Buying a pickup truck

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Everyone loves having a friend with a pickup truck. Whether moving furniture, pulling a trailer or hauling drywall for that basement reno, a pickup is often the best way to get things done.

But if you’re thinking about leaving the realm of truck borrower and becoming a bona fide owner, there are a few things you need to learn. Stepping onto a dealer lot unprepared can be like visiting a country without knowing the language — payload capacity, tongue weight and GVWR are just some of the jargon you may hear tossed around.

Finding the right pickup requires knowing exactly how you plan to use it. Misjudging your needs (or considering only your wants) leads to a classic new buyer error.

“They haven’t figured out what it is they actually need, so they buy something that won’t work for them,” says Steven Patton, commercial sales specialist with Erinwood Ford in Mississauga, Ont. For example, if you’re looking for a truck on which to mount a snow plow, a light-duty model isn’t going to cut it, no matter how tempting the sales price.

To help get you started, we’ve put together a list of eight basic questions to ask yourself that’ll get you out of the showroom and out on the road.

1. How much power do you need?
Do you need to pull a 30-foot fully loaded trailer? Then you’ll probably need a one-ton model. If the heaviest load you’re planning to carry is a week’s worth of groceries, a compact model will probably suffice (or given gas prices, a pickup may not be the best choice at all.)

You’ll find four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines in compact trucks. Full-size trucks offer more variety, with six-cylinders, V-8s and V-10s for heavier jobs.

If you’re driving light loads, choose an engine with less horsepower. Towing requires greater horsepower and a heavier-duty suspension.

2. How much are you carrying?
This is especially important if you’re pulling a trailer. Adding up the total weight of occupants, cargo, additional options and equipment (such as a roof rack or snowplow) plus the tongue weight (the weight of the trailer tongue that is carried on the hitch ball — about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of a loaded trailer weight) gives you the payload weight.

You’ll also need to know the maximum trailer weight, which is the weight your truck can pull on top of the cargo weight. Maximum trailer weight is defined as the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR, or the maximum weight of a fully loaded trailer) and the truck payload less the tongue weight.

3. Do you need 2WD or 4WD?
Will you be driving city streets or muddy, unpaved back roads? While two-wheel drive (either front- or rear-wheel drive) is cheaper to buy and better on gas, four-wheel drive (or four by four) is a good idea for off-roading or slippery conditions, like on a boat ramp. You get better traction but less fuel economy.

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4. How many people will you carry?
Is this a truck for you and your dog or will you be transporting the family or even a crew? While a standard cab has a bucket seats for three, an extended cab has jump seats or a bench seat in the back, while a crew cab has a full second row of seats with two full sets of doors.

5. Long or short?
The type of cargo and your towing needs will also determine the bed length, which ranges from five feet (short box) to six feet (standard box) to eight feet long (long box). If you’re planning on parallel parking in the city, opt for a short or standard box.

6. Do you want manual or automatic?
Most trucks offer both manual and automatic transmissions. The choice is largely personal, though some engines require one or the other.

7. Gas or diesel?
Diesel engines are a little more fuel-efficient than gas models, they work harder and are tougher. Muscle comes at a price — new diesel engines can cost $10,000 more than a gas engine and may be more in repairs and maintenance. But given the demands on your truck, you may not have a choice.

8. New or used?
While your budget may make this decision for you, there are benefits and disadvantages to both. With a new truck, you can order the specifications you want, you a get full factory warranty and maintenance is minimal the first year. That said, new pickups can set you back big bucks, insurance costs are high and electronic components can make repairs costlier.

Used pickups are plentiful and are significantly cheaper than new models. Older technology is sometimes easier to diagnose and cheaper to repair and parts are more accessible. But used vehicles are often sold without warranty, you can’t be sure of a vehicle’s previous drive history (though searching the VIN number on a service such as
Carfax can provide you with the vehicle’s history), and maintenance costs are generally higher.

If you opt for a used truck, it’s a good idea to have your mechanic give it a once-over before you sign on the dotted line. “You get that professional eye saying, ‘Here’s something I see on this vehicle that can potentially save you money down the road,'” says Mike Adema of Jake’s Auto Service Ltd. in Georgetown, Ont. “All vehicles have good and bad qualities. It’s about trying to match the vehicle to what the consumer expectations are.”

Finding a match
The bottom line is it helps to work with a sales professional who knows trucks — if you’re buying through a dealer, ask for the truck manager or a truck specialist.

If you’re considering a private sale, you have to do your homework. While enthusiast sites such as will give you lots of information on maintenance, repairs and performance, you have to figure out whether you’re reading fact or opinion. Be sure to vet your findings with a knowledgeable mechanic.

“Trucks have a lot of specifications,” says Sid Skeffington, a sales manager with Dartmouth Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Nova Scotia. “There’s a wide variety of reasons as to why people buy trucks. You have to suit them all a bit differently.”

Fiona Wagner is a freelance writer (and new used truck owner) in Georgetown, Ont.