pickup trucks are like people. they come in a variety of sizes and offer a diverse range of abilities. obviously, the biggest difference is that you have a lot more control over the truck in your life than the people you encounter on a daily basis. jokes aside, the demand for these versatile vehicles has been steadily increasing for the better part of a decade, and pickup-truck sales just surpassed passenger cars for the first month ever.
while the current economic uncertainty and new incentives are at least partly responsible for this, trends prior to the covid-19 pandemic suggest that truck sales won't be slowing down any time soon. so, for those looking to take the leap and invest in buying a brand-new pickup, we've compiled this guide that aims to help shoppers navigate what can be an intimidating decision due to the sheer variety of choices. (if you want to jump straight to car and driver's favorites, check out our best pickup trucks of 2019–2020.) for the sake of mainstream consumers and our own sanity, we're not going to discuss commercial trucks (a.k.a. chassis cabs) or go deep into the weeds on technical specifications.
haulin' on a budget
the first thing anyone shopping for a new pickup truck will notice is that, in most cases, they're considerably more expensive than the average passenger car or suv. take the cheapest full-size gmc sierra 1500, which currently starts at $31,195. that kind of base price is for just the stripped-down, rear-wheel-drive base model that has the simplest of features. this is a primer for the pickup pricing pyramid. the cheapest version of most trucks—except those such as the ford f-150 raptor—are bare-bones models that are mainly geared toward tradespeople or commercial fleets. conversely, a fully loaded ford super duty f-450 limited can approach $100,000. that's quite the range.
while that doesn't mean base models aren't perfect for people on a modest budget, it's important that shoppers understand how broad the pickup-truck price spectrum can be before starting their search. simply selecting popular options such as all-wheel drive and a crew-cab body style can substantially inflate a truck's sticker price. for example, even the least expensive sierra that comes with those two options costs $40,795—that's an increase of almost 31 percent compared with the base model. the difference in prices isn't always that drastic, but you still have to be prepared to pay more for a truck than a car or suv.
what size is right for you?
everyone can identify a pickup truck, right? the open cargo bed attached to their rear ends is usually a dead giveaway. however, identifying the two size categories (mid-size and full-size) and the two separate classifications (light-duty and heavy-duty) can be more difficult to the uninitiated. these different variations also come with their own set of compromises, many of which are not immediately obvious unless you're already familiar with their unique attributes.
mid-size trucks are the smallest version of this american species, with most people probably recognizing nameplates such as the ford ranger and toyota tacoma. while mid-sizers have smaller cabs and cargo beds and can't tow as much as full-size pickups, their lower asking prices and smaller proportions make them more accessible and easier to maneuver in tight spaces, such as parking lots and various off-road situations. they're also easier to get in and out of than their larger counterparts and they're usually more fuel efficient.
full-size trucks are more diverse than mid-size ones, mainly because most of them are offered in light-duty and heavy-duty variants. while they're classified separately and have vastly different capabilities, automakers will share some parts and design cues between both duties. for example, the light-duty chevy silverado 1500 has virtually the same interior as the heavy-duty silverado 2500hd and 3500hd. the heavier the classification the better the truck is at towing and hauling, but as those ratings rise the truck's driving behavior and ride quality typically declines. that makes light-duty pickups the more practical choice for most folks, and their impressive capabilities ensure they're one of the most versatile type of vehicle you can buy.
the long and short about cab sizes and bed lengths
there are three main cab sizes when it comes to pickup trucks. the most basic is the regular cab (a.k.a. the single cab). this configuration only has two doors and usually can fit up to three passengers. the next size up is the extended cab, which includes a back seat and smaller rear doors. the biggest and most popular size cab is the crew cab. with four doors and the most spacious back seat available, this configuration helps optimize a truck's practicality. while full-size crew-cab models have limousine-like back seats, mid-size versions have varying degrees of passenger space in the rear. for example, the chevy colorado's crew cab has a back seat that feels like a small sedan's whereas the honda ridgeline's rear quarters are more comparable with a mid-size crossover's.
