Midsize pick-up: GMC Canyon
Features such as 8-inch touchscreen, Onstar with a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot and a quiet cabin make the Canyon the ultimate truck for a road trip.
Full-size pick-up: 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 new 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 411 horsepower on tap, the Raptor can conquer the desert and beyond.
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, six-foot, or long, eight-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.
Most people buy a truck for utility. While all trucks are able to 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; plus aggressive tires to help keep traction in the dirt.
Power vs. economy
You’ll find a wide variety of engine choices, ranging from turbocharged four-cylinder engines to large V-8s. 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 up to 26 miles per gallon in the EPA city/highway combined rating.
The largest engine to be found among the class of full-size, light-duty pickups is the massive 6.2-liter V-8 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 21 miles per gallon combined.
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 25 miles per gallon combined. 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, V-6 engines are becoming popular. You can find a naturally-aspirated 4-liter V-6 in the Nissan Frontier making 261 horsepower, achieving 19 mpg combined fuel economy, or look to the Ford F-150 3.5L EcoBoost V6, knocking out 365 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, with a combined fuel rating of up to 20 miles per gallon.
Tech and safety
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 and a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot. The Chevrolet Silverado gets the same, plus wireless charging and Apple CarPlay.
For extra power on the go, the Toyota Tacoma features 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.
As with 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 as well. The Chevrolet Silverado can be had with lane-keeping assist, forward collision alert, and front and rear parking assist. The Nissan Titan XD has optional blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert.
Top pick-up picks
The clear winner when it comes to a comfortable mid-size truck for everyday use is the GMC Canyon. The cabin is quiet, even at highway speeds, and the mid-trim SLE gets multiple USB ports, an 8-inch touchscreen, back-up camera and Onstar with a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot. Forward collision alert and lane departure warning are optional, as are heated seats.
Its twin from GM, the Chevrolet Colorado offers many of the same standard features, but the interior isn’t quite as nice as that of the GMC Canyon. However, the Canyon and Colorado both have the same amount of legroom in their crew cab editions, with 45 inches in the front and 35.8 inches in the rear.
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.
Truck for towing pick
Full-size trucks are all accomplished haulers, but the Ford F-150 stands out with its new Pro Trailer Backup Assist feature, which makes backing up a trailer a cinch. The 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 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 V-8 is rated to tow 12,300 pounds, a bit more than the F-150, but its 2,000 pounds of payload is much less. And while the back-up camera features guide lines to easily guide you to the tow hitch, there is no sophisticated back-up system that helps you reverse the trailer itself like in the F-150.
Off-road truck picks
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. The heavily revised 2016 model-year truck 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, 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 Nissan Frontier. It also has a locking rear differential, ample ground clearance and nearly identical approach, breakover and departure angles as the Tacoma. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any kind of terrain select system.
Even though the Ford F-150 Raptor is on a bit of a hiatus for 2015 and 2016, it still gets our pick for the best full-size off-road truck. The Raptor is essentially a turn-key desert race pre-runner, with 11.2-inches of wheel travel in the front and 12.1-inches in the rear thanks to the Fox Racing Shox. The 6.2L V8 gives 411 horsepower, and the whole thing rides on BF Goodrich T/A KO tires.
A close second in off-road performance is the Toyota Tundra in the TRD Pro trim, a truck that won its class at the infamous Baja 1000 in 2014. The 2.5 Bilstein shocks soak up the rough dirt easily and the 5.7-liter V8 is good for 381 horsepower and 401 pound-feet of torque. Frankly, any truck that conquered the Baja is probably able to satisfy your off-road dreams.
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.