At a glance, shopping for a pickup truck might seem a lot like shopping for a car. But once you consider all the special uses for pickup trucks, and the growing number of styles and options, a shopper can quickly get lost in a maze of choices.
Over the past two decades pickup trucks have gone from being strictly utility vehicles to becoming daily drivers and recreational vehicles for many people. The addition of extra seats in the cab means a pickup truck can become a kind of "do-all vehicle," says Otie McKinley, Chevrolet truck communications manager.
Meanwhile, the truck segment has exploded in popularity to the point where Mike Levine, Ford's truck spokesman says, "We have a truck for every buyer out there." Of course, prices have shot up, too, running anywhere from about $24,000 to $75,000, says David Sowers, head of truck marketing for Ram. The prices rise because "you layer capabilities on top of all the convenience choices that are available now on trucks," he says.
The good news for truck shoppers is that there are new tools to help break down the choices. Manufacturers provide online configurators to lead shoppers through a logical sequence of choices to narrow the field. Still, as Sowers notes, some truck shoppers want to get information face-to-face at a dealership from a knowledgeable truck salesperson.
Here, then, is an overview of the process that our experts recommend. If you understand the big picture and narrow your options logically, you can demystify the process and more easily find the right truck for you.
1. Let your budget guide you.
It's a good idea to review your budget before you begin choosing specs for your truck. If you're buying the truck for personal use, follow the 20-percent guideline that applies to car shopping: Your truck payment shouldn't be more than 20 percent of your total take-home pay. Additionally, it's a good idea to obtain pre-approved financing from a bank, credit union or online lender, even if you plan to finance through the dealership. (More on this in Step 10.)
If the truck is for work, talk with your company's financial advisor and set the budget for the truck based on growth projections for the business. That way, the truck will still meet your company's needs in the years to come. Also, consider if you want to buy a new or used truck, and whether leasing might make sense.
To get a quick look at prices, visit the Edmunds truck center where you can browse by price category or features. Of course, when it comes time to buy the truck, you will probably negotiate your best deal. How much of a discount can you expect? Check Edmunds.com's True Market Value (TMV®) pricing, which uses actual sales figures to reveal the average price buyers are paying for cars and trucks in your area. Edmunds TMV adjusts the price for other factors including incentives, options and color.
To find the Edmunds TMV and the value of any vehicle you may want to trade in, choose the make, model and year of the vehicle you want to appraise and follow the prompts. TMV adjusts the price of the new truck for the available incentives. TMV for your used vehicle shows the current market value if you sell it to a private party or trade it in at the dealership.
While TMV already factors in incentives, it is also possible to separately review the latest incentives and rebates available for all new cars. Perhaps you'll find an even better bargain on a truck you had not considered.
2. Is this truck for work, recreation or all-around use?
How you plan to use the truck will steer you through many of the ensuing choices. Customers buying work trucks usually have very specific needs in mind and require less guidance, Sowers says. But first-time truck buyers — perhaps empty-nesters wanting to pull a trailer — will have a lot of questions. And finally, there are other shoppers who will use the truck for many purposes. They want "a work truck from 9 to 5 and a family vehicle from 5 to 9," McKinley says.
All the experts agreed on the important questions: What do you want to tow or carry? Your answers will narrow the field by helping you choose between two- and four-wheel drive. For example, if you are towing a boat for recreation, you might need four-wheel drive to gain traction on slippery boat ramps. In another scenario, a couple wishing to pull a very large mobile home might need a "dually" (two rear wheels per side) for towing stability.
3. Choose from light-duty, medium-duty or heavy-duty.
If you know what you will be carrying or towing, you can more easily choose between a light-duty and heavy-duty truck. In the past, trucks were rated by the payload they could carry: half-ton, three-quarter ton and so on. Now, it's more common to hear trucks divided by light-duty, medium-duty and heavy-duty, as identified by numbers such as 1500, 2500 and 3500 or 150, 250 and 350. For example, the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and the Ford F-150 both have impressive towing capacities, but they are light-duty trucks.
