At first glance, shopping for a pickup truck might seem a lot like shopping for a car. Pick a color, engine, trim and you're set, right? But once you consider all the special uses for pickup trucks and the growing number of styles and options, you can quickly get lost in a maze of choices.
Here, then, is how to make truck shopping easier. If you understand the big picture and narrow your options logically, you can more easily find the right truck for you.
Step 1: Prepare for Sticker Shock and Budget Accordingly
Trucks are expensive. They are utility vehicles that can come with many of the creature comforts you'd find on premium cars. So if you've only owned cars in the past, the jump in price will be jarring. Here's an example:
The average selling price for a midsize car in the first half of 2016 was $25,706, with an average monthly finance payment of $452. Those numbers skyrocket by nearly $20,000 if you're buying a truck. The average selling price for a large truck, which is the most popular size, was $45,320, with an average monthly finance payment of $640.
With these higher prices in mind, 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 15 percent guideline that applies to car shopping: Your truck payment shouldn't be more than 15 percent of your total take-home pay. And in order to get the payments down, you'll likely have to make a sizable down payment: Plan on about 15 percent. Additionally, it's a good idea to obtain preapproved financing from a bank, credit union or online lender even if you plan to finance through the dealership. Getting preapproved will set a baseline for what you can afford and what interest rates you can expect.
The 10 Most Popular Trucks on Edmunds.com
These were the most-researched trucks on Edmunds in 2015. The 2016 models are getting lots of attention, too.
If the truck is for work, talk with your company's financial adviser 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.
Step 2: Know What You Plan on Carrying or Hauling
How you plan to use the truck will steer you through many of the ensuing choices. Your answers also will narrow the field by helping you choose between two- and four-wheel drive. For example, if you are towing a boat or Jet Ski, you might need four-wheel drive to gain traction on slippery boat ramps. If you're a couple who want to pull a very large mobile home, you might need a "dually" (two rear wheels per side) for towing stability.
If you just like the idea of driving a truck and don't really plan on hauling anything major, a midsize truck such as the Toyota Tacoma, Chevrolet Colorado or Honda Ridgeline would be perfect for you.
Step 3: Choose from Light-Duty, Medium-Duty or Heavy-Duty
Once you know what you'll tow, find out how much it weighs and be sure to include the weight of the trailer, too. This information will help you choose between a light-duty and heavy-duty truck. In the past, manufacturers rated trucks by their payloads: half-ton, three-quarter ton and so on. Now, it's more common to hear trucks divided into light-duty, medium-duty and heavy-duty categories, 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 considered light-duty trucks.
2016 Truck Buying Guide
Edmunds editors hand-picked these trucks, from fuel-efficient compact models to heavy-duty haulers.
Sizing the truck properly is important. If you skimp on power, the truck might have trouble hauling what you need. Similarly, if you buy more truck than you need, it will cost more at purchase and every time you fill up. Plus, you'll have a harder time fitting into parking lots or tight driveways. Most experts will suggest slightly overestimating your requirements. A good rule of thumb is to have about 10 percent more capacity than you need.
If you are unsure about the requirements for towing, manufacturers, including Ram, put spec sheets and towing guides on their websites.
Step 4: Choose an Engine 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. Trucks have long had a reputation for being gas guzzlers. But manufacturers now offer more engine options than ever before, and many engines are more fuel-efficient than they were in the past. A V6 engine now can do the work of a V8 from a decade ago and get better fuel economy.
Truckmakers usually offer diesel engines in heavy-duty trucks, except for the Nissan Titan XD and the Ram 1500, which offer diesel engines in their light-duty trucks. Diesel engines are better for towing: They provide high torque for pulling heavy loads at low speeds. Truck owners 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 to make has to do with 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 be able to tow more than one with 3.55 or 3.21 gears.
Unfortunately, the fuel economy information on the window sticker will not reflect these differences. 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 that's printed on the sticker.
Step 5: Choose a Bed and Cab Size
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 limo-like 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 you'll make. 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. Though 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. Sheetrock and plywood come in 4-by-8-foot dimensions, so you might need a longer bed for such loads.
Step 6: Choose Your Trim Level, Options and Packages
When you're selecting interior options, you'll notice that some options are bundled into special "editions" such as Chevrolet's All Star Edition, or they're grouped into packages like Ram's Premium Savings package in the Big Horn trim. Edmunds or the manufacturer's website should list what is included in the edition or package. Keep in mind that just because you can configure a truck on the website doesn't mean it will exist in the real world. This is why it's important to be flexible — unless you'd like to special order the truck from the factory and wait a couple months.
It's smart to make a list of your must-have features or packages. With so many possible truck configurations, the best way to find the one you want is to give the list of your top features to the salesperson at the truck dealership. Explain your preferred color and, if you can be flexible, pick an alternate color. That will greatly improve your odds.
For example, you could say something like, "I'm looking for a 2017 Chevrolet Silverado, LTZ double cab with the 6-foot bed, sport package, navigation system and all-weather floor mats. My preferred color is Deep Ocean Blue, but I'd take one in Siren Red if you have one with all my options."
Step 7: Check Your State's Motor Vehicle Department for Special Fees and Regulations
Depending on where you live, choosing a larger truck might require a special license or entail extra fees. In California, for example, even a light-duty truck will be assessed a $251 weight fee. Check with state motor vehicle authorities before locking in your purchase. These fees might not be deal breakers, but it's good to know what you can expect when you buy.
If you've walked through these steps, you should know exactly what truck you need. Now it's time to turn from the research and shopping phase to the buying process. This involves its own set of steps, which we've outlined in Eight Steps to Buying a New Car. Time to start trucking.
Edmunds' director of vehicle testing, Dan Edmunds, contributed to this story.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.