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Pickup trucks

Pickup truck buying guide

Last updated: February 2015
Getting started

Getting started

A good place to start when selecting a pickup truck is with a realistic assessment of your actual needs. If you're not planning to carry multi-ton loads or pull a very heavy trailer, then you probably don't need a full-sized heavy-duty pickup truck. A lighter-duty full-sized truck or even a compact pickup should fit the bill. If you don't need to haul dirty cargo like construction debris, mulch, or manure, another vehicle type, such as a minivan or SUV, could be a better choice. If you only need a pickup every once in a while, for some specific task, you might be better off renting one for those occasions rather than buying one and making it do double duty as a family car.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

If the truck will serve as both a workhorse and a family car, though, then consider an extended-cab or crew-cab model with four doors. That's probably the most common configuration these days. If you plan to drive in snow, deep mud, or more than a short distance off road, then you should choose four-wheel drive.

Pickup trucks come in endless permutations: full-sized or compact; long bed or short; regular, extended, or crew cab; two door or four; two- or four-wheel drive; standard or automatic transmission; and so on. Engines range from small four-cylinders and V6s to V8s and big diesels. Base prices range from less than $20,000 to more than $40,000.

Pickup nomenclature. By far the biggest-selling full-sized pickups, sometimes called half-ton trucks, carry the designation "1500" in the case of the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, and Ram, and "150" in Ford's parlance. Heavier-duty trucks are designated 2500, 3500 (or F-250, F-350) and so forth. The terms "half-ton" for the 1500s and "three-quarter-ton" for the 2500s are widely used but obsolete: a holdover from decades ago when the number referred to the maximum cargo weight capacity. Conversationally, the 2500-series and heavier trucks are known as "heavy duty," but that's not technically correct, either. The U.S. Government considers any truck that weighs less than 14,000 pounds, including 3500-series, to be a light-duty truck. But we'll continue to refer to 2500-series trucks as "heavy-duty," as these are serious workhorses.

Considering their vast sales volumes, there aren't all that many pickup truck brands to choose from. Ford and Chevrolet/GMC are the largest sellers, followed by Ram (formerly known as Dodge). The Japanese brands have a smaller role, led by Toyota and trailing with far fewer sales, Nissan and Honda.

Key things to consider

Even within the variety of basic configurations, pickups can differ a lot in price, fuel economy, comfort, performance, safety, and reliability. Some of those factors can be interlinked. The best fuel economy goes hand in hand with lighter weight, smaller size, and modest power. A heavy trailer demands a heavy truck, with an accompanying fuel-economy penalty. And the more heavy-duty a truck is, the worse it tends to ride.

With pickup trucks, it is important to buy what you need, resisting the temptation to overdo it. While it may be convenient to have extra cargo and towing capacity, you'll pay for it both upfront and through compromises (such as ride and fuel economy) over time.

The open cargo bed lends itself to serious chores, such as moving large appliances, bulky furniture, tools or equipment, motorcycles, snow blowers, and outdoors-only cargo such as wood chips, manure, and trash. Those are tasks you wouldn't want to (or couldn't do) with a minivan or SUV.

Pickup trucks are also well suited to towing boat, car, utility, and travel trailers. Manufacturer specifications for the vehicle and its driveline will note maximum cargo weight and towing capacities. You can choose original-equipment (OEM) towing packages or buy them in the aftermarket. Buying from the factory is probably the best choice, since installation might involve complex wiring for the trailer brakes and lights, special attachment points for the tow hitch, and accessories such as a transmission oil cooler. Further, the manufacturer-engineered packages come backed by the factory warranty.

While pickup trucks have impressive abilities, they also have inherent drawbacks. For example, they tend to guzzle gas whether they're loaded or not. For full-sized trucks, 13 to 15 mpg overall is par for the course. For a compact truck such as a Nissan Frontier or Toyota Tacoma, figure 15 to 17 mpg. Of course, the mileage only goes down when the vehicles are carrying cargo or pulling a trailer.

