I've had the great fortune to drive most new pickup trucks that come onto the market, so people ask me for buying advice all of the time. But it finally dawned on me that I've never written a buying guide for pickup trucks -- until now.
Of course, pickup trucks come in very different sizes, with three main classes available in the U.S. market:
Despite their name, these are actually the industry's "small" pickup trucks, including such models as the Ranger from Ford (F - Get Report) , the Ridgeline from Honda (HMC - Get Report) , the Frontier from Nissan (NSANY) and the Tacoma from Toyota (TM - Get Report) . But thanks to "size inflation," midsize pickups are about the same dimensions as full-sized trucks were two decades ago.
Toyota has dominated this segment for a decade, but all the other truck makers are coming on strong with recent offerings. I'll address my favorite midsize trucks in a future column.
Full-Size Trucks (Sometimes Called 'Half-Ton' Trucks)
These are the U.S. truck industry's bestsellers. With their large size, they can typically accommodate up to six large adults, around 2,000 pounds of payload and 7,000 to 12,000 pounds of towing capacity.
These are largely the same physical size as full-size trucks, but are beefed up with larger components that allow them to haul and tow much more cargo.
They can typically handle many thousands of pounds of extra weight in their cargo beds, and can also tow approximately 35,000 pounds of stuff. However, many states will require you to have a commercial driver's license to run these.
My Take on the Best and Worst Full-Size Pickups
I'll focus in this column on full-size pickup trucks, as those are what sells best in America. They also tend to grab the headlines, led by the Ford F-150, which has been the bestselling nameplate in the U.S. market for several decades in a row now.
Keep reading for a look in alphabetical order at the models that play in this segment, along with the pros and cons that I've seen in test-driving them all. Base prices refer to manufacturer's suggested retail prices as of July 3 on entry-level 2019 versions of the models listed.
The Chevrolet Silverado and its sister model the GMC Sierra have both been completely redesigned for 2019. The Silverado starts at $28,300 and the Sierra carries a $29,600 base price.
- The best steering in the business. It's sharp and feels like a car.
- The best "corner rear bumper" step-in-and-out-of-the-bed in the business.
- Great engine options, including a frugal four-cylinder and an inline-six cylinder diesel.
- Optional five-year, 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that beats anything from Ford or Ram.
- Fit and finish are OK, but the Silverado and Sierra's interiors look cheap and ugly.
- The seats aren't nearly as good as those of Ford and Ram trucks.
- The rear suspension isn't as good as a Ram's.
The Ford F-150 has been the bestselling car in America for 42 straight years. The 2019 model starts at $28,155.
- The best seat and seating position in the business, including an optional massage seat.
- A wide range of engine options, including the segment's only CNG/propane capable engine.
- The available Ford F-150 Raptor, a very special premium version that's great for fast off-road driving.
- The F-150's interior feels a bit "plasticky," well below the standard that rival Ram trucks set.
- The F-150's steering can't match that of the trucks from General Motors or even the Ram.
- The F-150's rear suspension isn't in the same league as the Ram's.
The Nissan Titan starts at $30,690.
- The best standard warranty in the segment by far -- bumper to bumper for five years or 100,000 miles.
- Reasonably good-looking "car-like" interior.
- Like the Toyota Tundra, a simplified configuration scheme.
- No available front bench seat.
- Almost no engine choices.
- Horrible fuel economy.
Completely redesigned for 2019, the Ram 1500 starts at $31,795.
- The most upscale and beautiful interior by a very wide margin.
- Innovative hybrid V-6 and V-8 cylinder gasoline engines for 10% fuel economy improvement, albeit from a low base.
- Best rear suspension by a very wide margin.
- Fewer engine options than Ford and GM.
- No lightweight or straight-cylinder option.
The Toyota Tundra carries a $31,670 base price.
- Standard safety technologies, just like all Toyota models.
- Great reputation for quality, reliability and dependability (QRD) for those "million-milers."
- Simplified configurations mean it's easier to order/buy and can be a good value.
- Almost no engine choices.
- Horrific fuel economy.
- Lacking features and options as a result of being an old platform.
The Bottom Line: Ford, GM and Ram Get My Nod Due to Better MPG
You could make a reasonable argument in favor of buying any one of the above vehicles depending on your individual needs and preferences.
For example, if you're going to drive 1 million miles in quick order and must have the lowest probability of a breakdown, the Toyota Tundra could be the safe choice. Likewise, if you want the best five-year bumper-to-bumper warranty for your truck's first 100,000 miles, the Nissan Titan would be your best option.
However, on the whole, the reality is that the "Big Three" Detroit automakers have the most updated offerings in the market right now. This especially manifests itself in one area in particular -- fuel economy.
Yes, GM, Ford and Ram have some V-8 trucks that average as little as 15 mpg in real-world conditions, but all three also offer optional gasoline engines that can produce 19 to 21 mpg. By contrast, the Nissan and Toyota trucks that I've test-driven recently have been getting 12 to 14 mpg as their real-world results (as opposed to what their U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ratings estimate they'll get).
The weaker fuel economy is due to outdated V-8 engines and even more outdated transmissions, making for lower efficiency than what GM, Ford and Ram pickups offer. Going from 13 mpg or so to about 20 mpg might not sound like the biggest deal in the world, but the math is inescapable -- a gallon of gas will take you at least 50% farther in the more-efficient model.
In other words, you can spend maybe $3,000 a year gassing up a Nissan or Toyota pickup or only spend about $2,000 to drive just a far with some of Ford, GM and Ram's models. And while it's true that Toyota and Nissan both have excellent reputations for quality that often exceeds that of GM, Ford and Ram, the U.S. nameplates' huge fuel savings probably compensate for that.
Add up the numbers over eight or 10 years of ownership and GM, Ford and Ram's advantages become clear. So, my purchasing recommendation is to favor the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, Ford F-150 or Ram 1500. Broadly speaking, it's basically a tie between them.