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Buying a pickup truck is complex. There are so many configurations, and the size and strength you need will depend entirely on how you plan to use your consumer pickup.
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.
1. Decide how much power you need
A truck with more horsepower, towing capacity and torque will cost you more. It’s not all about price, of course, but when buying a pickup, 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 is more common and offers 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.
To get an idea of how engines affect price, compare the MSRPs for these trucks with different engines, as listed by Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds:
|2023 Ford Ranger SuperCab XL||V4||$32,540|
|2023 Ford F-150 Regular Cab XL||V6||$41,795|
|2023 Ford F-150 Raptor R||V8||$109,145|
You might also see stats about axle ratios expressed as decimals, such as 3.73 or 3.73:1. This means the driveshaft would turn 3.73 times for every turn of the wheel. This ratio is important because a higher number means more towing capacity but less fuel efficiency.
2. Assess how much you’ll be 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.
This 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.
For example, the Honda Ridgeline can tow up to 5,000 pounds, the 2023 Ford Ranger tows 7,500 pounds and the Ford Super Duty offers a 30,000-pound conventional tow rating.
Protip: You also might want to get a tow rating over what you expect to tow. Kelly Blue Book recommends keeping your loads to 10% below the maximum towing capacity so that miscalculations or shifting loads don’t damage the truck.
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.
3. Decide if 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.
4. Choose a cab and bed size
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 legroom 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.
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.
Consider 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 make your truck easier to maneuver and park.
5. Pick a fuel type
You have three main options when it comes to fuel.
Electric: Companies like Ford are committed to offering more electric trucks. While you free yourself from the gas pump, these are still relatively new options and might limit your payload or towing capacity. These trucks are also expensive. Starting prices for newer models of electric truck prices from KBB include:
- 2023 Ford F-150 Lightning: $61,869
- 2023 Rivian R1T: $74,800
- 2023 GMC Hummer EV Pickup: $100,395 starting price
Gas: 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. However, they may be a little less fuel efficient than diesel.
Diesel: 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.
6. Decide between new and used
New or used: It’s the eternal question of car shopping.
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, looking at reviews and getting the vehicle inspected can help you find a reliable ride.
To break down the expense of a new truck vs. a used truck, we looked at both a used Ford F-150 XLT SuperCrew and a new one. KBB lists fair market value for the 2018 model at between $29,358 and $33,477, while the MSRP for the 2023 model is $49,458.
7. Look into trim options
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 when buying a pickup. However, be aware that getting very specific with trim options may pose a challenge, and you may need to special order from the factory.
8. Start shopping for a lender
Because trucks are more pricey than smaller vehicles, you might want a lender to help you afford the truck. You can look for auto loans to eventually own the vehicle or leases to let you drive it car for a few years. Check out our guide on how to get the best auto loan rates.
Buying a truck can actually be a fun process. You get to figure out exactly what you want in a truck, from towing capacity to trim to fuel type. And you might find out you qualify for a loan that helps you finally afford that EV or Super Duty diesel you’ve been eyeing. If you want to keep the process less expensive, you can also look into used vehicles.