Big power, big choices: Tips for buying a new heavy-duty truck

March 1, 2019

With great towing comes great power.

When Minneapolis resident Jesse Rask upgraded his camper to a 12,000-pound, 37-foot trailer, his beloved 2007 Nissan Titan just wasn’t up to the task.

“I loved that truck, loved it,” he said. “But it just couldn’t tow.”

His choice was one that many truck owners make: What’s next after a light-duty pickup runs out of breath? Rask’s decision, like many others, was to step up to a heavy-duty truck—specifically a 2018 Ford Super Duty F-350 with a 6.7-liter diesel engine.

DON'T MISS: Read our 2019 Ram 2500 Heavy Duty review

More buyers are purchasing heavy-duty trucks than before, and although truckmakers don’t disclose numbers, industry analysts estimate that roughly 1 in 4 pickups sold in America is a heavy-duty pickup. More than 650,000 heavy-duty trucks are likely to be sold this year; heavy-duty trucks are more popular than sports cars, small luxury cars, mid-size luxury cars, or large luxury cars.

First-time heavy-duty truck buyers are often lured into the big pickups, not because of the truck, but rather what the truck will drag behind it, said Hugh Milne, a spokesman for the Chevy Silverado.

“By far, the No. 1 reason why people buy heavy-duty is for towing. Bar none,” he said.

Light-duty trucks such as the Silverado, Ford F-150, and Ram 1500 top out on conventional towing (read: trailers attached to a hitch near the rear bumper) at 10,000 pounds or less. Heavy-duty trucks are typically rated to tow a conventional trailer of around 20,000 pounds; gooseneck or fifth-wheel trailers, up to 35,000 pounds.

Those are eye-popping numbers, with sometimes equally eye-popping price tags for the trucks that tow them. Where to get started? Experts on each of the Detroit Three trucks weigh in.

Chevrolet Silverado Heavy duty drive with John Deere, Jessica Walker, courtesy of Chevrolet

Chevrolet Silverado Heavy duty drive with John Deere, Jessica Walker, courtesy of Chevrolet

Weigh your options

Milne suggested that interested buyers should head to a weigh station before heading to a dealer’s lot.

“Take your trailer, fully loaded, to the nearest weigh station and see what you’re dealing with first,” he said. “Sometimes heavy-duty owners don’t need the capability, or light-duty owners are over-taxing their pickups too much. It’s important to know what you need.”

Rod Romain, the chief engineer for the new Ram heavy-duty pickup, said understanding gross combined weight rating (GCWR) can help shoppers determine what kind of truck to purchase. The GCWR is the total weight of the vehicle, passengers, what’s in the bed, and trailer. The 2019 Ram 3500 GCWR tops out at 43,000 pounds, with a max trailer weight of 35,100 pounds in a specific certain configuration.

If towing titanic toys is part of a regular routine (instead of once or twice a year), a heavy-duty pickup might make sense.

READ NEXT: Read our 2019 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD

Owners who need to tow more than 10,000 pounds, regularly, will next need to consider a three-quarter or one-ton pickup. The terms “three-quarter ton” and “one ton” pickups used to refer to the amount of weight that could fit in the bed, but now are colloquially used to describe the differences between 2500 and 3500 trucks, or in Ford’s case, F-250 or F-350.

“It’s kind of a misnomer now,” said Brian Rathsburg, a spokesman for the Ford Super Duty. “We hear it in casual conversation…but it’s not really used that much in describing the truck.”

The two grades of heavy-duty trucks are defined by their rear suspensions, and the frames that support them. One-ton trucks are towing and payload kings (or queens) with capacities that can even exceed typical driver’s licenses. (In most places, towing a trailer heavier than 26,000 pounds requires a commercial driver’s license.)

Three-quarter ton (2500 and F-250) trucks are only available in single-rear-wheel configurations with towing capacities up to 20,000 pounds, which Milne says covers about 80 percent of towing needs.

