2012 Truck Buying Guide

Last Updated: Jun 29, 2011

This 2012 Truck Buying Guide from iGuida.com concentrates on pickup trucks, which – at least for now – come in a wide variety of sizes and configurations. They range from compacts aimed at younger buyers and modestly equipped full-size work models to leather-clad four-door crew-cabs that can serve double-duty as heavy haulers and plush family cars.

This is not traditionally a segment in which fuel economy has been a major concern. Fleet buyers might choose a higher-gas-mileage pickup in hopes it will return measurable financial savings over time. But with gas flirting with $4.00 per gallon, concerns about fuel economy have spread to every corner of the truck market. And it’s not just customers the manufacturers must satisfy: rising federal corporate average fuel economy requirements will force the average pickup to achieve 30 mpg by model-year 2016. It all adds up to a trend toward smaller and more fuel-efficient engines in pickup trucks. Exhibit A is the twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 that debuted in the model-year 2012 Ford F-150. Ford says the V-6, which boasts a V-8-like 360 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, accounts for some 40 percent of 2012 F-150 sales.

Overall, the most economical 2012 pickup should again be the base-trim, rear-wheel-drive compact Toyota Tacoma with a four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission. Expect it to again rate 21/25 mpg city/highway and 22 mpg combined city/highway. Most compact pickups rated around 18/21/25 mpg with their standard four-cylinder engines, and around 15/18/22 their available engine upgrades, which in this class include five- and six-cylinder motors.

The most frugal full-size model is the Ford F-150 with the aforementioned EcoBoost V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission. It rates 17/23/19 mpg. Most full-size pickups are sold with V-8s, however, and the most fuel-efficient of these is the “XFE” (Extra Fuel Economy) version of the two-wheel-drive Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra 1500; they rate 15/22/18. At the thirsty end of the bar is the Ford F-150 Raptor 4x4 with a 6.2-liter V-8 and automatic transmission; it rates 11/14/12. Of course, heavy-duty three-quarter and one-ton-payload pickups get even worse fuel economy, though automakers aren’t required by the EPA to post ratings for those models. And our 2012 Truck Buying Guide excludes them in favor of the mainstream half-ton-payload category.

Pickup sales perked up during calendar 2011 but remain weak compared to the truck boom in the mid 2000s. Back then the economy was strong, gasoline prices were relatively cheap, and buyers who had no real need for a full-size pickup embraced them as everyday drivers. The souring economy put an end to that. And tight money and a depressed construction sector delayed purchases by businesses and trades people. Domestic-brand pickups were less hard-hit than Nissan and Toyota, latecomers to the full-size segment. As the economy grinds its way back to health, pickup sales should increase, though the segment will likely never enjoy its past level of popularity ever again.

And yet, full-size pickups are among the best-selling new vehicles in the U.S. As of midyear 2011, the Ford F-150 continued its reign as the industry’s best-selling vehicle, car or truck, with the Chevrolet Silverado in firm grasp of second place; the Dodge Ram was No. 10. A lot of this demand is fueled by automakers’ generous sales incentives, which reached between $2,000 and $5,000 during 2011 on most pickups.

Once popular among younger truck buyers, sales of compact and midsize pickups like the Chevrolet Colorado and Nissan Frontier have all but evaporated in recent years. Buyers figured out they could get a full-size pickup for not much more money than a smaller and less powerful model. To that end, while other countries will see a redesigned Ford Ranger for model-year 2012, Ford is dropping the long-running compact pickup in the U.S. at the end of the 2011 model year. Similarly, Chevrolet has shown a radically redesigned version of its Colorado midsize pickup at auto shows abroad, but the truck and with its partner at GMC, the Canyon, may be discontinued in the U.S. after model-year 2012. What’s more, 2012 could be the last model year for the Nissan Frontier as well. Industry rumblings suggest the midsize Dodge Dakota could eventually face a similar fate.

The full-size pickups in our 2012 Truck Buying Guide are known as half-ton models, which is a term that’s loosely determined by a truck’s maximum payload capacity. Ford’s half-ton pickup carries the F-150 designation, with the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra and Dodge Ram half-ton models getting a 1500 designation. Heavier-duty-payload models are referred to as three-quarter-ton (F-250 and 2500 designations) and one-ton (F-350 and 3500) models, and are aimed primarily at commercial users and private buyers who need serious hauling capacity to tow big motor homes, horse trailers, and the like.

Most pickups offer buyers a choice of three cab, or passenger compartment, styles. Regular cabs offer basic accommodations with just a front seat and two doors. Extended cabs add a small back seat typically used for secure storage and usually accessed by small rear-hinged “clamshell” doors that can’t be opened or closed independently of the front doors. Crew cabs constitute the most popular full-size pickup style. They come with a full-size rear bench seat and conventional back doors. Unfortunately, buyers can’t always have it all in this segment because a pickup’s cargo-bed length is largely determined by its cab size. Extended-cab models generally have shorter cargo beds – typically 6.5-feet -- than regular-cab models, which offer beds up to 8 feet. And crew cabs have the shortest bed lengths overall, generally 5.5 feet.

Compact and midsize pickups typically have four-cylinder engines as standard equipment and most offer a V-6 for added power. The Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon come with five-cylinder engines. The Colorado, Canyon, and the Dodge Dakota also offer V-8 engines.

