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Pickup Truck Buying Guide: How Much Truck Do You Need?

202309 pick up truck buying guide lead image scaled jpg Cars.com illustration by Paul Dolan

Pickup trucks are the most popular new vehicles on sale today. Statistically speaking, chances are you either own one or want one given how many are sold every year. But the popularity of pickups has created a huge variety of trucks for sale, from small front-wheel-drive hybrids to hulking six-wheeled monsters able to practically tow your house off its foundation. How do you choose the best one for your life?

Related: Find a Pickup Truck for Sale Near You

This buyer’s guide is meant to help you figure out a few things, all stemming from the not-so-simple question: How much pickup truck do you actually need? Maybe you need a pickup truck because you have something you need to tow, like a boat or a camper. Maybe you live somewhere unpaved and need a solid off-roader to get you to and from home via a field and two-track forest path. Or maybe you’re starting from square one and have a bunch of questions about what payload and tongue weight mean, or the difference between half-ton and one-ton pickups.

Using our in-depth truck knowledge that comes from owning, driving and reviewing a variety of pickup trucks, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to help you navigate finding the best pickup for you. Let’s jump in with our Editorial experts’ Top Picks for pickup trucks below.

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Cars.com Top Pickup Truck Picks

Top Pick: Budget-Friendly Pickup Truck — 2024 Ford Maverick

ford maverick 2023 top pick w logo scaled jpg Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry | 2024 Ford Maverick

In a world where it’s all but impossible to get into a decently equipped mid-size pickup truck for less than $30,000, the 2024 Ford Maverick’s starting price of $24,995 (including destination) is pretty darn enticing — even if the fuel-sipping hybrid powertrain no longer comes standard.

Though you’ll now have to pay $1,500 extra for the hybrid powertrain on all but the top-line Lariat trim level (where it’s a no-cost option), the Maverick is still a solid deal. The now-standard turbocharged 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder isn’t as efficient as the hybrid powertrain, of course, but it’s no slouch in the fuel-economy department either — we averaged 32.8 mpg in our own fuel-economy testing. Plus, the EcoBoost’s 250 horsepower makes the Maverick surprisingly zippy, and the engine is also available with two features that can’t be had on the hybrid: all-wheel drive and a towing package that ups trailering capacity to 4,000 pounds.

The Maverick is unquestionably a compact — it’s built on the same architecture as Ford’s Escape compact SUV, and its bed is only 4.5 feet long — but both the bed and cabin benefit from several smart, space-optimizing features that enable you to haul more stuff than you might expect. And one of the best things about the Maverick for penny pinchers is that it somehow manages to be spunky and charming even in its lower trim levels.

Top Pick: Towing, Light-Duty Pickup Truck — 2024 Chevrolet Silverado 1500

chevrolet silverado 2024 w logo scaled jpg 2024 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 | Manufacturer image

Towing is what pickups are meant to do, and all of them can do it to some degree, but we find the 2023 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 is our favorite in the light-duty pickup class.

It starts with the choice of powertrains because we love that you can still get a diesel as an option; competitors have all gone gas-only or hybrid. But it’s the smoothness, the body control, the ease at which the Silverado performs when dragging a load that helps win us over, and that’s before even starting to talk about some of the more amazing technology Chevrolet offers to help you tow. If you add in accessory cameras — and a little bit of setup with your preferred trailer — the unrivaled Transparent Trailer camera function makes the trailer behind you disappear from the rearview camera, allowing you to see what’s behind your trailer as you’re driving down the road at highway speeds.

On top of that, the Silverado 1500 is available with the Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving system that also accommodates a trailer. Yep, it’ll drive itself down the highway while towing a trailer (your comfort level while it does so may vary, however).

Top Pick: Towing, Heavy-Duty Pickup Truck — 2023 Ford Super Duty F-250/350

ford super duty f 250 w logo scaled jpg 2023 Ford Super Duty F-250 | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

Ford says more than 90% of heavy-duty pickup trucks are used for towing, a staggering statistic, so what makes its Super Duty our favorite for the category? All heavy-duty trucks tow pretty well, but Ford included some incredible new technology that not only puts the Super Duty over competitors, it actually makes for super-simple towing for total beginners.

