Pickups: How big? How powerful? How comfy?

Some pickup trucks are simple workhorses designed to tow or haul heavy loads. Others trade some of their cargo-hauling prowess for spacious -- even luxurious -- passenger cabins. Experts say to consider the following when choosing a pickup truck:

  • Consider cargo and comfort. Often these criteria are in direct conflict, as the trucks with the roomiest passenger accommodations tend to have the shortest cargo beds. Five- and six-passenger trucks usually have beds at least 5 feet long, while two- and three-passenger trucks have 6-, 7- or 8-foot beds. Most trucks offer several different cab and bed configurations.
  • Match the engine to your hauling needs. Most compact trucks can pull at least 3,000 pounds, while most full-size trucks can tow at least 9,000 pounds. These ratings are more than adequate for most people's needs. For very heavy or frequent towing, you'll want to upgrade the engine to a V8 or a diesel (which has more torque than a gasoline engine).
  • Some people use their trucks as commuter vehicles. Pickups tend to be heavy and not very aerodynamic, and they have large, powerful engines. All of these factors work against fuel economy. In general, full-size trucks are less efficient than compact or midsize pickups. Automatics generally fare worse than manual transmissions (in trucks that actually offer manuals), and gasoline engines burn fuel faster than diesels. Four-wheel drive will send you to the pump faster than rear-wheel drive. If you mainly want a truck for carrying loads back from a warehouse or home-improvement store, consider a smaller truck that gets better gas mileage. The most fuel-efficient small trucks can get around 23 mpg in mixed driving.
  • Four-wheel drive is a necessity only if you drive in severe off-road conditions or in snow. If you don't drive off-road in rugged terrain or live in an especially snowy region, you'll probably be better off with a regular rear-wheel-drive truck. These are usually cheaper, faster and (as noted above) more economical than models equipped with four-wheel drive.
  • Look for advanced safety features. Pickups are more prone to rollovers and backup accidents than cars or vans, and several models do a poor job protecting their passengers in crashes. Advanced safety features can help, experts say. Electronic stability control has been proven to help drivers avoid accidents in the first place. Traction control is especially helpful on rear-wheel-drive pickups, which tend to lose traction when the bed is empty. Some trucks provide side airbags for front passengers and curtain airbags for all passengers; these trucks usually do the best job protecting passengers in crash tests. Backup cameras are often an expensive option, but they can vastly reduce a driver's chance of backing over an object -- or a child -- that might be in the dangerous rear blind zone common to all pickups.
  • Understand the different cab types. Regular cab usually refers to a shorter cabin with two seats and little room behind them. The next size up, sometimes referred to as an extended cab, has more space behind the front seats and usually small rear seats. The largest cab option, sometimes referred to as a crew cab, includes a full four-door setup with room for up to five passengers. Note that different automakers have their own cab naming conventions, so you may need to decipher them beforehand to accurately compare models.

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