while the ridgeline is an exception because it only comes with one cab size and bed length, almost every other pickup truck has multiple cargo bed options (the jeep gladiator is also not one of them). trucks with more than one bed size will always have a short bed and a long bed. sometimes there's a third size in between those two. the shorter one is often called a standard bed and typically measures between 5 and 6.5 feet. long beds also come in a variety of sizes and can measure up to 8 feet. however, as with short beds, it's important to know that not all cab and bed sizes are compatible and that the available configurations will vary among specific truck models and trim levels.
picking the right pickup powertrain platter
not only is it fun to say "pickup powertrain platter," it's also accurate, because nearly every truck currently on sale has two or more engine options. while some purists believe that real pickup trucks only have a v-8 and four-wheel drive, the truth is that technology has come a long way in recent years and even smaller four-cylinder engines can make substantial power. there's also the fact that not one single mid-size truck is available with eight testosterone-pumping cylinders. so, we guess that makes them all fake trucks, right? moving on. the fact is that all these different engine sizes and their accompanying transmissions (together they're part of what's called the powertrain) can make the pickup-truck buying process even more complicated.
full-size trucks have the most diverse choices. while the toyota tundra and nissan titan make things simple by offering a single v-8 powertrain, other light-duty pickups—such as the gmc sierra 1500 and the ford f-150—have five (!) different powertrain options. the hierarchy can get convoluted here, because the engine size and pricing don't follow the same logic across brands. for example, the base engine on the sierra is a turbocharged 2.7-liter inline-four-cylinder, and the base engine on the f-150 is a 3.3-liter v-6. conversely, the top engine on the sierra is a 6.2-liter v-8 and the top engine on the f-150 is a twin-turbo 3.5-liter v-6. see? it can get confusing. so, we suggest prioritizing what you primarily want to use the truck for before buying one.
generally, the smaller the engine, the better the fuel economy. however, don't forget that these engines typically have to work harder than larger options to move the additional weight, which may affect fuel economy. those who plan on towing a lot will want to look into the more potent engines as well as the diesel options that are offered on many models, even mid-size trucks such as the gmc canyon. diesel powertrains are one of the more expensive options, but they tend to be more fuel efficient and have substantial amounts of torque that make towing easier. the diesel-versus-gas debate is particularly noteworthy when it comes to heavy-duty trucks, which have fewer powertrain choices than their light-duty counterparts. of course, the cost of diesel fuel and other maintenance costs unique to these oil-burning engines have to be factored in, too.
know your limits, as in towing and payload
we saved the most advanced truck topic for last. although we don't want to get too complex, there are certain things that must be discussed when talking about a pickup truck's payload and towing capacity. both ratings are influenced by the size and classification of the truck in question, which means bigger and heavier trucks can pull more weight behind them and haul more pounds in their cargo bed. obscure variables such as the available axle ratios, gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr), and gross combined weight rating (gcwr) also impact the final figures. higher axle ratios equal higher tow ratings. the gvwr is the maximum allowable weight of the vehicle and its passengers and cargo. combine that amount with the maximum weight of a trailer and its cargo, and you have the truck's gcwr. confused yet? we hope not.
automakers love to advertise the maximum capacities of their pickups, especially heavy-duty ones, but these ratings almost always specifically apply to unpopular configurations and unconventional towing methods. for example, the ram 3500 can tow up to a staggering 35,100 pounds, but only if the trailer is connected via a bed-mounted fifth-wheel hitch and the truck is the single-cab, dual-rear-wheel, rear-wheel-drive version. the same logic applies to payload capacities. that's one of the reasons why people who plan to regularly tow or haul need to consider the body-style configuration and mechanical specifications before making a final decision. it's also a good idea to overestimate the necessary capacities to avoid potentially unsafe conditions.