Using camera technology and “sensor fusion,” which ties in all kinds of truck sensors into useful new systems, you can push a few buttons and the new 2023 Super Duty will actually line up the truck with the trailer hitch, backing itself up to hitch up perfectly using Pro Trailer Hitch Assist. It also helps you see what’s behind you when the tailgate is lowered with new cameras in the top of the tailgate. And of course, the Pro Trailer Backup Assist is great for backing up the trailer that the Super Duty automatically helped hitch up.

With all of its new trailering-specific technology, the new 2023 Ford Super Duty might just be the marriage-saving pickup truck so many people need.

Top Pick: Luxury Pickup Truck — 2023 Ram 1500 Limited, Limited Longhorn

ram longhorn 2023 w logo scaled jpg 2023 Ram 1500 Limited Longhorn | Manufacturer image

It’s been a few years since Ram launched the opulent Limited and Longhorn trim levels of its full-size pickup truck, and even though the competition’s luxury truck offerings have gotten better since then, Ram is still the clear luxury leader in the pickup arena. In fact, these versions of the Ram 1500 were so good that we named them our 2020 Luxury Car of the Year — an award open to all luxury models.

So what makes the Ram 1500 Limited and Limited Longhorn so special? You can point to a number of areas. The interiors of these trucks have top-notch materials including rich leather upholstery, and they both feature impressive attention to detail that’s befitting a luxury vehicle. The Limited’s interior design is more understated, while the Limited Longhorn has a Western motif, so you can choose the type of luxury that’s most appealing to you. The crew-cab interiors are roomy and comfortable, and both front and backseats get heated and ventilated seats. Buyers have a choice of short- or regular-length cargo boxes, too.

The Limited and Limited Longhorn also offer an array of upscale available features like a Harman Kardon premium stereo, a head-up display and power running boards. The trucks’ ritzy interiors don’t preclude them from doing work when you need them to — both versions can tow more than 8,000 pounds when properly configured — but their premium interiors and four-corner air suspension (optional on the Limited Longhorn, standard on the Limited) pamper drivers and passengers alike, no matter how these trucks are being used. That focus on surrounding occupants in luxury is what makes the 2023 Ram 1500 Limited and Limited Longhorn a Top Pick for a luxury truck.

Top Pick: Off-Road Pickup Truck — 2023 Ford F-150 Raptor

ford raptor 2023 w logo scaled jpg 2023 Ford F-150 Raptor R | Cars.com photo by Damon Bell

Our Top Pick for an off-road pickup truck is the 2023 Ford F-150 Raptor. Ford’s brought Baja trucks to the masses for over a decade now, and the latest Raptor is the pinnacle of its expertise. Most at home once the pavement ends, the Raptor will happily bomb through the desert at speed while keeping five full-size adults happy and comfortable in its spacious, tech-filled cabin. Lest you think the Raptor can only handle high-speed dune running and clumsy full-throttle pedal mashing, know that it’s also a capable rock crawler for its size. At low speeds, the Raptor is impressively nimble, and the throttle is delicate and precise, allowing drivers to carefully crest obstacles. As one Ford engineer said at an event featuring the new F-150 Raptor R, “If it fits, it goes.”

And speaking of the Raptor R: With 700 horsepower and 640 pounds-feet of torque from its supercharged V-8, the Raptor R absolutely goes, with a glorious V-8 soundtrack accompanying every mash of the accelerator. Don’t worry if you choose the twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 under the hood of the regular F-150 Raptor, though: With 450 horsepower, it’s still plenty quick and capable.

So if you’re looking to engage in off-road shenanigans both fast and slow, with a dose of useful towing and hauling, there’s no better choice in our minds than a Ford F-150 Raptor. And, as an added bonus, it’s pretty fun to drive on the street, too.

Top Pick: Family Pickup Truck — 2023 Ram 1500

ram 1500 limited 2023 w logo scaled jpg 2023 Ram 1500 Limited | Manufacturer image

Oftentimes, pickups are tasked with many types of work, yet only some are suited for family duty. The 2023 Ram 1500 is definitely up to the task. We named the full-size, light-duty pickup the Top Pick for a family truck thanks to its spacious cabin, available air suspension with adjustable ride height, clever storage options, and loads of modern tech and driver-assistance features.

