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How to Pick the Best Pickup Truck for Your Lifestyle and Hauling Needs

How to pick the best pickup truck for your lifestyle and hauling needs header

By Andy Jensen on August 18, 2021 in Life Hacks

If you want to cart garden supplies, tow a trailer, or amp up your tailgating setup, you may be in the market for a new pickup truck. However, purchasing a truck is more complicated than buying a car because consumers have more to think about than trim level and color. From horsepower and engine configuration to towing capacity and drivetrain type, here’s everything you need to consider to choose the best pickup truck for your lifestyle.

Truck Size

First, it helps to know what size pickup you’re in the market for. Pickups come in three sizes to suit different lifestyles and needs.

Compact

Car manufacturers dropped exciting news in 2021 about the return of the compact pickup truck, a market segment mostly missing from the North American market since the disappearance of the compact Ford Ranger in 2011. Compact trucks offer all the utility of an open-bed pickup, with the efficiency and easy driving characteristics of a car. This class delivers four-cylinder gas savings. However, the limited towing capabilities mean you may have to look elsewhere for getting your boat to the lake. Check out the compacts if you would prefer the handling of a car, have a tight parking space, value your gas money, or simply want a new truck at the lowest price. Skip the compacts if you need to tow or fill the bed with heavy cargo, or if you need maximum off-road ground clearance. The compact class for 2022 includes the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz.

Midsize

Midsize trucks may be the Goldilocks of pickups. “Not too big, not too small, but just right,” the midsize pickup offers more work capability than a compact, but also more fuel efficiency and better urban manners than a full-size truck. This size excels at being a “weekend warrior,” a truck that is easy to live with on an everyday commute, but also shines on the weekends when you go camping, off-roading, help a friend move, or load a dirt bike in the back. Consider a midsize truck if you need to tow 7,000 pounds, regularly drive on rough roads, or desire a full-size truck without the drawbacks. Options in the midsize class include the Nissan Frontier, Ford Ranger (since 2019), Chevrolet Colorado, Jeep Gladiator, and Honda Ridgeline.

Full-size

Full-size trucks have also made headlines recently, but not for good news. With the average purchase price now over $50,000, some truck buyers are being priced out of the market. Why is this happening? Originally just for work, full-size pickups were once cheaper than your average sedan. It’s been a few decades since we had that market, and full-size pickups are now the family car, commuter vehicle, and status symbol. Horsepower and torque have doubled since the 1990s, massively increasing payload and towing abilities, while also increasing gas mileage, decreasing emissions, adding safety and technology features, luxury, and comfort, all in a bigger-than-the-competition size. All these perks add to the price tag but create seriously competent do-everything vehicles. Shop for a full-size if you regularly haul large cargo such as drywall, need maximum towing ability, or want one vehicle for work and play. Examples of full-size pickups are the Ram 1500, Nissan Titan, Chevrolet Silverado, and the best-selling Ford F-150.

Chassis Class

You may find it surprising to learn that chassis class is a more important decision than size. People used to describe truck classes by their payload capacity. Back in the 1960s, you could head to a dealership to look at the ½-ton, ¾-ton, and 1-ton trucks. Each class reflected how much weight you could shove in the cabin and cargo bed. For example, a ½ truck could haul 1,000 pounds of passengers and their cargo. This classification gave shoppers clarity on which truck they should buy, but the system became confusing over time as trucks proved more capable. Today’s ½ ton trucks can deliver more than 3,000 pounds of cargo, which would technically mean you could call them 1½ ton trucks. Instead of changing the payload stats, manufacturers now list their trucks by light duty, medium duty, and heavy duty.

Light duty

The light-duty class is the modern version of the ½-ton class. You can expect this class to haul your motorcycles or perhaps a car on a trailer or small camper. Varying option packages can increase work capability through cargo management or may add to passenger comfort through heated seats. While sometimes selling to fleets for full-time work duty, this class may be better for getting the crew and their tools to the job site rather than towing all the building materials they need. Examples include the GMC Sierra, Toyota Tundra, and Nissan Titan.

Medium duty

Medium duty trucks are a step up in work capability, thanks to a more robust chassis construction, engines with more torque, and a suspension designed to handle heavier loads. They take a hit to ride quality, becoming harsher over bumps as capacity increases. Popular models are the Ford F-250, Ram 2500, and Nissan Titan XD.

