Truck Buying Guide

Truck Buying Guide

Jump To: Truck Basics | Midsize Truck Guide | Full-Size Truck Guide

At some point, everybody needs a pickup truck. It might be once, or it might be daily, but sooner or later you're going to wish you had a vehicle that can tow, that can haul, and that has an open cargo bed to accommodate large and bulky items. Whether for work or for play, trucks are downright handy, simplifying complex tasks and making your life easier.

If you've decided a truck is in your future, the next step is to determine what you need. Pickups range from basic midsize work trucks that seat no more than three people to luxurious five-passenger heavy-duty models that cost nearly $100,000 with every option box checked. Between these extremes, a vast range of truck sizes, cab configurations, trim packages and powertrains exist to serve almost any purpose and satisfy almost any desire.

Before picking a pickup, though, it is critical to understand how you'll use a truck and to know what features and attributes are most important to you. The right truck will tackle any task you require, while the wrong one will result in distress and dissatisfaction. With this Trucks Buying guide, we're here to help make sure you find one that you can love rather than settle for one that you're likely to loathe.

Truck Basics

Market Segment

Pickups come in midsize, full-size light-duty and full-size heavy-duty flavors, and base prices can range from around $25,000 to about $55,000. Knowing what you need and what you want in a truck is important if you expect to get the right tool for the job and not pay for more capability than you'll use.

Cab and Bed Designs

Truck manufacturers often have different names for them, but the three main cab designs are regular cab, extended cab and crew cab. Regular-cab trucks have two doors, seat two or three people, and offer a small amount of in-cab storage.

Extended-cab trucks also have two doors but have a larger cab that can seat up to six people. The rear seating area can be cramped for passengers, so the primary benefit of an extended cab is its ability to hold more cargo in the locked, weathertight interior.

Crew-cab trucks have four doors and also seat up to six people. They have a more generous rear passenger space than extended cabs. Some automakers also offer two sizes of crew-cab designs for their trucks.

Trucks are typically sold with either a short bed or a long bed. There's no standardized measurement tied to each, so it mostly comes down to a particular truck's offering. Short beds typically keep the truck's overall length shorter, which helps with maneuverability, while long beds increase cargo space at the expense of either cab space or maneuverability.

Price

One of the great things about pickup trucks is that you can custom-tailor the majority of them with optional equipment. That way, they will perform the work you require during the week, handle your adventures on the weekends, and reflect your personality at all times. So, while base prices might range from about $25,000 for a basic midsize truck to $55,000 for a heavy-duty crew cab, you can spend nearly double those figures for fully loaded examples equipped with all of the extras.

Performance and MPG

Modern trucks come with gas, diesel and hybrid powertrains, and fully electric trucks are set to arrive to market soon. Engines range from four-cylinder to V8 designs and are typically either naturally aspirated or turbocharged. Most trucks typically come with at least two engine choices, allowing you to pick one that best suits your needs. You might pick a four-cylinder engine to get the best fuel economy, for instance, or a beefy V8 or turbocharged V6 for strong acceleration and towing capability. The optional diesel engines in heavy-duty trucks are specifically designed for towing performance.

Drivetrain

If you prefer to shift your own gears, a handful of trucks still offer a manual transmission. But the majority roll out of the factory with an automatic. Nearly all trucks have standard two-wheel drive (2WD), with four-wheel drive (4WD) available as an option. Typically, a 2WD truck tows more weight and hauls more payload. But if you're planning to go off-road, you'll want 4WD.

Some 4WD trucks have a manual two-speed transfer case, while others offer shift-on-the-fly electronic 4WD. The low-range gearing available from a two-speed transfer case can be helpful when off-roading. Automatic 4WD is also available, engaging whenever reduced traction requires it. Limited-slip and locking differentials are also available to further maximize traction when off-road.

Roominess

Picking a crew cab gives you the most space for people and items you'd rather not store in the cargo bed. At a minimum, a regular-cab pickup seats two people, or three if you choose one with a bench-style front seat. Extended cabs have rear jump seats or a small rear bench seat designed to occasionally accommodate passengers. Crew cabs offer expansive rear seating, the largest trucks supplying enough room for tall passengers to stretch their legs and relax.