It’ll handle both adults and kids in comfort — and everyone’s gear. With ample room in the crew cab, there’s plenty of space to fit three car seats across the backseat. It also has clever storage features when it comes to space for stuff, too. The 2023 Ram 1500 stands out with its available RamBox bed storage system, a weatherproof, lockable storage box that makes it easy to safeguard items in the side of the bed — or even keep drinks on ice. Got more stuff? The 2023 Ram 1500 can tow anywhere from 6,120 pounds to 12,750 pounds, depending on powertrain configuration.

Other available family-friendly features include an available height-adjustable air suspension that can lower the Ram 1500 to a more accessible entry height, in addition to power running boards, to make getting in and out easier for small people. There’s also a Multifunction Tailgate that can swing open on the side or open downward, as well as a 115-volt, 400-watt auxiliary outlet in the available RamBox for extra power.

All of this means that the 2023 Ram 1500 can fit the fam — and their stuff — in comfort, which is why we named it a Top Pick for a family truck.

Top Pick: Urban Pickup Truck — 2024 Hyundai Santa Cruz

hyundai santa cruz 2023 w logo scaled jpg 2024 Hyundai Santa Cruz XRT | Manufacturer image

For those who need the utility of a pickup truck but don’t want one so big that the side-view mirror hogs the bike lane, there are few options that don’t feel out of place on tight, shared streets. But a good urban pickup truck is something that not only has a manageable exterior size, it also has features that make living in the city with a pickup easier, and the 2024 Hyundai Santa Cruz meets those marks. While Hyundai likes to refer to the Santa Cruz as a “Sport Adventure Vehicle” rather than a pickup truck, it has an open bed behind the cab, so other than “SUV with convertible cargo area,” we’re not sure what to call it other than a truck.

What it does have in the back is an excellent feature for city dwellers who park on the street: a lockable hard-top tonneau cover that keeps valuable cargo in the 4-foot-long bed protected. The available hard-top tonneau (optional on the SEL and standard on Night, XRT and Limited trims) does take up some space in a cargo box that’s already limited in size, but this useful type of bed cover is most often a dealer-installed accessory or aftermarket part rather than a feature available from the factory.

The Santa Cruz is also one of the most comfortable trucks to drive; it absorbs big city potholes with ease thanks to its crossover-based origins. Plus, the available Surround View Monitor (a 360-degree camera system on the Limited trim) and the Santa Cruz’s compact-truck size (decidedly shorter than a typical mid-size pickup truck) make parking a breeze.

How Much Pickup Do You Need?

Types of Pickup Trucks

Modern pickup trucks can be loosely divided into four categories: compact crossover-based pickups, mid-size pickups, full-size light-duty pickups and full-size heavy-duty pickups.

Compact Pickups

ford maverick 2023 02 exterior profile scaled jpg 2024 Ford Maverick | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

Trucks like the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz are based on compact crossovers.The Maverick shares many parts you can’t see with the Ford Escape and Bronco Sport SUVs, for example, while the Santa Cruz is largely a Hyundai Tucson SUV with a pickup bed instead of a covered cargo area. They are front-wheel-drive vehicles with optional all-wheel drive and typically have very limited bed and interior space, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely useful. The Maverick can tow up to 4,000 pounds, and you can put up to 1,500 pounds in the bed, which is nothing to sneeze at, while the Santa Cruz can tow up to 5,000 pounds.

This category is also the cheapest entry point for new pickup ownership, with prices starting in the $25,000 range; if budgets are tight, a compact pickup might not be a bad idea. But given their diminutive size, their utility is still limited, which is why you might want something a little bigger and more robust for your pickup needs.

Mid-Size Pickups

nissan frontier 2023 02 exterior profile scaled jpg 2023 Nissan Frontier | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

Mid-size pickup trucks are typically built more like their big-brother full-size counterparts: separate cabs on a ladder-style chassis. They can tow more than the compacts, (up to 7,700 pounds), carry more in their larger beds and are a lot more capable off-road. Most mid-sizers are rear-wheel drive with optional four- or all-wheel drive, and they’re powered either by turbocharged four-cylinder or naturally aspirated six-cylinder gasoline engines. There are no hybrids or fully electric vehicles in this category, and the last diesel offering, the Jeep Gladiator, dropped the option for the 2024 model year.