Heavy duty

Noticeably more expensive are the heavy-duty trucks. You know these as the Chevrolet Silverado 3500, Ram 3500, and Ford F-350. What you get is a heavy-duty chassis and even more powerful engines for extreme levels of towing. For example, a Ram 3500 weighs almost 7,000 pounds and can handle more than 6,500 pounds in the bed or tow 37,100 pounds when properly equipped.

Cab Size

It’s time to think about the cab. To make sure your passengers are comfortable, match your cab size to your crew size.

Regular cab

The regular cab is getting harder to find these days. A regular cab used to be the standard cab, and it’s still sometimes called that. It’s a two-door truck model, with the rear window and cargo bed directly behind the seats. The regular cab is still available on the Chevy Silverado (and its twin, the GMC Sierra), and the Ford F-150. Expect the base model or work-truck package as standard with a regular cab, as even selecting the just-off-base-model Lariat bumps the F-150 to an extended cab.

Extended Cab

The extended cab is exactly what it sounds like: a standard cab extended a few inches to allow more room behind the driver. Rear passengers can access this space by folding the front seat forward and climbing in. The rear seats are small and sometimes they’re fold-down, jump-seat style chairs. Modern extended cabs, depending on the manufacturer, can feature smaller front- or rear-hinged doors that allow more access to the back of the cab. The base model Ram Tradesman offers an extended cab.

Double Cab

The double cab is the main option for a four-door truck that transports real-sized people. Sometimes called a quad cab for its four doors, each passenger gets the convenience of a forward-opening door. However, the rear doors are smaller than the front doors. Cabin space, especially legroom, is greatly improved compared to the extended cab, but these models are still more appropriate as work trucks than as family haulers. The Tundra SR comes in a double cab.

Crew Cab

If you want maximum passenger comfort and space, look to the crew cab. A crew cab offers four doors of equal size, which means getting into the back of a crew-cab truck is as easy as getting into the front. The rear legroom is good enough for road trips and the tallest passengers. Toyota calls this model the CrewMax on the Tundra, which is apt marketing.

Bed Size

Picking a bed size for your truck may not be as fun as trying out kings and queens at the mattress store, but it’s important to make sure your truck has the hauling capacity you need. Trucks generally come with three bed options.

Long (8 feet)

Carmakers originally designed trucks for work, and while their interiors have gone plush and soft, the cargo box hasn’t forgotten its purpose. A “long bed” means the bed is 8 feet long. This size is handy for carrying loads of 2x4s or drywall from your local home-improvement store.

Short (Under 8 feet)

Short beds are under 8 feet, but longer than 6 feet. They’re less common on work trucks because tradespeople need hauling space. But a bed this size can still haul everything from dirt bikes to mulch, cement, and even landscape timbers if you leave the tailgate down.

Shorter (Under 6 feet)

Small trucks such as the older Subaru Baja and Chevy Avalanche all have a bed shorter than 6 feet. Despite the smaller bed, owners love these old trucks because they can still get the job done. A washer/dryer combo may not fit in a crossover, but you’ll have no trouble fitting it into the back of a shorter bed truck.

Engine Configurations

Ready to look under the hood? The engine configuration impacts the available horsepower, torque, and the fuel economy. Modern pickup trucks have one of three engine configurations.

I4

I4 is shorthand for inline four-cylinder. These engines have four cylinders where the magic of internal combustion happens. As the spark plug ignites the mixture of fuel and air, the force moves the piston down in the cylinder, which eventually transfers that movement to rotate the wheels. The more of each cylinder you have, generally speaking, the more horsepower and torque you have, at the cost of fuel efficiency. The inline four cylinder’s strengths are in its small size; the row of only four cylinders means it fits under the hood of small cars such as the Honda Civic, or small trucks such as the Maverick.

V6

This engine configuration has two more cylinders. If you were looking at a hypothetical V6 pulled out of an engine bay, you would see three cylinders on each side of the engine, connected by a central crankshaft at the bottom of the V. This design typically offers more horsepower and torque than a four cylinder, thanks to 50 percent more cylinders. But it’s a more compact and shorter design than an inline six-cylinder engine. It comes with minor drawbacks. Because it’s a wider engine design, it’s slightly harder to perform some maintenance such as changing spark plugs. The V6 can be as powerful as a V8 or as efficient as an I4, so some buyers consider it the perfect truck engine.

