How to buy the best pickup truck

Need a little more utility in your life? We can help you find the ultimate pickup truck.

Emme Hall Former editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Emme Hall
7 min read
Emme Hall/Roadshow

Top truck picks

Midsize pickup: Honda Ridgeline

Because it is technically a crossover with a bed, the Ridgeline has all the benefits of a truck without any of the drawbacks of driving a truck.

Full-size pickup: Ram 1500

If the smooth ride of the Ram 1500 doesn't win you over, its ample storage, Uconnect infotainment system and optional leather seating will.

Truck for towing: Ford F-150

Ford knocks one out of the park with its class-exclusive Pro Trailer Backup Assist feature. Its available 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 can tow up to 12,200 pounds.

Midsize truck for off-road fun: Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road Pro

A Multi-Terrain Select feature as well as crawl control mean this pickup can get itself out of most anything you get it into.

Full-size truck for off-road fun: Ford Raptor

The Raptor has more wheel travel than many off-road race cars. With 450 horsepower on tap, the Raptor can conquer the desert and beyond.

What is a truck?


A truck with a crew cab has four fully functioning doors.


Today, there are three segments of pickup trucks: midsize, full-size and heavy duty. What you lose in capability with a midsize truck, you make up for with smaller stature, better fuel economy and a less expensive price. This makes a midsize truck a great choice for those who live in more crowded areas, but still want the utility and fun that comes with a truck.

Full-size trucks offer greater utility due to their larger size, but some folks may find that they are more truck than they need. Some owners use their full-size truck as a mobile office while on the road, so expect to find some spacious interiors with lots of features in this segment.

Manufacturers have different names for their cab styles. A double cab, a truck with four full doors with room for five, is also known as a crew cab. An extended cab, where there is limited seating behind the front row, usually accessed by smaller rear doors, is also described as an access cab or a king cab. A regular cab is a truck with two doors, and two or three seats across. Likewise, you can get short, 6-foot, or long, 8-foot beds for most trucks.

Heavy-duty trucks are found on construction sites or hauling very large trailers. For the purpose of this buying guide, we'll leave those to the fleet managers.

Segment overview


The Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-road has the chops to get you most anywhere... be it in on the dirt or in the snow.


Most people buy a truck for utility. While all trucks can tow and haul items, some are rated much higher than others. Full-size trucks, such as the very popular Ford F-150, offer more utility than the smaller midsize trucks, but many buyers may prefer to sacrifice tow ratings for the compact size of a Toyota Tacoma, as one example. Look for optional tow packages to optimize the practicality of your truck of choice.

Both midsize and full-size trucks can be had in two or four-wheel-drive, a trade-off of cost and fuel economy versus off-road or winter-weather capability. And despite their utilitarian roots, most trucks can be had with heated leather seats, wood trim and multiple power outlets, raising their everyday comfort.

If you are serious about taking your truck off-road, four-wheel drive is a must, and you should look for locking differentials to keep both wheels turning at all times; approach, breakover and departure angles to help you navigate obstacles; and aggressive tires to help keep traction in the dirt.

Power versus economy


Chevrolet Colorado 2.8L Duramax Turbo Diesel is a good option if fuel economy is important to you.


You'll find a wide variety of engine choices, ranging from turbocharged four-cylinder engines to large V8s. A 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine can be found in the Nissan Frontier, Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. The Colorado and Canyon models get 200 horsepower and 191 pound-feet of torque out of that small engine, and 24 miles per gallon in the EPA highway rating.

The largest engine to be found among the class of full-size, light-duty pickups is the massive 6.2-liter V8 used in both the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 1500. Both are rated for 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque, and an EPA fuel rating of 20 miles per gallon highway.

There are even a few diesel engines on tap. The GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado are both available with a 2.8-liter Duramax diesel, giving up 181 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, offering up to 28 miles per gallon highway. The Nissan Titan XD is currently only offered in a 5.0-liter V8, with 310 horsepower and a whopping 555 pound-feet of torque.

As a modern compromise between power and fuel economy, V6 engines are becoming popular. You can find a naturally-aspirated 4-liter V6 in the Nissan Frontier making 261 horsepower, achieving 22 mpg highway fuel economy, or look to the Ford F-150, which has three V6 options, ranging from 282 to 450 horsepower and 253 to 510 pound-feet of torque.

Chore duty in the Nissan Titan XD

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Tech and safety


The 2017 Ram Power Wagon features the Uconnect infotainment system.


In the past, trucks were built for utility, not tech. Those days are over. The GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado both have a 4G/LTE data connection, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot. The Chevrolet Silverado gets the same, plus wireless charging.

