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.
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.