With so many sizes, configurations, trims, and powertrains available, choosing the best pre-owned pickup is no easy task.
Pickup trucks are the Swiss Army Knives of the automotive world. They can be configured to tow and haul heavy loads for workman-like use, blaze new trails off road, and double on the weekends as a burlier, though no less accommodating, alternative to a luxury sedan.
But with midrange full-size pickup trucks reaching into the $40,000 range these days, and the poshest models equipped with leather seats and other upscale amenities surpassing the $60,000 mark (fully loaded, the top Ford F-450 heavy-duty pickup costs over $77,000), choosing a used model instead of a new one can save a budget-minded buyer considerable cash. For example, a 2017 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 4WD LT Crew Cab has an MSRP of $44,200 in its base form, while a similarly equipped three-year-old version with 45,000 miles on the odometer would retail on a used car dealer’s lot for $30,500 (as of this writing), according to NADAguides.com.
But buying a used pickup truck is even more complicated effort than is shopping for a used car, given the expansive assortment of configurations, powertrains, and trim levels in which most models are offered. The 2017 Ford F-150 comes in no less than 44 model variations, and that’s not counting another plethora of permutations among the F-Series’ heavy-duty pickup lines. For basic guidance check out our related post on how to buy a used car; we’ll otherwise stick to truck-specific considerations here. And be sure to check out Motor1’s used vehicle listing section to search among locally available makes and models that meet your needs and budget.
Though the vast majority of pickup trucks you’ll find in the resale market are full-size models, specifically the Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-Series, GMC Sierra, Nissan Titan, Toyota Tundra, and the Ram 1500 line of trucks, you’ll still find some smaller midsize and compact models being offered. These include the Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon, Nissan Frontier, and Toyota Tacoma, the car-based Honda Ridgeline, as well as older models that have since been discontinued, including the Ford Ranger, Dodge Dakota, and older iterations from Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Suzuki, among others. As one might imagine, the full-size models are roomier, more capable, and come with more powerful engines than their smaller counterparts, which are more often used for modest hauling and recreational purposes, especially among younger buyers.
Full-size pickups are considered either “half ton,” “three-quarter ton,” or “one ton” models, which loosely refers to their hauling abilities. The latter two are considered heavy-duty pickup trucks and generally come with larger frames, stiffer suspensions, and more powerful engines to tackle the toughest tasks. For example, the 2017 Ram 1500 half-ton pickup is rated to tow anywhere between 4,750 and 10,640 pounds depending on the powertrain and configuration, while the top 3500 HD one-ton heavy duty version can pull as much as 17,980 pounds when properly equipped.
Crew Cab models combine the best of pickup trucks and large SUVs, with four doors and a full rear bench seat.
Most pickup trucks come in multiple cab configurations and with various wheelbases and cargo bed lengths to meet one’s needs. Most basic is is the classic Regular Cab, which typically features a single row of seats and a long cargo bed. Extended Cab models come with a shorter bed, but with a larger cab with smallish clamshell-opening rear doors that provide access to a small space for storage or a par of cramped passengers behind the front seats. Ram calls this style Quad Cab, Ford calls it SuperCab, Nissan calls it King Cab, and Chevy, GMC, and Toyota call it Double Cab.
The most popular configuration these days are Crew Cab models that combine the best of pickup trucks and large SUVs with four doors and a full rear bench seat, though with a short cargo bed. Most makers simply refer to this style as a Crew Cab, though Ford calls it SuperCrew, and Toyota’s named it CrewMax. They’re popular choices for a family’s recreational purposes, like transporting dirt bikes, horse tack gear, and other sports equipment in a truck bed that can easily be hosed off, rather than the carpeted cargo hold of an expensive SUV.
Compact and midsize pickup trucks typically feature a cargo bed that ranges in size from 5.1 to 6.4 feet in length, depending on the cab configuration, while full-size models’ beds range from 5.5 feet with Crew Cabs to a full 8 feet with standard cab models; the latter are best suited to carry full 4X8-foot sheets of drywall stacked flat without requiring a so-called bed extender that affords a longer cargo hold with the tailgate open.
Under The Hood
For the most part you’ll find compact and midsize pickup trucks packing either a four-cylinder engine or a small V6, though some older Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon models can be found fitted with five-cylinder engines and the Dodge Dakota was briefly offered with a V8. Full-size models typically come with either a V6 or a V8 under the hood. Later model Ford F-150s can be found with turbocharged V6 engines that deliver surprisingly good acceleration and towing abilities, while saving a few miles per gallon in the process.
Heavy duty pickups come with the largest engines in a given truck line, and they’re typically burly V8 powerplants, though you may find a few fitted with V10 engines out there. Some HD trucks pack extra-durable and powerful turbodiesel engines that feature stump-pulling torque ratings. One-ton heavy-duty models can be equipped with dual rear wheels for added stability when towing the largest trailers.
Don’t expect much in the way of fuel economy from these large and purposeful models.
