel extensions and a rear spoiler. To be honest, the blacked-out grilles don't do much for me. They look like some kind of space-invader costume. While a pure monochromatic look may give the impression Toyota designers forgot about masking tape in the paint booth, it does offer a cleaner appearance. And someone has to do something about that wimpy hood scoop.

The interior meets most expectations, especially seat comfort and noise isolation. The tilt/telescoping steering wheel is great for securing the best seating position. I find the dash layout uninspired but effective. My biggest complaint is the lack of availability of the JBL sound system that can be found in the Tacoma Double Cab. The X-Runner is obviously intended for the younger generation but the 270-watt stereo with the 8-inch subwoofer isn't offered. I guess Toyota thinks this buyer is more likely to install a booming aftermarket sound system anyway, so why engineer the Access Cab for the extra speaker.

The pickup bed features the same composite inner liner found on other Tacomas. The X-Runner also has the 115-volt power outlet in the cargo area that is optional on other models. Not that the X-Runner is built for hauling. The GVWR of 4600 pounds is down from the standard 4850 on a regular 2WD Access Cab and 5250 on the 2WD PreRunner Access Cab. Max payload is listed at 910 pounds versus 1535 on the PreRunner. Towing capacity is 3500 pounds, compared to 6500 pounds available with the PreRunner.

Although it's been about 15 years since I drove a pickup in an SCCA-sanctioned amateur solo event, I would love to return to action in an X-Runner. I'm not sure what class it would race, but I did notice a provision in the rules that allow the event coordinators to ban vehicles with a wheelbase longer than 116 inches at their discretion. The X-Runner certainly has the potential to upset unsuspecting sports cars. Guess they're worried about the embarrassment.