One-ton (3500 and F-350) trucks are most often sold as dual-rear-wheel vehicles—called “duallies”—and reach the vaunted 35,000-pound figures advertised among automakers. (Ford sells an F-450 Super Duty that has the highest towing capacity among Super Duty trucks; it’s only available in a dual-rear-wheel configuration.)

2019 Ram 2500 Heavy Duty

2019 Ram 2500 Heavy Duty

Get measured

Heavy-duty pickups are virtual battleships wading in rivers of daily commuter cars. In some cases, the trucks can be 6 to 8 feet longer than average mid-size vehicles, and 2 feet wider.

Rask said that his commute to work is typically short and doesn’t involve narrow city streets or parking lots.

“It’s not ideal, by any means, and I have a short commute—so that helps,” said Rask.

“If you’re buying a heavy-duty, you have to have a purpose for it. It’s not quite as easy to live with as a light-duty,” Milne said.

Heavy-duty pickups with long beds, or dual rear wheels may not fit well in some garages either. Most conventional garages are 20-24 feet deep; the most popular configuration for a Ford Super Duty measures nearly 21 feet from bumper to bumper. That’s not much room—if any—to park in a garage.

DON'T MISS: Read our 2019 Ford Super Duty F-250 review

All heavy-duty pickups now offer a bevy of exterior cameras to help hook up to a trailer, or even park, the big rigs. In addition to front and rearview cameras, most offer in-bed displays to help hitch to a gooseneck or fifth-wheel trailer, sideview cameras for easier turning, and even trailer-mounted rearview cameras that can virtually erase the trailer for better rearward vision or blind-spot monitoring.

In addition to tricky maneuvers around town and at home, heavy-duty trucks also can be thirsty.

Truckmakers aren’t required to report fuel economy for heavy-duty trucks to federal regulators, but most will average combined fuel economy in the low teens. When Ford debuted its newest Super Duty, it claimed the diesel-powered version, when equipped with a long-range tank, could travel from Denver to Chicago on a single tank of diesel fuel, which would require a highway consumption rate of 20 mpg. That’s very low among new cars.

2019 Ford Super Duty F-250

2019 Ford Super Duty F-250

Spec it right

Each truckmaker offers millions of configurations for their heavy-duty pickups. Really, millions.

Between cab lengths, bed sizes, powertrain configurations, trim levels, and options, the possibilities for heavy-duty trucks easily number into the millions.

Rask said he spent six months researching his Ford Super Duty. He landed on a single-rear-wheel, diesel-powered, crew cab Lariat F-350. He cross-shopped a 2018 Ram 3500—particularly for its 6.7-liter inline-6 turbodiesel—but found that his family fit better and more comfortably in the interior of the Ford.

“We had them right next to each other, and went back and forth between the two,” he said.

With the level of customizations, including rear axle ratio, which impacts towing capability, heavy-duty trucks are among the most configurable vehicles on the planet.

And they should be. Heavy-duty trucks are also some of the most expensive vehicles on sale from mainstream auto manufacturers. Last year, the average transaction price for a heavy-duty truck was about $44,000, according to J.D. Power. That’s up from the average transaction price for a new car ($27,800) in December 2018.

According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, the average transaction price for a new heavy-duty truck has risen by 61 percent in the last 10 years, far outpacing the average price paid for a typical new car. Truckmakers earn thousands on each truck sold, evidenced by the bevy of tech and upgrades available on each.

A fully loaded Ford Super Duty F-350 can tempt $90,000; a top-trim Ram 3500 Limited Mega Cab with a diesel engine costs north of $80,000 before any optional extras are added, too. Chevy hasn’t yet said how much its new heavy-duty trucks will cost when they go on sale later this year, although it’s a fair bet that they won’t stray far from the other competitors’ prices.

All that means interested heavy-duty shoppers should get exactly what they need at the price they can afford.

New heavy-duty trucks from Ford, General Motors, and Ram offer more features and creature comforts. Upgraded camera packages for easier towing and active safety features can help, according to Rask.

“Things like adaptive cruise control for long trips were a big reason,” he said. “We’ve put 4,500 miles pulling the camper and setting it helps for long road trips.”

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