Pickup Truck Buying Guide
Getting Started

Trucks are big, bold, and highly capable, making it easy and tempting to buy too much machine. 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, you probably don’t need a full-sized, heavy-duty pickup truck. A lighter-duty full-sized truck or even a compact/midsized pickup should fit the bill. If you don’t need to haul dirty cargo such as construction debris, mulch, or manure, another vehicle type, such as a minivan or an SUV, could be a better choice. If you only need a pickup once in a while, for some specific task, you might be better off renting one for these occasions rather than buying one and making it do double duty as a family car. 

What to Know

If the truck will serve as both a workhorse and a family transport, 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, 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 $20,000 to almost $60,000.

Pickup Nomenclature
Full-sized pickups, sometimes called half-ton trucks—by far the biggest-selling type—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, obsolete holdovers 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” because they 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, with far fewer sales, Nissan and Honda. Hyundai is expected to join the segment.

Key Things to Consider
Even within the variety of basic configurations, pickups can differ greatly 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. Likewise, a heavy trailer demands a heavy truck, with an accompanying fuel-economy penalty. Plus, in our testing, we find that the more heavy-duty a truck is, the worse it tends to ride. The most capable trucks have dual rear wheels, with rear fenders that stick out about 8 inches from either side of the truck. These extreme machines are difficult to maneuver.

With pickup trucks, it is important to buy what you need, resisting the urge to overdo it. While it may be tempting to have extra cargo and towing capacity, you’ll pay for it both up front 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. These are tasks you wouldn’t want to (or couldn’t) do with a minivan or an SUV.

Pickup trucks are also well-suited to towing boats, cars, utility trailers, and campers. Manufacturer specifications for the vehicle and its driveline will note maximum cargo weight and towing capacities. You can choose original equipment manufacturer (OEM) towing packages or buy aftermarket equipment. Buying from the factory is the best choice because installation might involve complex wiring for the trailer brakes and lights, special attachment points for the tow hitch, and accessories such as a heavy-duty alternator and a transmission oil cooler. Further, the manufacturer-engineered packages come backed by the factory warranty. Many, but not all, pickups can be ordered with a trailer brake controller.

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 gasoline-powered full-sized trucks, 14 to 17 mpg overall is par for the course. Half-ton diesel models are also available and can deliver around 20 mpg. For a compact truck such as a Chevrolet Colorado or Toyota Tacoma, figure 18 to 20 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. Access to a tall cabin can be difficult (consider side steps on 4WD models), and the side rails of full-sized truck beds are so high off the ground that loading and retrieving heavy items over the side is awkward, tiresome, and/or inconvenient. (Some models now have integrated steps in the bumper or folding steps on the tailgate to make access easier for shorter owners.)

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. “Trucklike” isn’t nearly the insult it once was. If you choose a handy extended cab or spacious crew cab, you might have to put up with a short load bed, typically 5 feet, which limits what you can carry. But a full-length bed, typically 8 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 find 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 about $20,000 for the most basic model to $60,000 or more. For well-equipped, 4WD trucks geared for family use, figure on about $35,000-plus for a compact truck, at least mid-$40s for a full-sized model, and $55,000 for a heavy-duty diesel pickup truck. 

Types

Compact Pickup Trucks
The compact pickup truck category consists of smaller-sized models such as the Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon, Nissan Frontier, and Toyota Tacoma. These trucks are built on a separate chassis frame from their full-size brethren and usually offer a range of four-cylinder and V6 engines. Not as small as past generations, these trucks are sometimes referred to as midsized. Another choice in this category is the Honda Ridgeline. This creative truck is designed for suburbia. Think of it as the mechanical sibling to the Pilot SUV.

Full-Sized Pickup Trucks
Full-sized trucks are the brawny workhorses of the pickup world. They are larger and more rugged, and they ride higher off the ground than compacts do. They also come in more configurations of cab type, bed size, and drivetrain. The basic pickup truck is what used to be called the half-ton truck and is 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. These 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 serious loads and for hauling fifth-wheel trailers, those with a hitch point in the center of the cargo bed. These are bulky trucks for the most demanding chores, making them overkill for most noncommercial purposes shy of hauling a huge trailer.

 

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 a large, four-cylinder engine. Most offer an optional V6 that provides more power along with smoother and quieter operation. Base full-sized trucks are typically fitted with a V6, which provides a good balance between power and fuel economy appropriate for light consumer use, with one or more V8s optional. 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’s F-150 offers turbocharged V6s that promise V8-like power with better fuel economy when power demands are low. (However, in our tests, the bigger turbo V6 delivered the same 16 mpg as a competitor’s V8.)

For heavy hauling or towing, consider a diesel engine. Nissan and Ram are the only manufacturers to offer a diesel in a 1500-class pickup. Chevrolet, Ford, GMC, and Ram all offer diesels in their heavy-duty pickups, at significant cost. These large, loud engines are a wise investment if you will be routinely towing a very heavy trailer and spend most of your miles on the highway.