V8

Similar in design to the V6, the V8 has the same design configuration with two more cylinders. Think of it as two inline four-cylinder engines connected by a crankshaft in the center. That’s a simplification, but it’s the idea behind the V8. With twice as many cylinders as an I4, you’ll notice dramatically more horsepower and torque, which delivers higher towing and hauling abilities. The downside? More cylinders mean you’ll need more fuel, which is why a V8 doesn’t have the gas mileage of an I4.

While other engine configurations exist, they’re rare and absent from the modern truck market. Today’s V4s are only found in motorcycles, gas I6s are usually for long-hood sporty cars, and V10s are too thirsty for modern trucks. The I6 diesel is still available in modern trucks, which we’ll discuss more below.

Axle Ratio

Remember your eighth-grade math lesson about axle ratios? Neither do we, but it’s important to know about an axle ratio when buying a pickup. An axle ratio looks something like 3.23:1. What this ratio means is that for every turn of the engine (or the driveshaft that connects the transmission to the axles), the engine will rotate 3.23 times before the wheels spin one full rotation.

Why is the axle ratio important? Just as fractions are useful in the real world while cooking, ratios come in handy when you want to configure a truck for heavy hauling. Ratios adjust hauling power through a set of gears inside the differential. By swapping out the gears for a different set, manufacturers can offer several axle ratios for the same truck. Which one should you get? It depends on what you’re looking for. An economical cruiser on the highway should have an axle ratio around 3.21:1. If you want to pull a boat off a wet launch, you may need a 4.10:1 or higher.

Fuel Choices

Fuel type matters, as it directly impacts your wallet and where you can fill up. Here are the types of power you can choose from.

Gasoline

You’re probably used to this type of fuel. Gasoline is a refined petrochemical mix that combines with oxygen to burn inside an engine’s combustion chamber. As the most popular form of personal vehicle fuel, it has some advantages. It’s affordable even with today’s prices, and widely available with more than 127,000 fuel stations in the USA. The downside of gasoline is air pollution. Fortunately, various factors such as truck size and gear ratios can increase your fuel efficiency.

Diesel

Diesel engines are commonly found in delivery trucks, construction and farm equipment, military and seagoing vehicles, and even some pickup trucks. Although it’s not as popular as gas due to the higher cost of diesel engines, diesel has advantages. Diesel is a byproduct of gasoline distillation, it’s made differently than gasoline, and the engines operate differently as well. Due to compression ignition (igniting the fuel and air mixture by compression instead of a spark plug), diesel engines are incredibly durable and can last several hundred thousand miles without major repairs. Diesel trucks used to smoke and make a clattering noise, but now they’re known for their huge towing abilities and impressive fuel mileage (although don’t expect to get both benefits at the same time).

Hybrid

Hybrid cars have been popular for a while now, thanks to models such as the Toyota Prius where an electric motor and a gas engine work together for impressive fuel economy. Truck manufacturers tried hybrids a few times in the last two decades, but the resulting trucks were expensive and not that efficient. Ford is innovating the modern hybrid truck, introducing the F-150 PowerBoost Hybrid in 2021 and the Maverick Hybrid in 2022. These trucks offer impressive acceleration while also delivering hybrid-typical gas mileage. The F-150 goes more than 600 miles on one tank, while the base model Maverick will reward you with 40 miles per gallon, which used to be economy-car territory.

Electric

Yup, the electric vehicle trend has officially come to the pickup truck market with exciting new offerings from multiple companies. Like your average EV car, you can cheaply and conveniently charge EV pickups at home overnight, leaving you a full “tank” every time you get in the cab. Benefits of EV trucks include tons of instant torque, fewer parts under the hood to maintain, less vibration and noise, and lower operating costs. The disadvantages? At the time of this writing, electric trucks aren’t on the market quite yet. Plus, when they arrive, they’ll have limited range compared to gas and diesel trucks, especially because the country’s charging infrastructure isn’t yet as robust as the fuel infrastructure. The EV trucks getting the most hype right now are the Ford F-150 lightning, GMC Hummer EV, and Tesla Cybertruck.

