The best truck I own is also the worst car I own. This disparity holds true across the vehicle market, and confuses everyone from shoppers to professional reviewers. Going into summer, I figured it was a good time that we all figured out why trucks are the way they are, once and for all.
Outside is a publication about doing neat stuff outdoors. But the outdoors is getting wrecked by irresponsible human behavior right now, threatening everyone’s ability to continue doing neat stuff outdoors. Compared to cars, trucks get bad fuel economy and no one’s made a legit electric option yet. Does driving trucks make us hypocrites?
I’d argue that the answer is no. I need my trucks in order to do that neat stuff outdoors. More fuel efficient vehicles simply wouldn’t be capable of carrying my family, my dogs, my friends, and my gear into the places I enjoy. The role trucks play in my enjoyment of the outdoors is that of an essential tool that makes it possible for me to access the outdoors.
And that gets us to the heart of what makes a truck a truck. A truck exists for no other reason than to perform work. That’s why they’re the size they are. That’s why they weigh so much. And it’s why they get such poor fuel economy.
The work I need a truck to perform is moving people and stuff over rough terrain, through challenging weather, in the absence of outside assistance. So, for a truck to work for me, I need it to offer at least four human-sized seats, room for dogs, and the payload capacity to handle sports equipment and camping gear. I also need it to be equipped with true four-wheel drive, low-range gearing, large tires, and the angles necessary to clear off-road obstacles. I need it to protect itself from damage caused by those obstacles and be able to recover should it get stuck.
Other people need their trucks to haul even heavier stuff. Others need the ability to tow things that outweigh their truck by thousands of pounds. Some even need their trucks to do all the above in aid of their jobs.
That one vehicle is able to achieve all of the above is incredibly impressive. That the same vehicle is capable of doing all that day in, day out, for years and years, at a price many people are able to afford is a freaking miracle. That it gets worse fuel economy than a Prius is utterly irrelevant.
Truck Reviews Stink
Full disclosure: I used to be a professional car reviewer. Based on that experience, I don’t think that most car websites and magazines do a good job of evaluating trucks as trucks. And I don’t think that any of my friends at those websites and magazines would be offended by that judgement. Every one of them that I know got into the field out of a passion for sports or luxury cars, and the occasional truck reviews they put together are viewed through that lens.
If you love fast cars so much that you made them your career, only have the opportunity to spend much time in stock vehicles, and don’t really have experience off-road or on a job site, then it’s really easy to come to a conclusion that the fastest, most powerful, most tech-laden pickup ever made must also be the be the best truck on the market. I get that, I think the Ford F-150 Raptor is awesome, too, but if we evaluate it simply for its ability to perform work, it becomes hard to recommend an overpowered, expensive toy as the right tool for that job.
That same bias can be seen across reviews of more mundane trucks. Take the comparison of mid-size pickups in the latest issue of Car and Driver, for instance. Not only did it exclude that segment’s sales leader—the Toyota Tacoma—for the simple crime of being old, but it went on to roundly criticize the two newest mid-size trucks—the Jeep Gladiator and Ford Ranger—for their poor-ride quality. And that’s again indicative of simply failing to understand what trucks are, what they’re for, or how they’re used.
Both the Gladiator and Ranger move the needle on the segment with higher payload capacities and more off-road capability than ever before. Both carrying heavy loads and dealing with off-road obstacles necessitate suspension systems that compromise ride quality. So which truck did the magazine recommend most people buy? A car. The only possible conclusion is that the reviewers in question don’t understand what a truck is or what it needs to do.
The Truck, a Formula
When I say truck, I’m taking about body-on-frame vehicles that at least give buyers the option of 4WD, and which have at least one live axle. This configuration is simply what it takes to haul heavy loads, tow big stuff, and tackle off-road obstacles.
The actual body style of the truck is less important. Pickups prioritize cargo over passengers. SUVs do the reverse. I have both, and use them to perform different jobs. Hauling manure is less than ideal without a pickup bed. It’s safer and easier to haul dogs in the back of an SUV.
In contrast, cars like the Honda Ridgeline that Car and Driver recommends use unibody construction (in which the body and frame are a single, lighter component), and replace the genuine usefulness of 4WD with the user friendliness of all-wheel drive.
Compared to cars, the separate frame and body configuration of trucks isn’t just much stronger, it’s also much heavier, and also very bad at utilizing space efficiently. Again, trucks are designed to perform work, and in order to do that, other subjective qualities simply aren’t as important. Weight is the enemy of fuel economy, performance, and handling. Having to find room for that big boxed steel frame means that trucks end up having worse exterior size-to-interior volume ratios than cars do. So, to haul more people and bigger stuff, they have to grow even larger, get even heavier, and all that again impairs fuel economy, performance, and handling. This is not a mistake or an accident. Trucks prioritize the ability to work over the ability to save fuel, deliver a smooth ride, or to handle like a sportscar. There is no shortcut to combining all those metrics in the same vehicle—they simply counteract each other.
Trucks Are Made to Be Modified
What you can do is increase a truck’s ability to perform work. Manufacturers are under pressure from the government to achieve high Corporate Average Fuel Economy numbers, and meet tougher safety standards than ever before. So, while today’s trucks are actually better at performing work than ever, they often come without some of the equipment necessary to actually get the job done.
The chief culprit there are the tires trucks come fitted with stock—both in terms of their size and their construction. The best tire for a truck is the one that best enables it to perform the job it’s tasked with. If that’s towing and hauling, then you need the strongest tire possible. If it’s off-roading, then you need a tire large enough to easily roll over obstacles, and fitted with a knobby tread pattern designed to find traction on loose surfaces. Either option will cost you a few miles per gallon. Your truck is designed to work with better tires than the ones it leaves the showroom with. It will have both the clearance necessary to fit and the ability to power those harder working tires.
This ability to accept modifications continues throughout the rest of a truck. Bumpers are designed to be easily removable, so you can replace them with more protective, but less pedestrian-friendly aftermarket items. There’s room and hardware to wire up winches, lights, air compressors, and radios. Beds are designed to accept accessories, be those power tools or campers.
This ability to be a blank canvas is one of the most important ways in which a truck works for you. Unlike the stock vehicles you’ll find in as showroom, a truck does not attempt to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Which modifications you fit will ultimately determine much of a truck’s capability, and allows you to adapt its utility to your unique needs. This is how trucks solve problems no other vehicle can.
A Good Truck Is a Hardworking Truck
Hands down the most useful vehicle in my driveway—none of our trucks fit in a standard height garage—is a 1998 Toyota 4Runner with 240,000 miles on it. It’s slow, it’s loud, one of its wheels has turned oval giving it a nasty highway speed vibration, and it blows through gas at the rate of a gallon every 14 or 15 miles. Judged by any normal standard, it is a giant piece of shit. But you know what? Nothing stops it. Not feet-deep snow, not sub-zero temperatures, not mud, or rocks, or even some dumbass who got his Pontiac Vibe stuck in a snowdrift, blocking an entire road in the process. Its job is to carry us and our dogs into the mountains, then get us home no matter what Montana’s unpredictable weather can throw at it. And it has not once failed to get that job done.
And because of that capability, we get to spend more time outside with our dogs, farther away from people who don’t have as good a truck as we do. It’s not shiny, it’s not new, and that doesn’t matter one bit.
How do you figure out which truck is right for you? Start by identifying what work you need it to perform and what equipment you need to perform it. Get as close to that answer as possible with a stock vehicle, then tailor that to your specific needs. The best truck is the truck that works for you.