Levine says this is because the light-duty trucks made today offer greatly increased hauling and towing capability. "You're getting a lot more truck for the money than you did in the past," he says.
Sizing the truck properly is important. But Sowers suggests slightly overestimating your requirements. "If you have 10 percent more capacity than you need you'll never be disappointed," he says. "But the first time you have a trailer that's too big for your truck, that's going to be a problem."
If you are unsure about the requirements for towing, manufacturer Web sites, such as Ram, have spec sheets and towing guides.
4. For best fuel economy, look at engine size and type — and axle ratio.
For some buyers, choosing the right engine size will be a balancing act between having enough power and still getting good fuel economy. In the past, trucks were gas guzzlers. But Levine says things have changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Manufacturers offer more engine options than ever before, and many of them are more fuel-efficient than in the past. A V6 engine now can do the work of a V8 from a decade ago.
Truckmakers only offer diesel engines in heavy-duty trucks, except for Ram, which recently introduced a 3.0-liter V6 diesel engine in its light-duty 1500 series. Diesel engines are better for towing since they provide high torque for pulling heavy loads at low speeds. Truckers want the so-called low-end torque because it requires more force to start a heavy trailer rolling than it does to keep it going at a constant speed.
Another choice directly affecting fuel economy is the axle ratio. Pickup trucks can typically be configured with a range of optional axle ratios, and the choice you make will directly affect the fuel economy and towing capacity of the vehicle.
Simply put, the higher the number for the axle ratio, the more you can tow, but the lower your fuel efficiency will be. A truck with optional 3.73 gears for example, will tow more than one with 3.55 or 3.21 gears.
Fuel economy information on the window sticker will not reflect these differences because of the way the labeling regulations have been written. You just have to know that any axle ratio you see listed on the "options" side of the window sticker will lower the fuel economy rating printed on the sticker.
5. Understand the different cab and bed sizes.
Most manufacturers offer three cab sizes. The regular cab is the classic work truck with a single row of seating and limited space between the seats. Crew cab trucks have four full-size doors and a generous backseat roomy enough for cross-country travel. Toyota and Ram offer still larger "mega cab" offerings with limolike rear legroom. In Ram's case, this configuration is only available in its medium-duty and heavy-duty truck lines.
Keep in mind that the cab size will have an effect on the bed length, which is the next choice. In other words, if you want a standard-length truck with a crew cab, that larger cab will take away length from the truck bed. If you want a larger cab and a long bed, you will wind up with a longer wheelbase and a truck that is harder to park and maneuver.
The bed sizes vary slightly by manufacturer, but are approximately 5.5 feet, 6.5 feet and 8 feet. While it's nice to have lots of room for cargo, combining a crew cab with an 8-foot bed might mean you can't put the truck in your garage. To increase bed capacity without adding length to the truck, some manufacturers offer an optional bed extender that allows owners to lower the tailgate and use that as bed space.
To help you choose a bed length, think of the standard sizes of lumber or other construction materials you might need to carry. Sheet rock and plywood come in 4-by-8-foot dimensions, so a longer bed might be necessary for such loads.
6. Check with your state's motor vehicle department for special fees and regulations.
Choosing a larger truck might require a special license or bring extra fees. Laws vary widely. In California, for example, even a light-duty truck will be assessed a $251 weight fee. Sowers recommends that you check with state motor vehicle authorities before locking in your purchase.
7. Choose interior options and packages.
With the practical considerations answered, it's time to look at the interior options and purchase packages that bundle options together at a savings. In this category, trucks have changed enormously in past years. Previously, every truck had a specific purpose, but you sacrificed the creature comforts available in the cab. Now, according to McKinley, the interiors of some trucks are as nice as any passenger car, offering heated and cooled leather seats and an assortment of storage compartments. Trucks now come with many of the advanced safety features found in luxury vehicles, such as lane departure warning systems, Levine says.
