This article originally appeared on Outside
In a time where large trucks bear much of the negative image associated with both the climate disaster and toxic masculinity, amid popular culture trends that promote doing more with less, it’s common to see outdoorsy types trying to press smaller vehicles into unsuitable roles. Because this typically results in exactly the opposite things drivers are trying to achieve–worse fuel economy, diminished capability, compromised safety–this grumpy former car journalist feels the need to set the record straight. I know this is going to be controversial, but you probably need a bigger pickup truck than you think you do. Let me explain.
Small Trucks + Big Jobs = Huge Problems
It’s the job of a pickup truck to perform work. You choose one over a passenger car or sport utility vehicle because you need to haul people, dogs, and things off paved roads and through inclement weather in order to pursue your hobbies and lifestyle. For that reason, we quantify the work a truck is capable of performing by the amount of weight it’s designed to carry. A pickup designed to carry more weight will be capable of moving that weight more safely, and more competently, no matter the environment.
But, here on a continent where training is almost entirely absent from a typical driver’s experience, enforcement focuses on speed only, and where good information is lacking in most people’s vehicle-purchase decisions as a result, it can prove difficult to create both an accurate picture of the amount of weight you need a vehicle to carry, and the amount of weight a truck is actually able to carry.
I’ve picked on the Toyota Tacoma before, but let’s again briefly use it as an example here, simply because it’s so popular amongst active Outside readers. The third generation Tacoma, which has been on sale since 2015 and is being replaced next year by a much improved all-new Tacoma, has a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 5,600 pounds. That’s the maximum it’s legal and safe for one to weigh on public roads. Because the Tacoma itself weighs anywhere from 3,915 to 4,550 pounds, depending on whether its two or four-wheel drive (the latter is heavier), or how large the cab is, that leaves 1,685 pounds to 1,050 pounds left over. The delta between GVWR and weight is a vehicle’s payload–the amount of weight it’s able to carry.
1,155 pounds–the payload of a Tacoma in its most popular configuration–may sounds like a good amount of weight, but remember a truck needs to carry more than what’s in its bed. It’s got to haul you, your dogs, fuel, and anything else you may put in or add to it as well. After you add two humans, a full tank, and odds and ends, a Tacoma is left with only about 500 pounds of real-world capacity to work with.
According to Truck Camper magazine, the wet weight of the Four Wheel Campers Fleet on Drew Simm’s new Tacoma is 1,798 pounds. That’s a long ways from the 500 or so pounds the vehicle is capable of safely carrying with humans and fuel on board. Add 72 additional pounds for the extra fuel in the Long Range America tank, a few hundred more pounds to account for protection parts like the front bumper and rock sliders, plus the roof rack, the snorkel, whatever’s in all those cabinets on the custom tray, plus photo and outdoor gear, and we’re looking at a truck that weighs at least 2,000 pounds over GVWR.
That math applies to other vehicles too. Payload on a Ford F-150 Raptor–a large, aggressive-looking truck if ever there was one–is only 1,400 pounds. Payload on a Jeep Gladiator Rubicon–another tough-looking vehicle–is 1,200 pounds.
Overloading = Danger
What happens when you exceed GVWR? Because you can see the rear squat under all that weight, it’s common to think of excessive weight as a spring rate problem only. It’s not. Again, the work a truck performs is moving weight. Every component and system on a vehicle must function together to do that. Add too much weight and you’ll be forcing those components and systems to operate outside of designed limitations. Overloading a vehicle applies stress to everything from the cooling system to the transmission, axles, differentials, brakes, and even the frame. While some of those components can be upgraded, there is no legal path to increasing GVWR in the United States. And, all of those components would need to be upgraded together in order to genuinely increase capacity–something that would likely cost more than the vehicle itself. Cherry picking upgrades, like brakes, still leaves the cooling system and everything else vulnerable.
Take this Tundra for instance. The owner reports it weighs 9,200 pounds as seen here, but GVWR for the truck is only 6,700 pounds. The consequences? Driving down a simple dirt road of the kind accessible to Subarus and similar, its frame bent in half and the engine blew.
On road, an overloaded vehicle will feel ponderous to drive. It’ll struggle to accelerate, maintain speed, and climb hills. Fuel economy will plummet. The extra weight will also cause the truck to lean further in corners. Off-road, ever extra pound you add makes any obstacle proportionally more challenging. The consequences for reliability? Mechanical failures will become common and components will wear out much faster.