Mid-size trucks’ big benefit over larger full-size pickups is the ability to park just about anywhere. For that same reason, they’re arguably even better off-road machines than the larger full-size pickups — you can get mid-size trucks with incredible off-road capability that have a narrower and shorter footprint for sneaking into tighter spaces on the trails.

The one outlier in the mid-size category is the Honda Ridgeline because it’s built like the compact pickups, based off an AWD crossover chassis, and is generally less “trucky” than its mid-size competitors. But if you’re looking for more space, power and utility, you’ll probably have to size up one more level.

Full-Size Pickups, Light Duty

toyota tundra 2023 02 exterior profile scaled jpg 2023 Toyota Tundra | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

Full-size pickups are the perpetual bestsellers in the U.S., but they’re also the most complicated category, and you might not fully understand what all the differences are. What is a light-duty versus heavy-duty truck? What are the differences between 1500, 2500 and 3500, or 150, 250, 350 and so on?

Modern full-size pickups can be broken down into two types: light duty and heavy duty. The old terminology that defined these trucks called them half-ton, three-quarter-ton and one-ton pickups, which described the truck’s payload rating: 1,000 pounds for a half ton, 1,500 pounds for a three-quarter ton and 2,000 pounds for a one ton. These days, however, even basic half-ton trucks have payloads well in excess of 1,000 pounds, and even the compact Maverick has the payload rating of an old three-quarter-ton truck.

Light-duty full-size trucks have grown to enormous proportions, and these days are used as family vehicles and commuters as well as for actual work purposes. But this is the most diverse category: You can get a two-seat, single-cab, RWD work truck with a huge bed and basic engine or option it up to a loaded, leather-lined, five-passenger luxury rig with an enormous engine and hundred-thousand-dollar price tag. Towing capacity spans up to 14,000 pounds, several flavors of off-road and 4WD capability are available, and there are also hybrid and full-electric models.

Full-Size Pickups, Heavy Duty

gmc sierra denali hd 2023 02 exterior profile scaled jpg 2023 GMC Sierra 2500 | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

What’s the big difference between light-duty and heavy-duty pickups? Heavy-duty trucks can tow more, carry more and are physically larger than light-duty trucks, but most important, they are specifically built to do these more arduous tasks with much beefier components.

Stronger frames, unique suspensions, heavy-duty shock absorbers, bulkier axles with optional dual rear wheels, heavy-duty brakes, more robust transmissions and high-output diesel engines allow something like the Ford Super Duty to have a 40,000-pound tow rating when properly equipped. These are the trucks you buy when you know you have to tow something big and very heavy and want to do it with a maximum safety margin.

Their disadvantages are numerous, however, because they’re incredibly thirsty, impossible to park in most urban and even suburban areas, and are usually extremely expensive. Heavy-duty trucks are specialty items designed for a purpose and less for casual use.

Pickup Basics

2WD Vs. AWD Vs. 4WD

Two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive describe three different drivetrains, but automakers’ branded names for these drivetrains can confuse shoppers and obscure what their trucks often include. Most pickup trucks come in a 2WD base configuration, meaning only one set of wheels gets power — which is usually the rear wheels unless you’re talking about a compact pickup, in which case the front wheels are powered.

AWD systems provide the ability to send power to all four wheels at any time, with sophisticated electronics and special components to let you simply leave it in AWD mode and let the vehicle decide when to mix power between the front and rear wheels, or even selectively one wheel side to side. You can use AWD on- or off-road. Sometimes AWD is standard and not selectable; other times, you can switch between 2WD and AWD as you like (2WD can sometimes be more fuel-efficient).

ram 1500 limited eco diesel 2022 15 gear shift interior truck scaled jpg 2022 Ram 1500 Limited | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

4WD, or 4×4, refers to a part-time system that, when selected, connects the front and rear wheels mechanically. It’s meant only for off-road situations or slippery on-road conditions, as it doesn’t allow for varying speeds between front and back wheels. Given that a car’s wheels turn at different speeds when you turn a corner, this means that a 4×4 system needs some slippage in order to not bind up, and it’s why all vehicles equipped with a 4×4 system warn you not to use it on dry pavement lest you risk breaking something. In some off-road vehicles, there’s also a 4-High and 4-Low switch, which allows you to put the vehicle in a special 4WD mode for challenging off-road situations only. Unless you’re specifically looking for an off-road vehicle and plan to do a lot of rock climbing in the hills, most people don’t need such off-road 4WD systems.

