You've got $40,000 to spend on a pickup truck; here's how you get the most for your money.
This ain't about BS "best-in-class" bragging rights. It's not a detailed breakdown of every engine, cab, and color configuration there is. It's a simple guide to the sweet spot between utility, features, and price with a full-size pickup truck on the market right now.
We haven't taken every truck to the ragged edge. What we have done is strap motorcycles into cargo boxes, heaved errant SUVs out of ditches, towed project cars, hauled half the contents of Home Depot back to mama's, taken the boat to the lake, brought the bros skiing, flung a whole lotta dirt in 2WD, and unbogged ourselves in 4-Lo. Even wedged our way through a Wendy's drive-thru or two. You know... using trucks like trucks, and daily transportation.
So how'd we land at $40,000?
Well none of you seem interested in regular cabs, so that pretty much eliminates all your full-size options under $30,000. For many truck shoppers, 4WD is also a given and that tacks on another $4,000... leaving you with a few grand to play with trim and options.
The 2015 Chevrolet Silverado has a smooth ride, solid ergonomics, and the most timeless (simple) styling of any full-size truck on the market right now. But it clinched this category thanks to cheaper features and an excellent capability-to-efficiency ratio.
The Silverado was the only extended cab 4WD pickup we were able to spec with a V8 engine and navigation, and still be under-budget enough to order the trailering package. That adds an automatically locking rear differential and takes the truck's towing potential to 9,500 pounds; none of the competitors could come close without sacrificing features or exceeding the $40,000 budget.
Being able to afford the optional 5.3 EcoTec3 V8 means the Silverado was making much more power than similarly-priced Fords and Rams with their respective base V6s. And better than that; the EcoTec3 hits peak power lower in the rev range which gives the truck grunt where it needs it most. All that only comes at a cost of one MPG compared to Ford's naturally aspirated six-cylinder.
The Right Spec: Double Cab/Standard Box LT 4WD with the optional 5.3 V8 engine, trailering package, and navigation for $39,335
The Ram 1500 really offers a lot of truck for comparatively little money, and based on observed real-world driving it's the leanest on fuel consumption by a significant margin.
The 3.6 gasoline V6 and new 3.0 EcoDiesel take their sweet time getting from A to B, but they're satisfying for long hauls or light work and Ram's smooth-shifting, eight-speed, knob-activated automatic transmission is excellent. Diesel might cost more at the pump where you live, but there's still something awesome about having a 600-mile range.
But if you want the D, you're going to have to pass on infotainment or other niceties. The EcoDiesel engine option is about $4,000.
The best value is realized at the lower end of Ram's lineup. If you option-up a base Tradesman as needed instead of going for one of the fancier rigs, you can get a lot of great options and relatively spectacular fuel economy for almost four grand under budget. The Silverado only beat Ram to the top spot because it brought way more capability to the table without burning too much more fuel. If "cheap and efficient" is at the top of your wish list, the V6 Ram is your truck.
The Right Spec: Quad Cab/6'4" Box Tradesman 4WD with Uconnect infotainment, backup camera, "anti-spin" rear differential, skid plates, tow hooks, air suspension, and 3.6 Pentastar V6 for $36,390
The 2015 Ford F-150 can just about carry the weight of a Ford Fiesta in its bed and tow its own mass twice over on a trailer hitch. It's also got the best barrage of trick features you've never seen in a pickup; from 360-degree maneuvering cameras to massaging seats.
So why wasn't it an easy win here? It costs a fortune to buy, even more to fuel, and of course those chart-topping accolades are only realized "when properly equipped."
The budget-conscious buyer's first instinct might be to go for the naturally-aspirated V6; but you'll still just barely be able to afford the good radio while cheaper V8 Silverados haul ahead of you towing another 2,500 pounds.
Forget that, if you're going to spend $40,000 on an F-150 get the toys that matter: the long cargo box, the Heavy Payload package, and that fire-breathing turbocharged temptress the 3.5 EcoBoost engine. That powerhouse paired up with the Heavy Payload's 9.75" gearset will take your payload max up to 2,760 pounds and allow for almost 12,000 pounds of towing. That. Is. Insane.
Of course, to stay under budget (and just) you're going to have to skip every luxury option right down to good old fashioned crank windows. But if you really need the most capable vehicle under $40,000, F-150's where it's at. Spec the rear-wheel drive version to free up a few extra pounds for cargo.
The Right Spec: SuperCab/Long Box XL 4WD with the 3.5 EcoBoost engine and Heavy Duty Payload/Max Trailering Package for $39,120
It's everything you love about the Chevy Silverado with nicer interior appointments, a more stately face, and markups on every option. Great looking truck and a genuine pleasure to drive, but you gotta pay to play.
The GMC Sierra doesn't offer any practical advantage over its Chevy equivalent, which makes it a tough case on a budget.
The Toyota Tundra is a simpler truck from a simpler time. Frankly it's still good; it really feels like it wants to romp with ultra-light steering feel and massive torque at low RPM. Believe it or not, it's also qualified to tow almost 10,000 pounds with the optional 5.7 V8, but that engine guzzles gas egregiously.
The interior's dated and the whole truck flounders like a worm in jello over rough stuff. If Toyota was willing to undercut their competitors they might still have a value proposition with this truck... but it still MSRP's over $40,000 almost immediately when you start spec'ing options.
The old Titan has all the Tundra's problems, but even fewer positive attributes to make a case for itself. It's got decent power and a pretty reasonable asking price, on-par towing max, a shockingly high payload rating (2,112 pounds on the 2WD version!), but fuel economy is garbage and build quality is uninspired.
Of course the completely redone Titan will be on the market in less than a year, so we'll have to circle back after we get acquainted with it.