Rear-Wheel Drive, 4WD, or AWD?
Almost all pickups are based on rear-wheel-drive platforms, a configuration that is well-suited to moving heavy loads. The Honda Ridgeline is unique in using a front-drive setup similar to a car-based SUV (sharing its architecture with the Honda Pilot SUV). Four-wheel drive is recommended for winter traction, off-roading, and other tough conditions.

Traditional four-wheel drive, often called 4x4 or 4WD, is a part-time system that is controlled via a lever, button, or rotary switch as needed. A low-range setting can also be selected for severe off-road conditions, but these 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.

Towing
A typical compact pickup truck can tow between 3,000 and 7,000 pounds, and most full-sized 1500-class trucks can tow between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds. Heavy-duty pickups can be configured to tow as much as 31,000 pounds. If you are buying a pickup truck for towing, it is vital to carefully check the specifications of the specific truck you are considering. Engine, gearing, frame length, cab and bed style, drive axles, and installed towing packages all affect a truck’s towing capacity, and the differences are drastic, even within the same model range. A properly configured Ram 3500 can tow 30,000 pounds, but without the right features and options, towing capacity drops by more than half, to about 12,000 pounds. Never assume that just because a pickup truck looks big it can tow big. And explore the tow-related options; today’s trucks offer many features to make towing easier and safer.

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. Lower numbers maximize fuel economy, and higher numbers enhance towing and hauling capabilities.

If you plan to do a lot of towing, we recommend that you select from the middle of the range. Our latest Chevrolet Silverado had a 3.42:1 ratio, and we found it very capable of moving a 5,000-pound trailer. A numerically high ratio only makes sense if you plan to spend a lot of time hauling very heavy loads.

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 on par with full-sized SUVs, but these large cabs usually come at the cost of a smaller cargo bed.

Access
How easy is it to climb into or out of each seating position? Try each seat yourself to see whether 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 whether 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 8 feet, but it’s only about 6 feet with an extended cab and 5 feet with a four-door crew cab. Compact pickup beds usually run 5 to 6 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 has 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. Keep this in mind if you’re shopping for a used truck.

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.)

Advanced Safety Technologies
Many advanced safety features now common on cars are moving to trucks, at least as options on higher trims, notably forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking. Forward-collision warning (FCW) technology provides a visual, audible, and/or tactile alert to warn the driver of an impending collision with a car or an object directly in its path. If a car equipped with automatic emergency braking (AEB) senses a potential collision and you don’t react in time, it starts braking for you. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety data show rear-end collisions are cut by 50 percent on vehicles with AEB and FCW.

Other modern safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an airbag deploys, lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, lane-keeping assist to center the vehicle in the lane if you start to drift, and blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear of you.

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 latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with Bluetooth smartphone connectivity, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility, and navigation guidance. Factory-supplied systems usually offer voice-activated controls for audio, phone, and navigation with various levels of sophistication. You’ll frequently find redundant audio controls on the steering wheel.

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 and 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-based satellite radio (SiriusXM) offers a broad selection of channels catering to a variety of musical and information interests, with uninterrupted service from coast to coast. Subscription packages range from $11 to $20 per month, and you can add service for your smartphone, computer, and home satellite radio for an additional fee.

HD Radio allows conventional (aka 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 subchannels that can be broadcast alongside a station’s main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic updates, weather information, or more diverse music content. Depending where you live, some systems work better than others. The better audio system interfaces have a convenient button to turn HD off if you find that the stations creep into and out of the HD signal.

Navigation Systems and Connectivity
In-car navigation systems are a great feature if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for $750 to $1,500 when offered alone, but nav systems are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system, that can add an additional $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens mounted in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and most systems use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus.

Most respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a subscription fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But small portable GPS units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with Bluetooth smartphone connectivity, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility, and navigation guidance. Factory-supplied systems usually offer voice-activated controls for audio, phone, and navigation with various levels of sophistication. You’ll frequently find redundant audio controls on the steering wheel. (See ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is now ubiquitous, enabling devices such as smartphones to wirelessly communicate with the car’s audio system. This allows convenient hands-free phone operation, as well as playback of music stored on the phone. Many infotainment systems can stream internet-sourced audio to the car using apps such as Aha and Pandora.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM’s OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and GPS technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 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 calls to check on the car after an accident. If need be, these systems can summon emergency services, using the car’s built-in GPS receiver to give first responders your car’s location.

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. With a new truck, you know what you’re getting; 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. 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 few years old. It has 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 isn’t nearly as big a problem as it was years ago, and solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for frequent tune-ups.

If you are buying a used pickup truck to tow a trailer, keep in mind that there are several factors that dictate a truck’s towing capacity in addition to engine power. They include cab and bed size, wheelbase length, rear axle ratio, and the presence (or absence) of a factory towing package. The differences can be significant: A properly equipped 2013 Ford F-150 can safely tow more than 11,000 pounds, but some configurations are limited to as little as 5,500 pounds. It’s important to research the truck to determine its safe towing capacity.

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 survey.

Consumer Reports’ 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 prepurchase 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 the truck was used and maintained to judge whether 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

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