Drivetrains

“Drivetrain” is the term for all the components that transfer engine movement to get a vehicle in motion, including the driveshafts, differentials, and axles. When shopping for trucks, drivetrain almost always refers to the selection of two-wheel drive versus four-wheel drive.

2WD

In a standard two-wheel-drive (2WD) truck, the engine transfers power through the transmission to the driveshaft, which heads straight back below the bed to the differential and gears. The driveshaft transfers rotational movement to the axles and thus the rear wheels. While 2WD is the base model drivetrain, it has an advantage over 4WD because it has fewer parts. Two-wheel-drive trucks are lighter and often achieve higher gas mileage than the same 4WD trucks. This slight decrease in weight also allows a slightly higher towing capacity for 2WD trucks. If you only travel paved streets, 2WD may be for you.

4WD

Four-wheel drive has the same drivetrain parts as 2WD but adds a transfer case after the transmission. The transmission and transfer case, plus a driveshaft running forward, connect the front and rear wheels to engine power, making 4WD possible. 4WD has the weight penalty mentioned above, but it also gains a key advantage in low-speed grip. While highway hauling, you won’t notice the difference between 2WD and 4WD. However, you’ll want 4WD if you tow in slippery conditions, for instance, if you need to pull a boat out of a lake or tow a trailer out of deep mud.

Trim Levels

Once you’ve considered all the other options, it’s time to think about details. You have four options when it comes to trim level.

Base

Want to spend as little as possible on your new truck? Just like Meghan Trainor, you should be all about that base. This stripped version doesn’t have leather, high-tech connectivity options, or fancy trailer management systems. What you get is the lowest-power engine available, basic-looking painted steel wheels, and black-plastic side mirrors, bumpers, and grille. It may not be a show truck, but it can mostly get the job done. Popular with contractors and fleets, look for base models such as the Ford F-150 XL, Ram 1500 Tradesman, and Chevrolet Silverado Work Truck.

Mid-range

Mid-range trucks are more popular than the base models. With popular option groups adding navigation, stereo, and infotainment system upgrades just off the base model trucks, the true mid-range trims add heated and cooled seats, large touchscreen displays, and unique wheels and badging. The mid-range is more of an everyday truck, with options that make it more convenient or a nicer ride.

Off-road

Are you into camping or hiking, or do you work on muddy or washed-out rural roads? If so, look to the enthusiast's favorite off-road package. These feature many off-road-ready parts, and they often look like already souped-up, owner-customized trucks. Expect high-travel shocks and springs for clearing deep holes, skid plates and guards for protecting the undercarriage from rocks, and oil coolers and extra lighting so the off-road fun doesn’t end. Look out for the Nissan Frontier PRO-4X, Ford F-150 Raptor, and Chevrolet Colorado ZR2.

Luxury

If you regularly haul your family or spend above-average time in your truck, you owe it to yourself and your passengers to look into luxury trim levels in today’s pickups. Forty years ago, you had to option air conditioning in a truck, and it was impossible to find leather seats. Now, look to the Ford F-150 Platinum or Limited trims, the GMC Sierra Denali, Toyota Tundra 1784 Edition, and Ram 1500 Limited. These packages come at a price (F-150 Limited starts at $71,000), but you get expensive features, including 21-inch or larger chrome wheels, power tailgate, dual-panel sunroof, leather and woodgrain interiors with chrome accents, impressive sound systems, and power-retractable running boards.

Conclusion

Pickup trucks have come a long way in the past 50 years. While people once thought of trucks as work vehicles, now they appeal to a wide range of demographics including families, RVers, weekend warriors, and adventure seekers of all kinds. They make up five of the nation’s top-10 bestselling vehicles. If you’re in the market for a pickup truck, use this guide to choose everything from size to drivetrain type to trim level. Then get ready to enjoy the ride.

Andy Jensen is a consultant for Say Insurance. He's an automotive enthusiast writer specializing in new and used models, industry tech and trends, and the car culture that surrounds it all. After receiving a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma, he decided to write about cars instead of getting a real job. He’s written for Jaguar, Volvo, Ford, Advance Auto Parts, Haynes Manuals, and others. His project car probably isn’t running.

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