Pickup Truck Buying Guide

Trucks are big, bold, and highly capable. They’re also having a broader appeal as family vehicles, with a softer ride and more safety, convenience, and comfort features.

Still, with so many choices it’s easy—and tempting—to buy more machine than you’ll use. Start your selection process by completing a realistic assessment of your needs. If you’re not planning to carry large loads or pull a very heavy trailer, there probably is no need for a heavy-duty pickup truck; a lighter-duty full-sized truck, or even a compact or midsized pickup, should fit the bill. Don’t need to haul dirty cargo, such as construction debris, mulch, or manure? Consider another vehicle type, such as a minivan or an SUV. If the need for a pickup crops up only once in a while for some specific task, think about renting one for these occasions rather than buying one and living with its inconveniences.

What to Know

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.

Pickup trucks come in endless permutations: full-sized or compact; long bed or short; regular, extended, or crew cab; two-door or four-door; 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 about $21,000 to well over $60,000.

If your truck will serve as both a workhorse and a family transport, consider an extended-cab or crew-cab model with four doors. They’re not hard to find—in fact, that’s probably the most common configuration these days. Drivers who have to deal with snow or deep mud, or who regularly go off-road, should be sure to choose four-wheel drive.

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, even a 3500-series model, 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 how many pickups are sold, there really aren’t that many brands to choose from. Ford and Chevrolet/GMC sell the most, followed by Ram (formerly known as Dodge). The Japanese brands play a smaller role here, led by Toyota and, with far fewer sales, Nissan and Honda. And Korean automaker Hyundai is expected to debut its first U.S. pickup truck soon.

Types

Compact and Midsized Pickup Trucks
This pickup truck category consists of smaller models, including the Chevrolet Colorado (and its corporate cousin, the GMC Canyon), the Ford Ranger, Honda Ridgeline, and Toyota Tacoma. These trucks are built on a separate chassis frame from their full-sized brethren and usually offer a range of four-cylinder and V6 engines. They’re not as small as past generations; these trucks are sometimes referred to as midsized.

Full-Sized Pickup Trucks
These are the brawny workhorses of the pickup world. They’re larger and more rugged, and they ride higher off the ground than compacts do. They’re typically referred to as 1500-series (or 150, in Ford’s case). Current models in this class include the Chevrolet Silverado 1500, Ford F-150, GMC Sierra 1500, Nissan Titan, Ram 1500, and Toyota Tundra. These form the backbone of the pickup-truck market. They serve well as work trucks and, for many, as a substitute for the family car.  

Heavy-Duty Trucks
These carry numerical designations such as 2500 or 3500 and 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.  

What These Rigs Cost
Pickup truck prices vary widely, from about $20,000 for the most basic model to $60,000 or more for luxury versions. 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 or more for a heavy-duty diesel pickup truck.

Key Factors to Consider

Pickups differ greatly not only in size but also in price, fuel economy, comfort, performance, safety, and reliability. Some of these factors are connected: The trucks with the best fuel economy typically weigh less, are smaller, and have less powerful engines. Likewise, a heavy trailer demands a stout truck, with its accompanying fuel-economy penalty. Plus, in our testing, we find that the more heavy-duty a truck is, the worse the ride is. 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 certainly difficult to maneuver.

Here are the key factors to consider when choosing a pickup truck.

Cab size: Regular cabs are the least expensive (but today are fairly difficult to find). 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 a par with full-sized SUVs, but these large cabs usually come at the cost of a smaller cargo bed.

The bed: This is, of course, what sets trucks apart from all other vehicles. The open cargo bed lends itself to accomplishing 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 most people wouldn’t want to (or couldn’t) do with a minivan or an SUV. Among other considerations, the open bed leaves cargo vulnerable to the weather or theft.

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.

Access: Climbing into a tall cabin can be difficult—buyers who choose four-wheel-drive trucks should seriously consider adding running boards to help their passengers get in. The side rails of full-sized truck beds are so high off the ground that loading and retrieving heavy items over the side can be awkward, tiresome, or inconvenient. (Some models now have integrated steps in the bumper or folding steps on the tailgate to make access easier for shorter owners.)