Among other considerations, the open bed leaves cargo vulnerable to the weather or theft. The trucks sit up high, which can make cabin access difficult, and the side rails of full-sized trucks are so high off the ground that loading and retrieving heavy items over the side is awkward, tiresome, or inconvenient. Trucks don't tend to have the most comfortable ride, though the ride does smooth out when they are carrying cargo in the bed. And the latest-generation trucks have seen the rides improved markedly. If you choose the handy extended cab, you might have to put up with a short load bed, typically five feet, which limits what you can carry. But the longer bed, typically eight feet, makes for a very long, hard-to-park vehicle if that bed is added to an extended-cab truck.

Ultimately, the most practical strategy for selecting a pickup is to go after a truck that meets your requirements without buying more than you need. Consider starting with our lists of Recommended trucks and working your way up the line from the smallest and least costly.

What you'll spend

Pickup truck prices vary widely, from less than $20,000 for the most basic model to $40,000 or more. For trucks well equipped for family use and with four-wheel drive, figure on about $30,000-plus for a compact truck, mid-$30s to mid-$40s for a full-size model, and $50,000 for a heavy-duty diesel pickup truck.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

Types

Compact pickup trucks


The category known as compact pickup trucks refers to the smaller-sized models such as the Chevrolet Colorado and Toyota Tacoma. Capacities are more than adequate for a typical suburban homeowner. Other models include the GMC Canyon and Nissan Frontier. Those trucks are built on a separate chassis frame and usually offer a range of four-cylinder and V6 engines. The Honda Ridgeline is the exception, being a unibody with a combined cab and bed, and offering a V6 only.

Full-sized pickup trucks


Full-sized trucks are the brawny workhorses of the pickup world. They are larger, more rugged, and ride higher off the ground than compacts do. They also come in more configurations of cab type, bed size, and drivetrain choices. The basic pickup truck is what used to be called the half-ton truck and now often called 1500-series. Current models in this class include the Chevrolet Silverado 1500, Ram 1500, Ford F-150, GMC Sierra 1500, Nissan Titan, and Toyota Tundra. Those form the backbone of the pickup truck market. They serve well as work trucks and, for many, as a family car substitute.

Heavier-duty pickup trucks, which may carry numerical designations such as 2500 or 3500, are configured for carrying very heavy loads and for hauling fifth-wheel trailers, those with a hitch point in the center of the cargo bed. These are serious trucks for the most demanding chores, making them overkill for most noncommercial purposes shy of hauling a huge trailer.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

Features


Below we highlight important features for you to consider when purchasing a pickup truck.

Engines and fuel economy

The base engine for compact pickups is usually a four-cylinder engine, which is the most fuel-efficient. Optional V6 or V8 engines provide more power and are often smoother and quieter. Base full-sized trucks are typically fitted with a V6, providing a good balance between power and fuel economy. For heavy hauling or towing, though, consider a more powerful V8 or diesel engine. Some newer V8 engines offer cylinder deactivation, allowing the engine to operate on fewer cylinders under light loads, such as steady-speed cruising, and thereby save fuel. Ford has offered a turbocharged V6 in the F-150 in an effort to deliver V8-like power with better fuel economy, although in our tests both engines delivered the same 15 mpg.

Rear-wheel drive, 4WD or AWD?

Nearly all pickups are based on a rear-drive configuration. This is well suited to cargo carrying duties. Four-wheel drive is recommended for winter traction and other tough conditions.

The basic four-wheel-drive system, often called 4x4, is a part-time system you select with a lever, button, or rotary switch as needed. A low-range setting can also be selected for severe off-road conditions, but those part-time systems aren't designed to be engaged on dry pavement.