Full-size pickups come standard with six-cylinder engines in the 200-300 horsepower range, but in these sizable rigs, sixes are best suited for light-duty service. Full-size pickups perform better with a V-8. Most pickup V-8s are in the 4.6-liter-6.0-liter range and generate 300-400 horsepower. A noteworthy exception here is Ford’s 3.5-liter “Ecoboost” twin-turbocharged V-6 that’s optional in the F-150 and rated to tow 11,300 pounds while achieving class-leading fuel economy. Engine torque is a key spec among most pickup buyers because it largely determines a truck’s pulling power. 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 traditionally standard among compact and midsize pickups with automatics optional. The automatics come with between four and six gears.
With a few exceptions, all pickups come standard with two-wheel drive (2wd), which in this class means rear-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive (4wd) is available on every virtually model and divides into several types of systems. The so-called part-time 4wd systems available on most pickups are designed only for slippery-surface duty and 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 either wet or dry pavement; these systems help maintain traction in rapidly changing road or weather conditions and when driving with an empty or lightly loaded cargo bed. All-wheel-drive (AWD) is available on the Cadillac Escalade EXT and is standard on the Honda Ridgeline and is optional on the GMC Sierra Denali. These AWD systems are engaged all the time and maximize grip on all surfaces. All 4wd systems and the Denali’s AWD include low-range gearing suited for serious off-roading or maximum low-speed pulling power.

Maximum towing capacity is another specification serious truck buyers heed, and it’s a good idea to overestimate your needs to avoid premature wear to engine, transmission and other components. Most four-cylinder compacts are rated to tow boats or trailers weighing up to 2,000 pounds. With a V-6, that climbs to around 5,000 pounds and to about 6,000 or more with a V-8. Among full-size pickups, the F-150 boasts a 11,300-pound maximum rating while its competitors typically fall into the 10,000-10,500-pound range. These specs can be considerably lower based on how a particular truck is equipped. Despite some of the loftier numbers registered by half-ton models, those with the strongest towing needs should still consider heavier-duty three-quarter and one-ton pickups for maximum durability.  

Diesel engines deliver a winning combination of maximum pulling power and decent fuel economy, but diesels are for now limited to the heavy-duty class. While automakers had planned to offer diesels in their half-ton models, the weak economy and high diesel-fuel prices have delayed or derailed such plans.

The Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra 1500 are sold in higher-mileage gas-electric hybrid versions. These team a V-8 engine with two compact electric motor/generators in turn powered by a self-charging battery pack. These hybrids boast fuel-economy ratings of 20/23/21 and perform virtually on par with comparable gas-only Silverados and Sierras. But they’re among the costliest models in their respective lineups. And with a federal income tax credit on hybrids having expired at the end of calendar year 2010, buyers might never recover the price premium, even with gas prices at $4.00 a gallon.

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

Many pickups, particularly upper trim levels of full-size models, offer an array of features especially designed for road warriors. For example, the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, and Dodge Ram can be fitted with devices that turn them into rolling Internet hot spots for connecting laptops and other devices to the Internet. The F-150 can be fitted with an in-dash computer that includes high-speed Internet access and can further be fitted with a proprietary Tool Link system that can alert a driver if he or she has left a critical tool behind at the shop or a work site, via radio frequency tags that interact with the computer.

The F-150 also offers Ford’s Sync multimedia control system for handy voice-activated operation of the audio and navigation systems, and Sirius Travel Link, which delivers real-time data on weather, traffic and gas prices. In a nod to a pickup’s use as a family vehicle, crew cab versions usually offer rear-seat DVD entertainment systems; the Ram can be equipped with Sirius Backseat TV, which adds four kid-friendly channels to the system.

Here is our 2012 Truck Buying Guide:

2012 Chevrolet Avalanche
This may be the final model year for Chevy’s unique full-size SUV/pickup

2012 Chevrolet Colorado
Best suited to casual utility, its four- and five-cylinder engines are weak, the optional V8 is overkill

2012 Chevrolet Silverado 1500
Capable, comfortable, and versatile full-sizer, but won’t see major changes until model-year 2013

2012 Dodge Dakota
A true midsize pickup with min-Ram styling and available V-8; suits a wide range of buyers

2012 Dodge Ram 1500
The only full-size pickup with a coil-spring rear suspension is also the best for ride and handling

2012 Ford F-150
Already a standout, it breaks new ground with its available twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 engine

2012 GMC Canyon
Mechanically identical to the Chevy Colorado, it’s likewise a lackluster entry and may not last long

2012 GMC Sierra
The Sierra is distinguished from the Silverado primarily by its luxurious Denali model

2012 Honda Ridgeline
It’s really a crossover SUV with a cargo bed and is well-suited for commuter and recreational use

2012 Nissan Frontier
Durable and a good performer, but slow sales may foreshadow the death of this compact pickup

2012 Nissan Titan
Forgotten in a competitive full-size field, Titan is capable but rivals offer more configurations

2012 Toyota Tacoma
Top-selling compact pickup is a winner for style, durability, and off-road abilities

2012 Toyota Tundra
Domestic-brand loyalty is a hurdle this admirable full-size pickup hasn’t been able to overcome