Light-duty pickup trucks can be used for a wide range of jobs, from hauling plywood, sheet rock, stone pavers, heavy tools, or ladders to pulling a Bobcat on a trailer or transporting crew over rugged off-road terrain. But selecting the right pickup truck is key to doing the job.
Whatever the job - within certain limits - chances are a pickup truck can be spec'ed to do it. The challenge is sorting through the various options available on the market today to select a truck that strikes the right balance between overall performance, hauling and/or towing capacity, fuel economy, and acquisition cost.
How do you choose a pickup that best fits your fleet's application - and budget?
Defining the Requirements: 8 Factors to Consider
The first step is to understand and define exactly what the pickup needs to do. Create a performance requirements worksheet that addresses these eight factors:
- Payload. What is the truck intended to haul? How much will the maximum load weigh?
- Trailering. Will the truck be hauling a trailer? What size? How much total weight will be towed, including the weight of the trailer and its contents?
- Bed size. How much cargo room will be needed to carry the load?
- Cargo management. How will the load be carried and secured?
- Crew capacity. How many people, including driver, will the truck need to carry?
- Annual miles. How many miles will the truck be operated per year?
- Driving conditions. Will the truck be used at primarily highway speeds or for inner-city stop-and-go type applications? Will the truck be at constant, diminishing, or minimal load? Will the truck be driven primarily in hilly or mountainous conditions or flat terrain?
- Off-road use. Does the truck need to travel off-road? If so, how often will you need off-road capabilities? How harsh are the conditions - e.g., mud, dirt roads, loose gravel, hilly terrain, or steep slopes?
Once the requirements have been defined, with a clear idea of the capabilities and capacities needed, you can then begin specifying the truck to do the job. Here is a 15-point checklist to help guide the process, ensuring the specs align with the fleet's requirements:
1. Pickup Truck Segment & Classification
There are two primary pickup segments: mid-size and full-size.
The mid-size segment covers trucks with gross vehicle weight ratings (GVWRs) ranging from 4,300 to 6,000 lbs. Examples of trucks in this class include the Ford Ranger, Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon, Dodge Dakota, Toyota Tacoma, and Nissan Frontier.
The full-size segment includes GVWRs from 6,400 to 13,300 lbs. and is further divided into three classes: ½-ton, ¾-ton and 1-ton pickups. These labels no longer accurately reflect the truck's payload capabilities (for example, today's ½-ton pickup offers a payload capacity closer to ¾-ton or 1,500 lbs.), but the industry continues to use these terms to demarcate the three classifications of full-size pickup.
What size truck works best for the fleet's application? Here's a breakdown for each segment and classification.
- Mid-size (GVWR: 4,300-6,010 lbs.) Application: The payload is less than 1,500 lbs. and/or the truck is hauling a small trailer with total weight below 5,000 lbs. Also the cargo does not require a cargo bed larger than 5-6 feet.
- Full-size ½-ton (GVWR: 6,400-8,200 lbs.) application: The payload is 1,500-2,000 lbs. and/or the trailer capacity needed is between 5,000 lbs. and 10,000 lbs. Gains are seen with a maximum bed length at eight feet, two feet longer than the largest mid-size truck bed, unless a crew cab is selected (four full doors), which limits bed length between 5.5 and 5.7 feet.
- Full-size ¾-ton (GVWR: 8,650-10,000 lbs.) application: The payload is 2,000-4,000 lbs. and/or the needed trailer capacity is up to 16,000 lbs. Maximum bed length is 8-feet, including crew cab configuration, unlike the ½-ton.
- Full-size 1-ton (GVWR: 9,900-13,300 lbs.) application: The payload is between 3,000 lbs. and 6,500 lbs. and/or hauling a trailer with a total weight up to 21,000 lbs. Maximum bed length is 8 feet, including crew cab configurations.
2. Engine Type and Size
Once the truck size has been selected, the engine options will have narrowed down.
- Mid-size trucks. If it's been determined a mid-size truck will do the job, there's the option of four-cylinder, V-6, and V-8 gasoline engines, depending on the manufacturer. Spec the smaller engine for light payload, non-towing applications. This will lower acquisition cost and offer optimal fuel economy. For greater hauling, towing capacity, and top-end speed, select among the larger engines.
- Full-size ½-ton. Options here include V-6 and V-8 gasoline engines and hybrid gasoline-electric (offered by Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra). As with the mid-size trucks, the V-6 typically offers the lowest acquisition cost and - except in the case of the hybrid - the best fuel economy. However, towing capacity is sacrificed, which increases substantially with a V-8. Consult the truck manufacturer on selecting the engine in its ½-ton lineup that best fits the fleet's towing, hauling, and fuel-economy objectives.