Sometimes it’s also a challenge to know what kind of system your vehicle has because an automaker might label it something else. Chevrolet, for example, often brands its AWD vehicles as having 4WD, as does Ford, while their 4WD vehicles are called “4×4.” The best way to figure out what your truck has is to check the owner’s manual for any warnings about driving on-road in 4WD mode. If it says not to, or only under very slippery conditions, the vehicle has 4WD, not AWD, and should be used appropriately.

Gas Vs. Diesel Vs. Hybrid Vs. Electric

Modern pickups have a wider variety of powertrains than ever before, with gasoline, diesel, hybrid-electric and even full-electric trucks now on sale.

The vast majority of compact, mid-size and full-size pickups will be powered by gasoline engines, ranging from basic four-cylinders up to big, honkin’ V-8 engines. Turbocharging has come into vogue over the last decade, both in four-cylinder and V-6 engines, with Ford in particular selling the vast majority of its full-size F-150s in turbo V-6 guise. Gas engines are great for familiarity’s sake — fuel is everywhere, it’s comparably cheap, and gas engines make plenty of power and torque for most people’s needs.

But for some buyers who do a lot of towing or want improved efficiency, diesel engines are an interesting alternative. The only mid-size pickup with an optional diesel is the 2023 Jeep Gladiator, and that engine is being discontinued for 2024. Only GM offers full-size light-duty pickups with diesel engines. But full-size heavy-duty pickups are where diesels are most popular, with GM, Ford and Ram all offering them (sometimes more than one) due to their ability to make massive torque and take on the most difficult towing challenges. Diesel advantages tend to be boundless: low-end torque that makes towing a breeze, longer-term durability due to heavy-duty construction and, in some cases, superior fuel economy. On the downside, they’re always more expensive than gas engines when ticking off the options sheet; the fuel itself is more expensive per gallon than gasoline and not as commonly available; and they require an additional fuel additive called diesel exhaust fluid that must be added periodically to help with the emissions systems. Regarding which is best for you, be sure to read our article on how to choose between a gas and diesel pickup truck.

And like it or not, electrification is creeping into the pickup truck segments. Hybrid-electric powertrains are optional on the Maverick, Tundra and F-150, while a mild-hybrid system is standard on the Ram 1500’s V-6 and optional on the V-8.

ford maverick hybrid fwd 2022 06 interior engine scaled jpg 2022 Ford Maverick Lariat hybrid | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

Fully electric pickup trucks are now a reality, too, with the Ford F-150 Lightning, GMC Hummer EV Pickup and Rivian R1T currently on sale. The Chevrolet Silverado EV, GMC Sierra EV, Ram 1500 REV and Tesla Cybertruck are all expected in the next year or two. These trucks are significantly more expensive than their liquid-fuel counterparts and tend to have limited capability in terms of towing range and payload capacity, but they provide extraordinary abilities in terms of off-road prowess, torque for towing and smooth, near-silent operation. They also provide an interesting benefit of being able to provide external power for unusual circumstances, such as the F-150 Lightning’s ability to power an average residential home for several days in case of a power outage.

The pickup truck segment is probably the most diverse one in the auto industry, and given the wide variety of types, equipment, powertrain options and price points, there’s assuredly one for every need and duty. All it takes is matching up your needs to the available options.

Pickup Truck Terminology

If you’re not familiar with the world of pickup trucks, it might seem a little daunting to get into the category. There’s a lot of terminology, phrasing and inside lingo that can feel indecipherable to the average consumer. Below, we explain terminology commonly associated with pickups to help you be better informed when researching and buying a pickup truck.

