2011 Truck Buying Guide

Last Updated: Sep 16, 2010

Our 2011 Truck Buying Guide covers the range of pickup trucks, from compacts to bare-bones full-size work models, to luxurious four-door crew-cab that can double as family transportation.

Pickup sales surged in the mid 2000s thanks to a flush economy, cheap gas, and the trendiness of buying pickups as lifestyle statements. Automakers, particularly Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, rode the wave of profits. When fuel costs spiked and the economy tanked, taking with it the pickup-rich construction sector, truck sales fell. Toyota and Nissan, who came late to the full-size-pickup game with the Tundra and Titan, respectively, were particularly hit hard by the truck bust. With an economic axiom that suggests real estate construction lags the economy by at least a year, it’s unlikely the pickup market will return to its glory days any time soon.

And yet, full-size pickups remain among the best-selling new vehicles in the U.S. The Ford F-150 is again on pace to lead in sales of all vehicles, car or truck, with the Chevrolet Silverado holding down the third position overall; the Dodge Ram was No. 15. A lot of this demand has been fueled by to do with automakers generous sales incentives, which during 2010 were reaching as high as $5,000 or more on most pickups.

Once popular among younger truck buyers, compact and midsize pickups like the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, and Toyota Tacoma are largely overlooked these days. Buyers in that segment have tended to migrate to SUVs and crossovers or trade up into full-size pickups that in many cases aren’t much more expensive -- especially given the aforementioned rebates.

The full-size pickups in our 2011 Truck Buying Guide are half-ton models, loosely defined by their maximum payload capacity and identified at Ford by the F-150 designation and at GM and Dodge by the 1500 designation. Heavier-duty-payload models called three-quarter-ton (F-250 and 2500 designations) and one-ton (F-350 and 3500) are aimed primarily at commercial users and private buyers who need serious hauling capability to tow big motor homes, horse trailers, and the like.

Regardless of size class, most pickups come in a choice of three cab styles. Regular cabs have just a front seat and two doors. Extended cabs add a small back seat and rear access doors, sometimes of the clamshell type that can’t be opened or closed independently of the front doors. . Crew cabs have a larger rear seat and conventional back doors. Generally, the longer the cab, the shorter the maximum length of the cargo box; for example, crew cabs tend to come only with the shortest-length bed.

Compact and midsize pickups typically come standard with four-cylinder engines. Most offer a V-6 for more power; the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon are unique with a five-cylinder upgrade. Colorado, Canyon, and the Dodge Dakota further offer V-8 engines.

Full-size pickups come standard with six-cylinder engines in the 200-horsepower range and usually offer a choice of several V-8s of increasing displacement and power. Most V-8s are in the 4.6-6.0-liter range and span 300-400 horsepower. Ford is rolling out a 3.5-liter “Ecoboost: twin-turbocharged V-6 in the F-150 this year that’s expected to deliver best-in-class fuel economy along with the power and towing capability of a V-8; whether die-hard big-truck buyers will flock to the high-tech powerplant remains to be seen. Regardless of engine type, torque is king to most pickup buyers because it better defines pulling power than does horsepower. More is better, and V-6s in pickups tend to produce about 235-266 pound-feet of torque while V-8s churn out some 300-400 pound-feet.

Manual transmissions are generally standard with automatics optional.

With a few exceptions, all pickups are offered with rear-wheel drive (2WD) or some type of four-wheel drive system (4WD). The 4WD systems typically are part-time setups that shouldn’t be left engaged on dry pavement to avoid potential drivetrain damage. The full-size GM and Dodge pickups offer full-time 4WD that can remain engaged on dry pavement – a traction aid on damp pavement with an empty or lightly ladened cargo bed. Standard on the Cadillac EXT and Honda Ridgeline and optional on the GMC Sierra Denali is all-wheel-drive, which is engaged all the time on all surfaces. All 4WD systems and the Denali’s AWD include low-range gearing for to apply maximum torque for serious off-roading or low-speed pulling power.

