Choose the Best Pickup Truck for Your Needs

Your next truck is an important investment. Check out our expert advice on how to choose the best pickup truck for you.

Ford pickup

The country pickup is the workhorse of the farm.

Photo by Bruce W. Smith

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Owning a pickup in the rural area where I grew up in southwestern Oregon was like having a wheelbarrow in the toolshed: Every family had one. My dad’s was a two-door, long-bed that served our family well for some 25 years.

On the weekends, Dad’s old truck dutifully hauled everything from manure to firewood to livestock on our 8-acre plot of land, while being his daily driver for the 20-mile round-trip to the mill. Several times a year he would clean it up real nice, slide a camper into its 8-foot bed, and hitch a boat to the bumper so we could pile into the cramped cab for a week-long family vacation.

I’ve carried on the family’s pickup-owning tradition. Regardless of where I’ve lived, there’s always been one parked in the driveway, ready to tow a trailer or haul something that is too heavy or doesn’t fit into the car or SUV. A pickup is an invaluable tool for anyone who lives in the country.

So when a friend told me his family of four was moving from town to a little place out in the country with a couple acres of land, and he was going to “break out of the box” by trading in one of the family cars for a pickup, I completely understood his reasoning for both the move and the change in vehicles.

He asked a lot of questions about making the transition from car to pickup, and how to choose the right one for their new needs. And rightly so. Next to buying property, a vehicle purchase is the second biggest investment a lot of people make in their lives.

Big on comfort

One of the big concerns about pickups is how the comfort level stacks up against that of cars, vans, and crossover SUVs. Rest assured, today’s pickups ride smoother and quieter than most cars and can be as richly appointed on the interior as any other vehicle, with creature comforts and features to match. It all depends on what trim level you want and how much you are willing to spend on the bobbles, bells, and whistles.

Pickups have a wide range of trim levels, cab configurations, and power options. In general, a mid-level trim package that provides power windows, power locks, and power driver’s seat, along with an up-level entertainment system, is the best starting point for a pickup destined for a life in the country.

When it comes to cab configurations, most owners find four-door models more appealing than “extended-cab” models. A four-door model provides rear passenger room to accommodate adults and storage space for a growing family, while the rear seating area in an extended-cab is best suited for kids, pets, and cargo.

The difference in price between a four-door and an extended-cab is usually minimal, so check out both closely before you buy. Most first-time pickup buyers will never miss sacrificing a few inches in bed length for the added interior space and convenience afforded by full-size rear doors.

Big truck or little

Choosing a full-size or mid-size pickup should be based on both immediate and future needs. Think of the purchase like buying a new home, where you might not need the interior roominess and capabilities of a full-size pickup now, but what about several years down the road?

Mid-size pickups are ideal for those who are intimidated by the bulk of a full-size pickup and want to keep their new wheels parked in a traditional two-car garage. Mid-size pickups are slightly more maneuverable than their full-size brethren, making them more adept at navigating through crowded parking lots and urban traffic.

Full-size half-ton pickups, on the other hand, provide a more comfortable ride and considerably more interior room than a mid-size, along with the ability to tow bigger trailers on the hitch and haul heavier loads in the bed. They also compare favorably in fuel economy to their smaller counterparts and typically have better resale value when that time comes.

Heavy-duty pickups have the same size cabs, beds, and creature comforts as their half-ton counterparts, but their engines, driveline, suspensions, and frames are generally beefier, allowing them to tow and haul much larger loads. The downside of their stouter build is that they sacrifice a little in both ride comfort and fuel economy compared to the mid-size and half-tons.

Engine power

Speaking of fuel economy, it has become an increasingly more difficult decision these days on which engine to choose. Manufacturers offer several engine options, depending on what brand, make, and model pickup is under consideration.

If fuel economy is a concern, compare EPA numbers at www.FuelEconomy.gov. First-time pickup buyers living in rural areas should look closely at the highway and combined fuel economy numbers, which closely represent what they will see during normal driving.

Buyers of mid-size pickups will find getting the biggest V-6 available will be the best choice. After all, you are buying a pickup partially for its utility value, and nothing helps make those tasks easier than having as much horsepower under your right foot as is available.

Full-size half-ton pickups offer a wider range of engine options than smaller trucks, depending on the brand. For example, Ford offers turbocharged V-6s in several displacements in addition to V-8s. The 3.5L turbocharged V-6 EcoBoost is my favorite. It’s a good engine for those who want V-6 highway fuel economy with the power of a V-8 when needed. (Note: The EcoBoost gets the mpg — miles per gallon — of a V-8 when you are heavy on the throttle.)

On the Chevrolet/GMC side, it’s tough to beat the 5.3L gas V-8 for its combination of power and fuel economy. This is a blue-ribbon performer. Contrary to what one might expect, some of the new gas V-8s in today’s full-size half-tons, which are running 6- and 8-speed automatics, get even better mpg on the highway than V-6s in mid-size pickups.

Diesels are making their way into the mid-size pickup as well. GM’s 2.8L four-cylinder Duramax diesel in the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon is a strong performer, with pulling power like GM’s gas V-6 and segment-leading fuel economy in the small pickup arena. It’s a good choice for the rural pickup buyer who does a lot of commuting between town and country.

Another stellar diesel in the half-ton pickups is the 3.0L EcoDiesel V-6 found in Ram Trucks. Its fuel economy and trailer-towing torque are well worth the added cost over the base model V-6 and the Hemi if you are going to use the half-ton Ram for work-related tasks and commuting.