Buying a Pickup for Towing: What You Need to Know

Towing a trailer for the first time can be a harrowing experience. For those just starting to tow, be sure to read our complete and detailed instructional process at our towing 101 article that goes into more depth on the subject. But for the purposes of this buying guide, we’d rather talk about what you need to know when looking to purchase a truck you intend to tow with.

Know What You’re Towing

ford super duty f 250 xlt 2023 49 exterior front angle scaled jpg 2023 Ford Super Duty F-250 | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

Things you need to know before purchasing a pickup for towing are the weight of the trailer and anything it will be carrying. For instance, a camper trailer may weigh 5,500 pounds, but you also need to consider anything it has onboard, including water, waste, food, clothing, outdoor gear, gas, batteries and anything else you plan to put in it; this is known as the gross trailer weight number. Another important thing to calculate is tongue weight, or the amount of downward force a loaded trailer (with everything aboard) will exert on a tow vehicle’s trailer hitch. Typically, this is about 10%-15% of the trailer’s fully loaded weight, found in the truck’s owner’s manual, and it’s an important number to know when purchasing a truck because the maximum tongue weight will be a factor in selecting a vehicle. Take the time to actually measure these things as it will help you in the long run.

Next, calculate the weight of things that will be in your tow vehicle. How many passengers will you be taking along, and how much do they weigh? Will they also have gear or luggage? What kind of cargo will you add to the truck? All of this is critically important to know how much weight you’ll be carting along, which will determine what you should buy.

What Truck Matches Your Needs?

All pickups have a maximum tow rating provided by the manufacturer, but it varies model to model and even trim to trim. There are four numbers you’re looking for with regard to a towing truck: the max trailer towing capacity, maximum tongue weight, gross vehicle weight rating and gross combined weight rating.

gmc nissan ford toyota 2023 01 exterior group scaled jpg (From left) 2023 GMC Sierra 2500, 2023 Nissan Frontier, 2024 Ford Maverick, 2023 Toyota Tundra | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

See the above glossary on what each means, but more importantly, how do you find these numbers? For some brands, you’ll have to pore through spec sheets online or ask sales reps at dealers. But some brands, like Chevrolet and GMC, have calculated what the ratings are for the specific pickup you’re looking at and put them on a sticker on the door jamb — no ambiguity, no wondering if you have it right with your trim level and model because all of the options specific to that truck are considered in the number on the door jamb.

Beyond the numbers, however, you should also ask yourself about your towing habits. How do you intend to use the truck? Will you be towing every day for work? Weekends for leisure? Twice a year when you put the boat in the water and take it out again at the end of the season? The idea here is to not spend more money than you have to. Buying a crazy expensive, maximum towing rig that can tow well in excess of what you’ll typically do is just throwing money away. Being realistic about how you’ll use the truck and what you really need can help keep your costs down.

How Should You Equip Your Truck?

There’s a ton of equipment you can buy for your truck to help with towing either as part of the truck’s options or from various aftermarket companies. Items you’ll likely want from the options sheet include trailer tow packages, which can bring a bunch of equipment ranging from integrated trailer brake controllers to special software modes, more robust suspensions, transmission or oil coolers, and different final drive axle gears more suited to towing. It pays to look through the equipment packages to see what such packages will bring.

Automakers are also now including extraordinary technology in their trucks that makes towing increasingly easy, especially in full-size trucks. Both Ram and Ford offer an electronic trailer assist system that, after specific setup procedures, allows you to back up a truck-and-trailer combination using just a knob on the dashboard and the pedals, eliminating the need to remember how to turn the steering wheel to angle the trailer. Ford has gone even further with this technology in its heavy-duty Super Duty to offer a system that will automatically back your truck up to the trailer hitch hands-free.

ford super duty f 350 king ranch 2023 06 interior center stack display towing scaled jpg 2023 Ford Super Duty F-350 | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

GM full-size trucks can be had with a system that, when you add in some accessory cameras, will make the trailer behind the truck disappear on camera, allowing you a fully unobstructed view of what’s behind you on the touchscreen display as if the trailer wasn’t even there. What all of these systems have in common is that they all cost money, but we’d say they’re worth it if you plan on doing any towing. They make it a lot easier for newbies to tow, and they take a lot of the stress out of towing for old hands.