In addition to toque, serious truck buyers take note of a model’s towing capacity. Most four-cylinder compacts can tow trailers weighing up to 2,000 pound or so; the limit is generally around 5,000 pounds with a V-6 and around 6,000 with a V-8. For real towing muscle you need a full-size V-8 pickup. The F-150 tops the charts with a 11,300-pound rating while rivals are generally in the 10,000-10,500-pound range. These numbers depend on engine and drivetrain choices and can be considerably lower depending on how a truck is equipped. In any event, ultimate towing capacity is as much a bragging right as a true measure of maximum pulling power, and owners who regularly trailer more than 7,000 pounds tend to gravitate to heavier-duty three-quarter and one-ton pickups.

As for fuel economy, small pickups with four-cylinder engines can boast respectable ratings. The EPA says the range for all compact pickups is 15/24 mpg (city/highway); the leader is the four-cylinder, 2WD Ford Ranger at 22/27 mpg. Full-size pickups are generally in the 14/20-mpg range, though it isn’t unusual that a big V-8 and 4WD will earn a rating of 12/17 or so. We’re talking gas-engine models now, and if they were cars, big V-8-powered trucks would be assessed stiff gas-guzzler taxes. Trucks, however, are exempt from those tariffs.

Diesel engines would seem a logical way to improve fuel economy in half-ton pickups, and boost their towing and payload, too. But diesels are for now limited to the heavy-duty class; the faltering economy and unpredictable diesel-fuel prices delayed or derailed several automakers’ plans to offer half-ton diesel models.

That’s not to say the manufacturers aren’t looking at ways to make their big trucks more fuel-efficient. Chevrolet, GMC, and Ford offer special high-mileage – a relative term -- versions of their V-8-powered pickups.

These leverage revised aerodynamics, weight-saving components, and specific transmission gear ratios to maximize economy. Unfortunately this amounts to savings of about one mpg city and highway. Unless you own a large fleet of pickups, it hardly seems worth the effort.

Pickup buyers looking for more significant fuel-economy gains might consider a hybrid model. Dodge recently shelved plans to offer a hybrid Ram 1500, but the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Hybrid and GMC 1500 Sierra Hybrid have been available since model-year 2009, though they’re slow sellers. They integrate a V-8 engine with two compact electric motor/generators that are, in turn, powered by a self-charging battery pack. They have reasonable fuel economy ratings at 21/22, but the added hardware makes these models among the costliest in each model’s lineup. Even with a one-time $2,200 federal income tax credit, buyers will be hard-pressed to recover the added costs unless gas prices skyrocket.

All big pickups come with stability control and side-curtain airbags, with myriad comfort and convenience features available, including leather seats, premium audio systems, and GPS navigation arrays.

Today’s pickups, particularly upper trim levels of full-size models, have evolved into downright civilized modes of transportation. The Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, and Dodge Ram can be fitted with devices that turn them into rolling Internet hot spots. The F-150 can be fitted with an in-dash computer and high-speed Internet access is available on the F-150 as part of Ford’s Work Solutions system; a proprietary Tool Link system can be added that can alert a driver if he or she is missing a critical tool before leaving for a work site, via radio frequency tags that interact with the computer. What’s more, the F-150 offers Ford’s Sync voice-activated multimedia control system and Sirius Travel Link (which provides road warriors with real-time data on weather, traffic, gas prices and such). Crew cab versions of the Ram can be equipped with Sirius Backseat TV, which brings four kid-friendly channels to the optional entertainment system, or the FLO-TV system that offers up to 20 news and entertainment channels.

Whether you’re a trades person or commercial user optimistic about an economy rebound or a casual-use driver replacing an older truck or taking the pickup plunge for the first time, choices among pickup trucks have never been greater, and neither have factory cash-back and low-interest incentives.