Buyers should try each seat to see whether it meets their standards. Look for adequate space for passengers and cargo. Pay attention to headroom, legroom, and space for knees in all seating positions. In an extended-cab truck, see whether the rear seats can easily be folded away to make room for cargo.

Towing: Pickup trucks are well-suited to hauling boats, cars, utility trailers, and campers behind them. The owner’s manual will note the maximum weight that can be carried (payload) or towed. Buyers can have the manufacturer or dealer install towing equipment, or they can add it themselves, buying aftermarket parts. Purchasing from the factory is the best choice because installation could 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. In addition, the manufacturer-engineered packages come backed by the factory warranty. Most pickups can be ordered with a trailer-brake controller.

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 truck can safely tow more than 12,000 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.

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.

For heavy hauling or towing, consider getting a diesel engine; Ford, GM, Nissan, and Ram currently offer one in the 1500 class. Chevrolet, Ford, GMC, and Ram all offer diesels in their heavy-duty pickups, at significant cost. These large, loud engines are a wise investment for routinely towing a very heavy trailer and spending many miles on the highway.

Axle ratios: These affect how much torque, or twisting power, is transmitted to a truck’s 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.

For extensive towing, we recommend selecting from the middle of the range. A numerically high ratio makes sense only for driving a lot of time hauling very heavy loads.

Fuel economy: The base engine for today’s compact pickups tends to be 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. Our most recently tested F-150, equipped with the 2.7-liter turbocharged V6, returned an impressive 19 mpg.

Pickups tend to guzzle gas whether they’re loaded or not. For gasoline-powered full-sized trucks, 14 to 19 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 Honda Ridgeline or Chevrolet Colorado, figure 18 to 20 mpg. Of course, the mileage only goes down when the vehicles are carrying cargo or pulling a trailer.

Ride: Trucks don’t tend to have the most comfortable ride, though it can smooth out when there’s enough weight in the bed. And the latest-generation trucks have seen the rides improved markedly. “Trucklike” isn’t nearly the insult it once was. A handy extended cab or spacious crew cab brings a short load bed, typically 5 feet, which limits what can be carried. 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.

Rear-wheel drive, 4WD, or AWD: Almost all pickups are based on rear-wheel-drive platforms that are well-suited to moving heavy loads. (The Honda Ridgeline is unique in using a front-drive setup similar to that of a car-based 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.

Full-time 4WD is more versatile, and it’s an option 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.

Safety features: Just as trucks have picked up more convenience features, they’ve also added a bunch of advanced safety equipment. 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 the driver doesn’t react in time, it starts braking automatically. 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 drivers change lanes without signaling, lane-keeping assist to center the vehicle in the lane if the car starts to drift, and blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear.

Thankfully, electronic stability control—a recommended safety feature with a proven track record of reducing fatalities—has been mandatory on light-duty pickups since 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. If you’re looking at used trucks, this is a must.

Seat belts and LATCH connectors: 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 might not have LATCH attachments. Chest-level side airbags are common for front-seat passengers, too. Curtain-style side airbags that cover the front and rear side windows are increasingly common, and we recommend them.

New vs. Used

There are certainly benefits to buying a brand-new pickup truck. Most notably, new trucks have the latest safety gear and engineering improvements. Buyers know exactly what they’re getting, with fewer worries about potential maintenance problems. Further, there are tons of choices for color, trim line, and option levels. And financing rates are typically lower than those for a used truck.

The key drawback of buying a new truck is how quickly it will depreciate. New trucks have been known to shed half their value in the first two to 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. Financing a new vehicle with a small down payment can easily make buyers “upside down” on the loan, where they owe more than their truck is worth.

Buyers who take the used routes don’t have limited options, though. The used-truck market is about three times the size of the new-truck market, so there’s plenty of choice. One of the best strategies is to find a pickup truck 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.

The key to selecting a good used pickup truck is to focus on reliability, even if the truck is still covered by its original factory warranty. Check with Consumer Reports to find models that have top-notch reliability scores.

At the same time, every used truck is unique. Have a mechanic inspect any truck you’re seriously considering. Because trucks can often lead hard lives, make sure the mechanic looks for signs of extreme duty, such as off-roading or large-trailer towing. When buying from a private seller, ask how the truck was used and maintained.

Learn more in our new and used car buying guides

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