A more versatile design is full-time 4WD, optional on some pickups. In that mode, the front-wheel-drive portion kicks in as needed for extra traction, and the truck can run in that mode indefinitely without harming the driveline. The Honda Ridgeline is unique, essentially a front-wheel-drive vehicle, with a car-derived all-wheel-drive system.

Towing

A typical compact pickup truck can tow 4,000 pounds or more, and 8,000 pounds or more is feasible with a full-sized pickup truck. Some heavy-duty trucks can tow well north of 10,000 pounds. Maximum towing capacity varies by brand, trim line, engine, gearing, and tow packages.

One of the many ways you can option a pickup is to choose from different rear-axle ratios, which alter how much torque, or twisting power, is transmitted to the rear wheels. The choices usually range from three point something to four point something. A ratio of 3.5:1 means that the main drive shaft from the transmission revolves three and a half times for every rotation of the rear wheels. The lower numbers maximize fuel economy while the higher numbers enhance towing and hauling capabilities.

If you plan to tow a good deal, we'd select from the middle of the range. In the case of our latest Silverado that was a 3.42:1 ratio, and we found it very able at moving a 5,000-pound trailer. Only if you'll spend a lot of time hauling a very heavy trailer does it make sense to pick the numerically highest ratio offered.

Cab size

Regular cabs are the least expensive, but extended cabs are far more useful. Rear seats in extended-cab trucks can be small and cramped for adults, though they're acceptable for kids. The real advantage is additional interior storage. Crew-cab trucks have four regular doors and a good-sized rear seating (or cargo) area, but usually come at the cost of a smaller cargo bed.

Access

How easy is it to climb in or out from each seating position? Try each seat yourself to see if it meets your standards. For a full-sized pickup truck, running boards are all but essential. Look for adequate space for yourself, passengers, and the cargo you expect to transport. Pay attention to head, leg, and knee room in all seating positions. In an extended-cab truck, see if it's easy to fold away the rear seats to make room for cargo.

Cargo bed

With a full-sized pickup the standard bed length is eight feet, but only about six feet with an extended cab and five feet with a four-door crew cab. Compact pickup beds usually run five to six feet depending on cab configuration. Fold-out bed extenders are a widely available option. They flip over, from within the bed, forming a fence around the open tailgate, to allow bulkier or longer cargo to be secured.

Safety features

It used to be that pickup trucks, especially compact pickup trucks, had an unenviable safety record, but that's improved some in latter years. Better crash-worthiness and more standard safety gear have helped. Greater use of safety belts among pickup truck drivers has also lessened injuries and fatalities. Driver death rates in single-vehicle rollover crashes remain above average for most pickup trucks, especially compacts. One reason for the high fatality rates in many pickup trucks has to do with demographics. Pickup trucks are popular among young males, who tend to be the riskiest drivers. That, plus the fact that compact pickup trucks are among the most inherently rollover-prone vehicles, makes for a deadly combination.

Electronic stability control is a recommended safety feature with a proven track record of reducing fatalities. ESC has been mandatory on light-duty pickups starting with the 2012 model year. It's especially useful in slippery conditions or in cases where someone takes a corner too fast. It also reduces the typical axle hop on rough surfaces.

Most new pickup trucks have lap-and-shoulder belts even in the front center position, and top-tether and lower LATCH attachments in the rear seats. Be aware that heavy-duty pickups may not have LATCH attachments. Chest-level side air bags are common for front-seat passengers, too. Curtain-style side air bags that cover the front and rear side windows are increasingly common and we recommend them.

Another useful feature, traction control, can help you get going on a slippery road but doesn't aid in a sideways skid. It can be helpful with rear-drive pickup trucks, which are prone to tire slippage, especially when the bed is empty.

Check our safety ratings, which factor in crash-test results when available, and take those scores into consideration. Some configurations are low-volume vehicles, so there might not be crash-test results available. (Learn more about car safety.)