Towing and Payload

Two of the main reasons to buy a pickup truck are for the towing and hauling capabilities. Across all truck classes, though, the numbers vary, and dramatically so. Broadly speaking, midsize trucks give you about 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of maximum towing capacity depending on the model and configuration. Light-duty full-size trucks max out at around 12,000 to 13,000 pounds depending on the model and configuration. Heavy-duty trucks, thanks to their more robust construction and available diesel engines, can pull upward of 35,000 pounds depending on the model and configuration.

Payload capacities (the maximum weight of stuff you can put in the bed) are also highly variable, even within a singular pickup's range of configurations. As with towing capacity, heavy-duty trucks can handle the most payload. Knowing what you expect to do with a truck dictates the right one to serve your needs.

Safety

When it comes to safety, trucks are more sophisticated than ever, available with the latest advanced driver assistance systems and connected services technologies that can provide immediate help when necessary. Numerous trailer-towing features also make modern trucks safer to drive, and the newest designs also perform well in crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Always be sure to compare safety ratings if this factor is important to you.

Cost to Own

The more capable a truck is, the more expensive it will likely be to own. Bigger and more powerful engines typically consume more fuel, and while diesel engine options are efficient, they're also costly to buy. 4WD systems and specialty off-road versions also add cost. More expensive trucks are typically pricier to insure.

Midsize Truck Guide

If you don't need significant towing and hauling capability, or you're on a strict budget, a more affordable and nimble midsize pickup truck might prove perfect for you. Buyers seeking a well-rounded truck that's easy to live with on a daily basis will find the Honda Ridgeline appealing, while people planning to head far off of the pavement will want to investigate dedicated off-road models within the Chevrolet Colorado and Toyota Tacoma lineups.

The Colorado also offers a diesel engine option. So does its corporate sibling, the GMC Canyon. The Jeep Gladiator is available with a diesel too, and it's the only midsize truck with a removable top and doors for open-air adventuring. Thanks to its standard turbocharged engine, the Ford Ranger supplies power and performance right out of the gate, and it retains it at altitude.

Full-Size Truck Guide

Full-size trucks split into two camps. Light-duty models are the most popular, offering the best mix of value, capability and equipment. Heavy-duty models are the workhorses, required when you expect to tow and haul heavy loads.

Among light-duty trucks, the Ram 1500 is Edmunds' top-rated model. It's the smoothest-riding truck in its class and expertly mixes rugged capability with premium design. Ram also expands the 1500's lineup with a powerful TRX performance truck for 2021.

Ford popular F-150 gets a full redesign for 2021 that improves its class-leading towing and payload ratings. The Chevrolet Silverado 1500, meanwhile, holds its own with its wide mix of powertrains and configurations. Any full-size light-duty truck is available in a luxury-themed trim level, but the chrome-encrusted GMC Sierra 1500 Denali often sets the standard. If you're looking for alternatives, the Nissan Titan supplies the best standard warranty of any full-size truck, while the durable Toyota Tundra offers free scheduled maintenance for two years to help offset its thirst for fuel.

Heavy-duty trucks are ready for just about any task. When comparing maximum capabilities, differences between models are not as substantial as in other segments, especially following the most recent Chevrolet Silverado HD and GMC Sierra HD redesign. Ford offers its Super Duty lineup of trucks, and Ram has its Heavy Duty models. Aside from styling and interior comfort, look for features and technology that help you to get the job done rather than official maximum towing and payload ratings.

Summing Up

Choosing the right pickup truck isn't easy. It helps that few auto manufacturers sell them, but the blizzard of cab styles, drivetrains, trim levels and optional equipment lists can prove daunting. What's most important is to identify the truck class that will best serve your requirements while fitting into your budget, determine which model is most appealing from a design and equipment perspective, and then find that truck in dealership inventory or custom-order exactly what you want. We here at Edmunds are ready to assist you every step of the way.

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