For extra power on the go, the Toyota Tacoma and Honda Ridgeline feature a 120V AC outlet in the bed of the truck, while the Ford F-150 and GMC Sierra 1500 include a 110V AC plug on the center instrument panel stack. These outlets let you plug in laptops or other devices that you would normally plug into a wall outlet.

Like passenger cars, trucks are available with sophisticated navigation systems. The Tacoma and Tundra not only offer touchscreen navigation systems in the dashboard, but also Toyota's Entune app integration. Uconnect in the Ram 1500 includes navigation and a built-in data connection powering online destination search.

Trucks are also incorporating advanced safety features. The Chevrolet Silverado can be had with lane-keep assist, forward collision alert and front and rear park assist. The Nissan Titan XD has optional blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert. The Honda Ridgeline gets adaptive cruise control and lane departure mitigation.

2018 Toyota Tundra brings the sport

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Top pickup picks


2017 Honda Ridgeline

While it might not technically be a truck, the Honda Ridgeline is all the truck that most people need.


The clear winner when it comes to a comfortable midsize truck for everyday use is the Honda Ridgeline. Because it features unibody construction and an independent front and rear suspension, the Ridgeline is as comfortable on the pavement as any crossover. It can tow up to 5,000 pounds and has a payload capacity of 1,500 pounds, enough to satisfy most consumers. Add to that blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and an infotainment system that's easy to use and features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and you have a truck that just works.

Hit the road in the 2017 Honda Ridgeline RTL-E (pictures)

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The Ram 1500 Copper Sport is a limited-edition truck for 2017.


The full-size prize goes to the Ram 1500. Its optional air suspension gives it an exceptionally smooth ride, and it benefits from an 8.4-inch color touchscreen with the Uconnect navigation system. Wood trim and leather upholstery are available, making the Ram 1500 a rather posh truck.

If you need maximum room in the cab, look to the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado twins. The crew cabs in both offer 45.3 inches of legroom in the front and 41 inches in the rear.

Ram 1500 is practical luxury (pictures)

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Truck for towing pick


Shown here in Lariat trim, the 2017 Ford F-150 is a great choice for towing.


Full-size trucks are all accomplished haulers, but the Ford F-150 stands out with its Pro Trailer Backup Assist feature, which makes backing up a trailer a cinch. The 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 in the F-150 can tow 12,200 pounds and handle a payload of 3,240 pounds.

The Nissan Titan XD comes in a close second in utility. Its 5.0-liter diesel V8 is rated to tow 12,300 pounds, a bit more than the F-150, but the 2,000 pounds of payload is much less. And while the backup camera features guide lines to easily guide you to the tow hitch, there is no sophisticated backup system that helps you reverse the trailer itself like in the F-150.

2018 Ford F-150 gets new front, new butt

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Off-road truck picks


2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

Tacos: Not just for eating.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

When it comes to playing in the dirt, the Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road has long been the go-to truck for desert-running enthusiasts. Heavily revised for 2016, the Taco packs a lot of off-road goodies, including a locking rear differential and Multi-Terrain Select, a system that optimizes performance over different terrain like mud, rocks and sand. Also included is a Crawl Control feature that gets you over the rocks as well as out of a silt bed. With an approach angle of 32 degrees, a breakover angle of 23 degrees and a departure angle of 24 degrees, the Tacoma is well suited to steep grades and sharp dune crests.

But don't discount the Ram Rebel. Sure it starts as a regular Ram 1500 but gets better ground clearance, Bilstein shocks and aggressive 33-inch Toyo Open Country A/T tires.

Getting dirty with the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-road (pictures)

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The 2017 Ford Raptor is at home in the sand.


The Raptor is essentially a turn-key desert race prerunner, with 13 inches of wheel travel in the front and 13.9 inches in the rear thanks to the 3.0 Fox Racing Shox. The new 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 makes 450 horsepower and 510 pound-feet of torque and the whole thing rides on BF Goodrich T/A KO2 tires. Add to that a new 10-speed transmission and a crazy transfer case that allows for two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive high and low as well as all-wheel drive, the Raptor is the truck for desert hooning.

A close second in off-road performance is the Ram Power Wagon. Although not able to bomb through the whoops like the Raptor, the Power Wagon features front and rear solid locking axles and a disconnecting sway bar, all the better to crawl up and over rocks. And no worries if you get in trouble. A Warn winch is standard.

From dust to glory in the latest Ford Raptor

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In general, it's a good idea to not buy any more truck than you need. But with all the midsize and full-size options, you're sure to find the truck of your dreams.

Read more: Best truck for 2021