When selecting interior options, keep in mind that options are bundled into special "editions" such as Ram's Laramie, or they're grouped into packages like Ram's "premium savings package" in the Big Horn edition. It delivers about $4,100 worth of equipment for $900, Sowers says.
It's now time to turn from the research and shopping phase to the buying process. By now you should know what you need to buy and will want to make the best possible deal. The following three steps will show you how to find your truck, negotiate the best price and close the deal. If you are unfamiliar with the car-buying process and want more details, read "Eight Steps to Buying a New Car."
8. Check inventory and order the truck, if necessary.
The more flexible you can be about options and color, the wider the range of trucks you'll find for sale. If you're not emotionally connected to one specific truck brand, you'll have more leverage to negotiate a better price.
On the Edmunds.com home page, select the make, model and year of the truck you want. You'll then get a page that displays several actual trucks for sale in your area, along with Price PromiseSM offers (more about Price Promise in the next step). Click on the link "Find Cars for Sale Near You" in the upper half of the screen. You then will make selections about options and color to get a more complete list of matching trucks available for sale. Once you find the exact truck you want, the next step will be to contact the dealership.
If you have specialized needs, however, and can't find the exact truck you want at a dealership, you can custom order a truck that's built to your exact specifications. The build time varies from about six to eight weeks. Be sure to negotiate your best price and get it in writing before committing to the order.
9. Use Price Promise and dealership Internet departments.
Now that you are approaching the deal-making phase of the process, here's more about a good pathway for buying your truck: the Edmunds.com Price Promise program. It assures shoppers a guaranteed, up-front price on a specific vehicle.
Look for Price Promise offers on the truck of your choice and print out the certificate on the page. Then you are ready to go to the dealership to conclude the deal. It's a good idea to call ahead and make sure the truck is still available. Here are other tips on how to use Price Promise offers to buy your next truck.
If there are no Price Promise offers on a truck you want, shopping through a dealership's Internet department will save you time and money. You can easily communicate with the Internet manager by phone or e-mail.
We know that many people are drawn to the traditional way of car buying: visiting showrooms right off the bat. If you have a lot of specific questions, or need to physically see the truck to know if it fits your needs, by all means go to the dealership. You will have to go there eventually for a test-drive anyway. Once on the lot, ask for assistance from a salesperson who specializes in trucks, our experts advised. Sowers says that Ram truck sales staff members receive special training to match customers with the right truck.
If you decide to shop in person, you should assess the salesperson who is working with you before moving forward. Ask yourself if you feel comfortable and sense that you can trust this person. If you do feel comfortable, test-drive the truck if you haven't already done so. Remember, before you head to the dealership, review all your notes and bring them with you.
10. Close the deal.
In this step you will review pricing, check fees and sign the paperwork.
The quote you get from your salesperson or Internet manager should match or be below Edmunds' TMV that you looked up in Step 1. Besides the cost of the car, you have to pay sales tax, registry fees and a documentation or "doc" fee. You can estimate these extras using Edmunds' Monthly Loan Payment Calculator. Now, ask the Internet sales manager or the dealership's Price Promise contact to supply a breakdown of all the related fees. Review the figures carefully before signing the sales contract.
If you got pre-approved financing, but still want to see if the dealership offers a better rate, let the finance and insurance manager run your credit report and give you the interest rate for which you qualify. The finance manager will also offer you additional items such as extended warranties, fabric protection or anti-theft systems. The extended auto warranty, in particular, provides peace of mind to many buyers and could save you money in the long run. Remember, though, that many of these extras can often be purchased elsewhere for less and you can always buy them later. You can learn more about the products offered by the finance manager in the story, "Negotiating a Dealer's New Car Add-Ons."
Review the contract carefully and make sure the numbers match the worksheet and that there are no additional charges or fees. A good finance manager will explain each form and what it means. Don't hurry. Buying a truck is a serious commitment. And remember, there is no cooling-off period. Once you sign the contract, the truck is yours.
— Edmunds.com's Director of Vehicle Testing, Dan Edmunds, contributed to this story.