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Buying a pickup truck: How to choose

Woman and man smiling with dog between them, sitting in the back of a pickup truck at the edge of a forest
AleksandarNakic/Getty Images
Woman and man smiling with dog between them, sitting in the back of a pickup truck at the edge of a forest
AleksandarNakic/Getty Images
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Trucks are complex. There are so many configurations, and the size and strength you need will depend entirely on how you plan to use yours.

Familiarize yourself with common features like powertrain, axles, cab size and towing capacity before heading to a dealership. Choosing a pickup truck is going to take research, but preparation will lead to an informed decision that fits your lifestyle and finances.

How much power do you need?

A truck with more horsepower, towing capacity and torque will cost you more. It’s not all about price, of course, but you should consider whether you actually need a high level of power before spending thousands of dollars on it. A diesel engine — which offers even more power — will also be a costly addition.

A V6 or V8 engine are more common and offer more power, but there are four-cylinder engines for lighter loads. If your biggest haul is for groceries, consider a more compact model that offers an automatic gas engine with good fuel efficiency. Less power may work better for you and your budget.

How much are you hauling?

A midsize truck is your best bet if you don’t plan on hauling trailers or big boats. They are more affordable and boast better driving quality than their full-size counterparts. Midsize trucks are suited for lighter loads rather than towing. And because of their lighter weight, you’ll also pay less for fuel.

Which means if you have something to tow, you should go for a full-size truck. There are light-duty and heavy-duty options for almost every full-size model out there. Naturally, trucks meant for light duty can haul less — but again, they offer more fuel efficiency because of their lighter weights.

And remember: Towing capacity and payload capacity are different. Towing is how much your truck can haul behind it. Payload is the amount it can handle in the bed. Even if you aren’t planning to strap a heavy-duty horse trailer to the back of your truck, make sure its payload meets your needs.

Do you need two- or four-wheel drive?

A truck with two-wheel drive will be less expensive and offer better fuel economy. You’ll be able to select either front- or rear-wheel drive. Whichever you choose, it’s best suited for staying on the road.

A truck with four-wheel drive is better suited to going off road and icy or slippery conditions, like on a boat ramp. You get better traction, but your truck won’t be as fuel efficient.

How much cab space do you need?

Cab space is likely one of the more important factors for casual truck drivers. And for most, a crew cab will make the most sense, even if it does mean spending more money.

  • Single cab: Single cabs are the classic two-door look. They typically only seat three people, but they do often allow for longer beds.
  • Extended cab: Extended cabs are basically a cab and a half. You’ll have two smaller doors and limited leg room in the back seat, but it’s a good compromise between the single and crew cab options.
  • Crew cab: Crew cabs are the four-door option that resembles a sedan or SUV. The space of a crew cab varies by model and trim, but they are the best choice if you have backseat passengers on a regular basis.

Fuel options

You are not limited to just gas or diesel. Companies like Ford are committed to offering more electric trucks in the coming years. But these are still relatively new options and might limit your payload or towing capacity.

Between gas and diesel, diesel engines are a little more fuel efficient. They also offer more power for working trucks. However, they’re also more expensive to buy and fuel.

For casual drivers, a gas engine may be best. They offer more versatility and a lower price tag than electric or diesel engines. You’re more likely to find them on the used market, too.

Long or short bed?

You will find that the longer your bed, the smaller your cab. So, if a crew cab is necessary, you will likely be stuck with a shorter bed. And if you need that longer bed, you may have to settle for a single or extended cab.

What you need to consider is how often you will be putting things in the bed. If your truck is mostly for looks — and there’s nothing wrong with that — a shorter bed will be easier to maneuver and park. It will likely also be more than enough space when you do need to haul something larger.

New or used?

New trucks will give you the chance to be specific about every aspect of your ride, both interior and exterior. It’s certainly a splurge — new trucks are expensive — but if you have a trim, technology or other features in mind, new is the way to go.

Conversely, a used truck is the more affordable choice. You may not be able to get the exact truck of your dreams, but you will avoid that new car depreciation. And if you only need something functional, there are older models on the market that are cheap and reliable.

It depends entirely on your priorities and finances. A new truck will be expensive but could be more fuel efficient or offer more tech. A used truck may be less fuel efficient, but the lower price point could make it cheaper to drive.

Manual or automatic?

This is more of a personal choice. There isn’t a huge difference as far as price between the two, although some trucks may come standard with one or the other. For city or suburban drivers, automatic offers an easier ride. But if you need more control for off-roading, manual transmission might suit you better.

Next steps

Once you have considered the bigger aspects of owning a truck, start looking into actual models and trims. This will give you a good idea of the price range you’ll be looking at. And when you know this, you can compare financing options to get you in the cab at a reasonable interest rate.