Don’t Skimp on Safety

If you’re on a budget and trying to decide between the fancy new tech and basic features you think you can live without, think again. Towing safely is more important than towing easily, and before you plunk down cash on the fancy cameras and software, make sure you have the basics covered. Items like towing mirrors, which extend the side-view mirrors and help immensely in seeing down the sides and to the rear of the trailer, are invaluable. A weight-distributing hitch with sway bars will make towing both safer and easier by helping to level the tow vehicle and distributing the weight of the trailer over the whole vehicle’s suspension. It costs more than a standard hitch, but again, it’s a massive improvement in safety and stability, meaning it should be a priority purchase.

Pickup Prices and How to Save a Few Bucks

When it comes to buying your preferred pickup, there’s really just one big piece of advice: Be prepared for sticker shock. The average Cars.com listing price for a new pickup is more than $65,000 through the first seven months of 2023. How did pickups get so expensive? And what can you do to make sure you’re not overpaying?

It Costs That Much Because You’ll Pay That Much

At the basic level, it comes down to supply and demand. Over the years, pickups have gone from being implements with few frills and comforts used for work purposes only to being family vehicles, luxury rides and incredibly capable off-road vehicles. The level of technology has exploded with pickups, as have powertrain choices, horsepower and capability. They’re also physically much, much larger vehicles than in the past, partly responding to customer demand for beefier styling, crash safety and capability requirements. They have more content, more capability and simply more mass than before, making them more expensive to build.

They’re also more popular than ever before, and customers are willing to pay increasingly insane prices to acquire them. Longer-term loans of 72 and 84 months are also helping to keep monthly payments low, and automakers have not been shy about piling incentives onto the hood in slower sales years, entering into price wars to keep volume up.

all things truck 2023 82 dealership lot scaled jpg Cars.com photo by Jonathan Earley

So, they’re expensive because they have more content and equipment than ever before, people are willing to pay more for them than ever before, and automakers are happy to charge higher prices if people are willing to pay them. What can you do to try and minimize your cost?

3 Tips for Cheaper Trucks

Look for Deals

One truism about the truck market is that there’s always somebody offering up incentives, either in the form of cash rebates or attractive financing. Given that supply was dramatically curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic, incentives haven’t been as common in recent years, but they are starting to creep back into the fold. The best time to find incentives is at the end of a model year when dealers are trying to clear older models off their lots as new model-year vehicles are starting to arrive. Also consider vehicles that are soon to be discontinued, such as the Nissan Titan, which will only be around for another year or two before Nissan pulls the plug on production.

Limit the Options Sheet Selections

It’s easy to start ticking off options on a pickup truck option sheet because the variety of technology and equipment packages are plentiful. But adding in all those nice-to-have features makes the bottom line start rolling up like a slot machine display, and soon you’re into big bucks.

But with some careful consideration, you can minimize your outlay. One good area to explore is trim level selection. Full-size trucks in particular often have more than half a dozen different trim levels, which could allow you to specify a lower-grade variant that skips some of the blingy trimmings while still selecting the equipment you want if your goal is capability over luxury. To really take advantage of this, however, you first have to identify what you plan on doing with your truck. Selecting options for activities that you might someday do, such as max towing or overland off-roading, means you’d be paying for features you might never use.

One other reason to select lower trim levels over the more fancy, more expensive top trims is that higher trims often have lower payload and towing capability than trucks at the lower end of the trim level spectrum. The truck itself doesn’t always get more capable as it gets more expensive, it usually just gets more loaded with stuff like self-driving features, 360-degree camera systems, heated and cooled seats, fancy entertainment systems or a hybrid powertrain, all of which adds weight to a truck that takes away from payload capability.

The lesson here: The more expensive trims replace work capacity with luxury goods, so sticking with lesser trims can sometimes get you a more capable truck for less money.