- Full-size ¾-ton and 1-ton. With the full-size, ¾-ton, and 1-ton there is the choice of either gasoline or diesel engine. Which is the right application?
The advantage of diesel, compared to the gasoline engine, is that it offers up to 30% better fuel economy and greater pulling power. However, the premium for the diesel option can be as much as $7,000-$8,000 higher than the gasoline engine-equipped truck.
Therefore, the truck would need to travel enough miles per year to realize sufficient fuel savings to recoup the higher initial cost of the diesel engine. The typical rule of thumb is 25,000-30,000 or more annual miles need to be accumulated for the diesel option to generate a reasonable payback.
Run the numbers based on current and projected fuel prices for both gas and diesel, the additional acquisition cost for the diesel engine option, estimated fuel economy for the gasoline and diesel engines, and annual miles to determine whether it makes financial sense to pay more for the diesel upfront.
Depending on the manufacturer and class, there may be only one engine option. For example, the 2011 Ram 3500 offers only the diesel engine, whereas with the Ram 2500 there is the choice of either gas or diesel.
Also, refer to your trailering requirements. If the truck needs to tow more than 15,000 lbs., chances are the diesel engine may be the only option for the job.
Manual or automatic transmission? Depending on the truck segment, class, and manufacturer, the decision may be made for you. For example, mid-size trucks typically are available in both manual and automatic. However, when you move up to full-size, most manufacturers offer only an automatic, ranging from 4-speed to 6-speed, depending on the engine selection. (One exception among full-size trucks: The Ram 3500 comes standard with a manual transmission.)
If there's a choice between manual or automatic, which is the best one for a particular application?
The typical advantages of manual transmissions include lower acquisition cost and better fuel economy. The downside is that not all drivers know how to operate a manual transmission, which could limit the pool of available drivers for that truck. Automatic transmission is easier to drive than manual, which expands the driver pool, and usually offers higher towing capacities.
4. Rear/Drive Wheel-Axle Ratio
Here's the typical rule of thumb: The higher the numerical ratio, the slower the gear will be. This higher ratio gives a truck greater pulling power, but since the engine must work harder to spin the driveshaft more times for each turn of the rear wheels, fuel economy is sacrificed.
The inverse also holds true. When the numerical ratio is lower, the available top-end speed increases. And, since the engine doesn't have to work as hard to turn the wheels faster, fuel economy improves. The downside is that pulling power diminishes.
In some cases, engine selection will dictate available drive-axle ratio. For example, the only drive-axle ratio available with the diesel engine for the Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD is the 3.73 gear. Chevrolet's gasoline engine options offer a wider range of axle ratios to choose from.
5. Pickup Box Size
Mid-size pickup beds range from 5.1 feet to 6.4-feet in length, depending on cab configuration. Full-size pickups typically offer three bed sizes up to 8.1-feet long, depending on cab configuration and truck manufacturer, for example:
- Standard bed: 6.3-6.6 feet.
- Long bed: 8.0-8.1 feet.
- Short bed: 5.5-5.7 feet (only available on ½-ton class, Crew Cab models).
What size bed will best carry a load? If hauling sheets of plywood, for example, the 8-foot-long bed is usually the best fit. However, with the longer beds, the truck's price increases and maneuverability is sacrificed (which impacts safety).
6. Two- or Four-Wheel Drive
Will the truck need to operate in off-road conditions? If so, how often would it be anticipated that the driver would have to engage the four-wheel drive for added traction?
These questions are important because the incremental cost for four-wheel drive can be as much as $4,000. Does the application warrant this extra cost? If so, then it's money well spent. If not, stick with two-wheel drive.
7. Rear Suspension
Why is the rear suspension important? What does it impact? What happens if the suspension is mismatched? If the truck is driven primarily in empty load situations but spec'd with a beefed up rear suspension designed for heavier loads or pulling a trailer, a rougher ride will be experienced when the truck is empty - and fleet most likely paid more upfront for the heavier-duty suspension.
On the other hand, if a "smooth ride" suspension is spec'd, but the truck is kept under constant heavy load or regularly pulls a trailer, there's a risk of creating premature maintenance issues and shortening the truck life.
8. Rear-Drive Axle Differential
The drive axle differential transmits power to the drive wheels while allowing them to rotate at different speeds (hence the term "differential"). The need for the wheels to turn at different speeds is required when turning corners, when the inner wheel travels a shorter distance than the outer wheel. The differential becomes especially important to counter slick situations (e.g., ice, water, or mud).
There are three types of differentials to consider:
- Open differential. The drive wheels both move at equal force - as long as both wheels remain in contact with the road and have traction. However, if one wheel slips on ice, for example, more torque is sent to the wheel that spins. If the slipping wheel completely loses traction, all power is sent to that wheel, and there is no forward momentum. This is typically the lowest cost option.