Most pickups come with automatic transmissions, though if you look hard enough in the pre-owned market you can find a few older full-size models, and a larger assortment of midsize and compact units equipped with stick shifts.
Don’t expect much in the way of fuel economy from these large and purposeful models. A five-year-old GMC Sierra with a V8 engine is EPA rated at just 15/21 mpg (city/highway) at best. To that end, some full-size Chevrolet and GMC pickups were offered in gas/electric hybrid-powered models that paired a V8 gasoline engine with an electric motor/generator and a self-charging battery pack to save a few mpg. You might find a few 2014 and 2015 Ram 1500 models out there fitted with a V6 turbodiesel engine, likewise for the sake of improved fuel economy.
Used trucks can be found either in a rear- or all-wheel-drive configuration, with the latter recommended for the added traction a large rear-drive vehicle tends to lose over wet or snowy roads. The latter also typically come with low-range gearing that enables hard-core off-roading when properly equipped. Look for models having so-called full-time 4WD systems that automatically shift engine torque as necessary to the wheels needing additional traction without having to be manually engaged.
Checking The Specs
Especially if you plan to use a pre-owned pickup for hauling tools and materials and/or towing a boat or trailer, you’ll want to ensure any model you’re considering is up to the task.
Two key specs to look for here are a truck’s payload, which is a measurement of how much weight a truck can carry including both passengers and cargo and the weight of fuel in the gas tank, and its maximum towing capacity, which is how much weight a vehicle can safely tow. Both vary according to the truck’s configuration, engine size, another factors, with higher numbers in both measurements promising increased abilities. At that, you should assume these stats have been exaggerated somewhat just to wind up on the safe side; overloading a vehicle can accelerate wear and tear, and pulling a heavier trailer than the pickup can safely handle can cause it to sway excessively behind the tow vehicle, causing hazardous control issues.
Both specs can be found in a truck’s owner’s manual, noted on a compliance certification label affixed to the driver’s-side doorsill, or via an online search. If you’re buying a used truck for towing purposes, ensure it’s been equipped for such purposes. In addition to a trailer hitch, it should include a towing package that includes a heavier duty suspension and transmission, beefier brakes, and a bigger radiator with added cooling capacity. Also handy are extendable mirrors that give a driver added visibility around the trailer.
Overloading a vehicle can accelerate wear and tear, and pulling a heavier trailer than the pickup can safely handle can cause it to sway excessively behind the tow vehicle.
Also, ensure the truck’s trailer hitch meets your needs. The most common type is a "receiver" hitch located below the rear bumper, which usually features a metal ball or hook for attaching a trailer. Heavy-duty pickups can sometimes be found with a "gooseneck" hitch, which is attached to the frame near the rear axle with the hitch ball extending through a hole in the cargo bed, or a horseshoe-shaped "fifth-wheel" hitch in the center of the cargo bed for pulling the largest and heaviest trailers.
If you’ll be taking the truck off-road, look for a model that comes fitted with skid plates to protect undercarriage components, a higher ground clearance, and off-road-ready tires with deeper treads for added grip over mud or loose surfaces.
Kicking The Tires
As with any used-vehicle purchase, be sure to give any used truck you’re considering a mechanical inspection; even better, take the truck to a trusted mechanic for a once-over to ensure it’s mechanically sound, and to find out which, if any, components may need replacing in the near term. At the least, take a look under the hood to ensure that fluids aren’t leaking, the engine’s belts and hoses aren’t cracked or brittle, and it’s free from suspicious sounds or smells. Check to see if there’s sufficient tread left on the tires, and that all systems are in good working order. If you can take a peek beneath the truck and see any fractured metal in the frame or welded repairs, walk away from the deal.
Ask to see an owner’s maintenance and repair histories via saved receipts, and inquire about how the truck was used. All else being equal it’s preferable to choose a model that’s been pampered as a lifestyle vehicle than one that’s been beaten up off-road or at the job site, or used to pull a horse trailer. If you see a trailer hitch and it looks like it's been scuffed up, assume the vehicle has been used for towing and that its drivetrain may have above-average wear and tear.
If you can take a peek beneath the truck and see any fractured metal in the frame or welded repairs, walk away from the deal.
As one would when buying a used passenger car, always give a pre-owned truck a thorough test drive on both local roads and at highway speeds. Specifically, pay attention to how smoothly the engine accelerates, the transmission shifts, how securely the brakes bring the vehicle to a stop, how easy or challenging it is to maneuver and park, and whether the vehicle unduly shakes or rattles over pavement imperfections. Be aware that many big trucks, particularly heavy-duty models and those with beefed-up rear suspensions, will tend to be a bit bouncy over pavement irregularities when the cargo bed is empty.
Some pickups can be set quite high off the ground, especially when off-road equipped and riding on oversized wheels and tires, so make sure it’s an easy climb in and out of the passenger cab. You may want to look for a model that comes with running boards or side steps if you’re shorter and/or otherwise physically limited. And choose a model that affords a comfortable seating position for your height and build, with good outward visibility, and all dashboard controls placed within easy reach.