Emerging safety technologies

The latest automotive safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an air bag deploys; lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, and rear-view cameras to prevent back-over accidents. That's a real concern with pickup trucks: In our testing, we have found that the blind zone behind a pickup truck for an average-height driver can be 20 feet or more. Other up-to-date safety gear includes blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear of you. Automatic-braking systems are also spreading. These collision-avoidance systems apply the brakes if you're approaching the car ahead too quickly and ignore an audible warning that sounds to alert you to the situation. Another emerging technology is lane-keeping assist, which centers your car in the lane if you start to drift.

Entertainment and convenience

The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with Bluetooth connectivity and navigation guidance. Factory systems provide a wide range of information and entertainment features, and more are available through the aftermarket.

Audio system

The standard audio package is a stereo radio tuner and in-dash CD player with speakers left and right and fore and aft. An upgraded system typically has higher-watt amplifier power output, so you can play music loudly with minimum distortion, and more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise-canceling, surround sound, hard-drive music storage, and DVD-Audio playback.

Depending on the package, an audio upgrade can add many hundreds of dollars to a truck's sticker price. Vehicles at every price now include an audio-in jack or USB port for plugging in an MP3 device for playback through the car's audio system. Only stereos with a specific iPod connector, rather than a micro plug port, will be able to control and recharge an iPod.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-only satellite radio offers broad channel selection, catering to a variety of musical and information interests, much like cable TV. Most vehicles offer satellite radio readiness in some audio systems.

HD Radio allows conventional (or terrestrial) AM and FM stations to broadcast their content over digital signals with higher fidelity. It also allows stations to add more programming over several additional channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic or weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation systems can come in handy if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for about $1,000 to $2,000 when offered alone but are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system that can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and some use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus. Many can also respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But portable units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is becoming widely available, enabling wireless devices such as a cell phone to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. Such systems allow convenient, hands-free phone operation. In addition, some new infotainment systems can interface with your smart phone using apps to stream music and other Internet-sourced data to the car.

Popularized by GM's OnStar, telematics systems use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24/7 at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions and other travel aids. They also have an SOS feature that automatically summons emergency aid following an air-bag deployment, using GPS technology to give first-responders your car's location.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

New vs. Used

When in the market for your next vehicle, the first consideration is whether to buy new or used. Buying a brand-new pickup truck certainly has its benefits. Most notably, new vehicles can have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements. And with a new truck, you know what you're getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don't have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback with buying a new truck is the possibility of rapid depreciation. In some years new pickups have been known to shed half their value in the first two or three years. But the depreciation picture can change a lot from year to year, depending on competitive forces, fuel prices, new model introductions and other factors. If you have financed the new vehicle with a low down payment, you can easily find yourself "upside down" on the loan, where you owe more than the truck is worth.

Used pickup trucks can be a welcome alternative to high-priced new models. The used-truck market is about three times the size of the new-truck market, so there's certainly plenty of choice out there. One of the best strategies is to find a pickup truck you like that's only a couple of years old. It's already taken a big depreciation hit but should still have most of its useful life ahead of it. Modern pickup trucks, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer. Rust, for example, isn't nearly the problem it was years ago. Likewise, solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for a lot of regular servicing.

The key to selecting a good used pickup truck is to focus on reliability, even when a prospective vehicle is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for a pickup truck that has done well in our Reliability judgments.

CR's reliability scores are no guarantee, of course, but they do carry the weight of probability. If you shop for pickup truck with top-notch reliability scores, the odds are on your side. At the same time, every used truck is unique. A careful pre-purchase inspection remains a vital part of the process. It's also wise to spring for a professional mechanic's inspection. Given that trucks can often lead hard lives, it is important to look for signs of extreme duty, such as off-roading or large-trailer towing. When buying from a private seller, learn how it was used and maintained to judge if it is truly in desirable condition.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do research to choose a good model and follow that up with effective negotiation.

Learn more in our new and used car buying guides.

See upcoming pickup trucks in our New Car Preview

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

   

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