- Limited-slip differential. This is designed to "limit" the tendency of the open differential to send power to a wheel that lacks traction and redirects that power, to a degree, to the other wheel of the axle. Under normal operating conditions, this differential will send power to both wheels equally when traveling forward. However, when one wheel spins due to lack of traction, the differential will automatically provide torque to the other wheel with traction. It "limits" the loss of torque to a slipping wheel through various mechanisms, such as clutches, gears, and other methods, but it does not provide 100% lock-up of differential in extreme conditions.
- Locking differential. This offers the best traction in slick or off-road conditions, even in two-wheel drive mode. It uses a mechanism that "locks" left and right wheels and turns them at the same speed regardless of how little traction a slipping wheel has. This means traction can be sent to a wheel that may be firmly on the ground while the other wheel is completely off the ground. The incremental cost for a locking differential is approximately $300, depending on the manufacturer.
9. Cab Configuration
This determines the number of crew that can safely be carried in the vehicle. The actual terms used for each configuration differ from manufacturer to manufacturer (See sidebar: "Cab Configuration Nomenclature"), but here's a breakdown of each of the three configurations, using generic terms:
- Regular/Standard Cab. One bench or two bucket seats. There's no second-row seating and (usually) no substantial storage behind the seat.
- Extended Cab. Truck has either jump seat or full bench seat in the rear. There's limited legroom compared to the larger crew cabs. The rear doors often open toward the rear.
- Crew Cab. Full-size, second-row seating with full four doors that swing open toward the front. For mid-size and full-size ½-ton pickups, bed length is sacrificed for the crew cab. When moving up to the full-size ¾-ton and 1-ton models, there are no bed-size limitations with the crew cab.
10. Seat Material
Vinyl, cloth, or leather seats? The answer impacts driver comfort, acquisition cost, and seat durability.
- Vinyl seats. Vinyl seats are the lowest cost option, built for durability and standard on most work truck configurations. The downside is for trucks that operate in extreme heat environments where the vinyl seats can get uncomfortably hot for drivers and crew.
- Cloth seats. Cloth seats help dissipate extreme temperatures and are often more comfortable than vinyl but are also more difficult to keep clean, as dirt can get ground into the fabric.
- Leather seats. Leather seats are usually reserved for a high-level supervisor or company executive pickups. This is the highest cost option but often offers maximum comfort with features including heated seats and lumbar support. It's also the least durable in harsh work conditions, susceptible to heat cracking and tears.
11. Seat Configuration
Bench or bucket seats? This answer impacts crew capacity. A full-size regular cab pickup with a bench seat, for example, provides three-person capacity; buckets only offer two-person. However, the advantage of bucket seats is that they offer seat adjustment and other comfort features that the bench seat often does not.
12. Comfort and Convenience Options
In most cases, air conditioning is standard, so the focus here is on options such as power windows, power door locks, and cruise control, which usually don't come standard on work truck packages. The incremental cost can be a few hundred dollars for these options but may be worth it, depending on the application. Will the truck be driven long distances, primarily at highway speeds? If so, cruise control may be worth the cost to reduce driver fatigue. If there's concern that drivers might forget to manually lock passenger doors (and leave the truck vulnerable to theft), then power door locks may be worth it.
13. Side-view Mirrors
If the truck is used for towing, consider extendable mirrors to give maximum visibility around the trailer. If the truck is being operated in harsh winter conditions, look into heated mirrors to expedite defrosting.
14. Hitch Type
Will the truck be pulling a trailer? If so, how much weight and what type of trailer? The answers to these questions will help determine the right hitch. Here are typical hitch options for pickups:
- Receiver hitch. This is the most common hitch option, and is located below the rear bumper, often with a ball or heavy-duty pintle hook attached to it. This hitch allows a trailer to be pulled without impacting cargo capacity in the pickup bed.
- Gooseneck ball hitch. This hitch is attached to the frame near the rear axle.
- Fifth wheel. This hitch is a large horseshoe shaped plate, located at the center of the bed. The fifth-wheel hitch offers maximum towing capacity.
15. Cargo Management
How will the payload be carried and secured? Will you need toolboxes to organize loose parts and tools? What about an aluminum or fiberglass topper that covers the entire bed to protect equipment and materials from weather or theft? Will you be hauling large ladders or long pipe materials requiring an overhead rack system? The answers to these questions will dictate the accessories needed to safely transport cargo and make it easily accessible at the jobsite.
The Bottom Line
The key to selecting the right pickup is to know exactly what you need the truck to do - from payload to towing to mileage to terrain to crew capacity. When the time is invested upfront to define the truck performance requirements and follow these 15 points to guide truck selection, you'll gain peace of mind and confidence that the new truck will do the job.
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