Heavy-duty pickups — three-quarter- and one-tons — have always offered the biggest engines, both gas and diesel, and hence, the highest price tags. A V-8 diesel option will add close to 10,000 dollars to the price tag of the truck. A bargain if you are towing 12,000-pound-plus trailers or hauling one-ton loads in the bed on a regular basis, which is why they’re a favorite of full-time RVers, farmers, and ranchers. But heavy-duty pickups are not generally on a first-time pickup buyer’s must-have list.

The best truck

What’s the best pickup you can buy? It’s the one that meets your needs today — and years down the road. There are literally a dozen pickups that could meet the needs for someone living in the country. (I prefer four-door, V-8-powered half-tons.) The challenge is making that final buying decision based on your criteria and needs.

Factory warranties are very similar across the board, as are pickup styles, options, and incentives. Your comfort level and confidence with the dealer also plays a role. Before making that final buying decision, check out the dealership’s service department and ask friends about their experience with the dealership where you are considering doing business.

Also consider this: Pickup manufacturers typically make major mechanical and interior changes about every 4 to 5 years. So if a brand-new redesigned-and-updated model came out last year, check out those “holdover” models on the dealer lot instead of buying the current-year pickup. You might find the incentives and discounts will save you a big chunk of money — and the truck is the same as the new one sitting next to it sans a few minor differences.

Then grab the keys to your new wheels and enjoy all the benefits of breaking out of the box as a first-time (or fifth-time) pickup truck owner.  


2WD or 4WD

Traction is always an issue for those living in the country, be it Sun Belt or Rust Belt. As soon as a vehicle’s tires leave the security of paved road, the potential for loosing traction increases exponentially depending on Mother Nature’s whim.

It pays to seriously consider investing in a four-wheel-drive (or all-wheel-drive) pickup if you live in a rural setting. The added safety and convenience of
the front wheels providing additional traction when a situation arises more than pays for itself. A “4x4” commands higher value than a two-wheel-drive model, helping to offset the initial purchase price.

Fuel economy differences between 2WD and 4WD are minimal. A 2WD pickup usually gets 1 to 2 mpg better highway mpg than a 4x4, depending on the vehicle. There can be a more drastic difference when the 4WD is engaged.


Factory Options

The options list on new pickups can be extensive. To save money, look for special packages that suit your lifestyle best. If a “trailering” package is offered, get it. The heavier-duty cooling and electrical upgrades are worth the minimal cost even if you don’t plan on towing anything right away.

Vinyl, aka “leather,” seats are a good upgrade as they wear better than cloth, while a power sliding rear window and sunroof can be expensive add-ons that are seldom used in pickups after purchase. All-terrain tires and fancy wheels are nice, but they can usually be purchased for a lot less online or from your local tire outlet.

Other options that are worth ordering include:

Locking Differential: A must-have factory option (about 400 dollars) for any full-size pickup. It allows both rear wheels to provide traction, whereas a stock “open” differential always leaves the tire without traction spinning uselessly.

Bedliner: Spray-in or drop-in bedliners protect the bed from dents and scrapes, which reduce resale and trade-in value.

Bed Mat: A thick rubber bed mat keeps items from sliding around in the bed, while protecting the bed itself. This can be used with a bedliner.

Tie-downs: The more tie-downs in the bed, the easier it is to secure cargo and gear while hauling.

Tonneau Cover: Soft or hard, a tonneau cover helps protect items in the bed from the bad elements — both weather and human. It also helps improve highway fuel economy.

Axle Ratio: A 3.55 or 3.73 axle ratio is a better option for all around country living use than the “highway” 3.08, 3.23, or 3.31 gearing.


Diesel’s Hidden Cost

Diesels are about 30-percent more efficient than a comparable gas engine, which is why they get better fuel economy. However, that efficiency comes with a price: typically higher maintenance cost. Be it mid-size, full-size, or in a heavy-duty pickup, the overall cost of maintenance and repair for a diesel can be double that of a gas engine over your ownership of the vehicle.

Service intervals for diesels are typically more frequent and more involved than a gas engine, with each service costing more because of the additional oil capacity and extra filters needed to do the job. They also may require special fuel additives, and they are very susceptible to water or other contamination in the fuel.

Out-of-warranty repairs are also more expensive than a gas engine. That’s important to remember if you are considering ownership that extends beyond 5 years/100,000 miles, which is typical of diesel powertrain warranties. So when considering a diesel engine option, weigh the benefits of fuel economy and towing power against the cost-per-mile to operate. But, if your towing will be heavy and your miles will be many, a diesel can be a cheaper option than overtaxing an undersized pickup and blowing the engine.


Tow/Haul Ratings

Tow ratings are touted heavily in pickup advertising, targeting full-time RVers and commercial users. For first-time buyers, though, what really matters is making sure the truck you buy can easily handle the biggest trailer or carry the heaviest payload that you’ll likely encounter on a regular basis.

A good rule of thumb is to buy the pickup that has a towing capacity at least a third more than the heaviest trailer you foresee towing. For example, if trailering a small 25hp tractor, riding mower, boat, or ATVs, a mid-size pickup with a manufacturer-rated towing capacity of at least 4,500 pounds will suffice. Most full-size half-tons are comfortable towing loads in the 5,000- to 8,000-pound range, while today’s heavy-duties feel comfortable pulling up to 12,000 pounds.

A note on safe towing: Full-size pickups come standard with a towing package and trailer hitch (an option on the mid-size models), but certain requirements are necessary to be compliant with the factory tow ratings. Read the towing section in the owner’s manual carefully.


Check our list of pickup truck accessories well-suited to farm life.


Fifty years ago, Bruce W. Smith sold Grit newspapers as a teenager in southwestern Oregon. Today he pens automotive and ATV-related articles for a number of national publications and is a recognized automotive journalist specializing in pickups.