Be Careful About Long Loans

As prices of trucks have climbed, financing has kept pace to try and minimize the perceived impact on buyers’ wallets by offering increasingly long-term loans. Ford offers financing up to 84 months (that’s a seven-year loan!), but anything more than 60 months is considered to be a risky proposition from a financial health standpoint. Longer loans can make for lower monthly payments, but they end up being more expensive in the long run due to extra cost of the financing itself. And there’s the real risk that the resale value of your vehicle will drop over that long stretch to be less than what you still owe on the loan if you want a new vehicle (or something happens to it, like it’s totaled in an accident); that’s called “being underwater” on a car loan. It can lead to rolling the residual cost of an existing loan into a new vehicle loan, and it only spirals from there into greater and greater debt.

Our advice here is to pick the shortest loan you can afford, and thankfully, automakers do like to offer up some incentives on shorter-term loans, as well, often as end-of-model-year promotional moves. Again, it pays to research which automakers are offering such deals and to also examine third-party options for financing like banks, credit unions and reputable online lenders.

What’s Next for Pickups?

There’s a lot of change coming to pickup trucks, change that’s either being welcomed by a new generation or shunned by traditionalists.

Things Are Getting Electric

chevrolet silverado ev wt 2024 01 exterior front angle scaled jpg 2024 Chevrolet Silverado EV 4WT | Cars.com photo by Melissa Klauda

Perhaps the biggest change coming to the pickup segments is electrification. There have been mild-hybrid powertrains available for years now, little more than aggressive stop-start motor assist systems to help eke out a little bit better fuel economy, and Toyota has started putting hybrid motors in its pickups to replace V-8 engines. But Ford was the first to introduce a true full hybrid-electric system with the Powerboost option on the F-150 for 2021. That enabled it to amp up the availability of providing external power for job sites, campsites and other external uses through the introduction of their Pro Power Onboard system.

Hybridization along those lines seems to largely be skipping pickups in favor of full electrification. We already have a few battery-electric trucks on the market, including the Ford F-150 Lightning, GMC Hummer EV Pickup and Rivian R1T. Coming soon are the Chevrolet Silverado EV and GMC Sierra EV, Ram 1500 REV and Tesla Cybertruck.

Electric pickups are still very much a niche product, with very specific pros and cons. On the plus side, they’re wonderfully silent, comfortable to drive and immensely powerful, making them able to tow seriously heavy loads with ease. The problem is that their range drops by as much as half when you tow, making it challenging to tow anything farther than across town; towing cross-country would be exceedingly difficult, especially given access to public charging while hitched up to a trailer. Larger batteries for greater range present other problems, such as increased weight, cost and longer charge times.

Still, these performance challenges aren’t dissuading automakers from running full tilt into fully electric pickups. But one area you’re not likely to see any electrified powertrains anytime soon is in the heavy-duty pickup segment; the power and towing capability owners demand from these trucks make a battery-electric powertrain a poor fit for the application — at least for now.

The Little Guys Are Getting Some Action

Mid-size trucks are in the midst of a big refresh, with GM revamping the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon for the 2023 model year, Toyota redoing the Tacoma for 2024, Ford updating the Ranger for 2024 and Jeep refreshing the Gladiator for 2024. And we’ve already seen a redesigned Nissan Frontier introduced for 2022, so that’s still fresh, as well.

As trucks keep getting bigger and more expensive, the entry-level segments have largely been ignored, at least until the 2022 Ford Maverick debuted. A smash success for Ford, the affordable compact-crossover-based pickup took the world by storm and won major awards for its cheap and cheerful style, astonishingly affordable price, efficient hybrid powertrain and rugged utility. Ford still has the class to itself (Hyundai insists the Santa Cruz is not a pickup), but we wouldn’t expect that to last long given how popular the Maverick has been with buyers. Stellantis (parent automaker of Jeep and Ram) is rumored to be working on a model to slot in below the Ram 1500, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a crossover-based model from GM, Nissan or Volkswagen soon.

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Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman has had over 25 years of experience in the auto industry as a journalist, analyst, purchasing agent and program manager. Bragman grew up around his father’s classic Triumph sports cars (which were all sold and gone when he turned 16, much to his frustration) and comes from a Detroit family where cars put food on tables as much as smiles on faces. Today, he’s a member of the Automotive Press Association and the Midwest Automotive Media Association. His pronouns are he/him, but his adjectives are fat/sassy. Email Aaron Bragman

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