The consequences for safety are more severe, resulting in extended braking distances, significant rollover hazards, and complete failure of crucial systems, like the brakes. In the event of a now more-likely crash, the vehicle’s crumple zones and other safety systems will be less capable of protecting both the truck’s occupants, and anyone they hit.
What I’m trying to demonstrate with these examples is how easy it is to overload many popular trucks. It’s not just quarter-ton pickups like the Tacoma that feature significant limitations. Payload for popular half-tons can also be surprisingly low. The most payload you’re going to get out of a normal Ford F-150, the best selling vehicle in America, is only 2,238 pounds (a special order package can increase that number). Fill the tank, put an adult in the passenger seat, carry extra gear, and you’re looking at only about 1,800 pounds leftover. And it doesn’t take a slide-in camper to exceed that capacity. Pouring footings for a new deck this weekend? 20 bags of cement will put that F-150 over capacity. And we haven’t even talked about towing yet.
Enter the Heavy-Duty Pickup
Yes, the same vehicles you picture when you think of rolling coal, and otherwise failing to compensate for rampant male inadequacy issues. But aside from being the perfect accessory for a goatee, big, intimidating pickups are just what many adventurous types need if they plan to haul campers, tow trailers, or perform any other job that involves moving a bunch of weight from one place to another.
Aside from image problems, 3/4 and one-ton pickups have traditionally suffered from a few other issues. As anyone who’s ever rented a big U-Haul will know–rental trucks are often based on heavy-duty pickups–these things are slow, ride terribly, feature spartan interiors, and their dimensions make them genuinely challenging to navigate through traffic, or into a parking space.
Those are all problems Ford is attempting to address with its new Super Duty. Again defining a truck’s abilities through the amount of weight it’s capable of moving, the Super Duty is simply the most capable consumer truck ever made, with a payload capacity of up to 8,000 pounds, and a maximum trailer weight of 40,000 pounds. Compare those numbers to the overloaded examples above, and the problems they have would simply disappear in the back of a Super Duty. Heck, when those vehicles break, it’ll probably be a heavy-duty pickup-based tow truck that carries them to the scrap yard.
I recently flew to Detroit to drive the heavily revised 2023 Ford Super Duty. When the company first introduced the fourth generation Super Duty in 2017, it addressed issues like ride quality and interior appointments with the use of a new high-strength steel frame mounted to an aluminum body that shares its cab with the smaller F-150, trimming hundreds of pounds off the vehicle’s curb weight while creating a stiffer, stronger platform. New engines and 10-speed transmissions addressed performance deficits, while increasing fuel economy. This year’s updated version brings high-tech driver’s aids that improve ease of use. Everything from reversing a trailer to parking to navigating tight trails has been made easier with the addition of multiple cameras, and autonomous driver aids. The truck is capable of taking complete control in some challenging situations, removing the potential for human error altogether, or simply saving you time and hassle.
Driving a Heavy-Duty Pickup in the Real World
Over the last few years, as interest in vehicle-based travel has boomed, I’ve found myself looking at the needs of readers and friends, and recommending they buy something like the Super Duty more and more often. And a lot of those people haven’t been the type of customer you’d traditionally associate with trucks like these.
Take Brandie Heinel, for instance. A resident of Berkeley, California, Heinel slaved away at big tech firms in the Bay Area for a couple of decades in order to put away enough cash to semi-retire, and spend most of her time traveling and camping with her husband and dogs. She knew she wanted to pull a travel trailer to bring along comforts like a shower and toilet, but had never owned a pickup before.
After deciding on a modestly-sized, 24-foot, 8,820-pound trailer, Heinel ran the numbers. She saw that they fit an F-150’s tow capacity, so she started shopping for one of those. That’s when she reached out to me. I listened to her describe plans to visit beaches in Baja, drive up to Alaska, and buy a cabin across the country in Vermont, and I steered her into a diesel Super Duty instead. Why?
“We’ve seen people with the same trailer get five to six miles per gallon with their gas F-150s,” explains Heinel. “We get 18.”
She also reports that the Super Duty’s driving experience remains unchanged, whether it’s got a trailer behind it or not. “We experience no sway when [we’re] towing,” she tells me. “Even when towing over a mountain pass, we’re able to maintain 80 miles per hour without it even shifting out of 10th gear.”
What Heinel is experiencing is the difference between something that can technically move a certain amount of weight, and something designed to move much more weight as its primary function, throughout every mile of its service life. Where smaller trucks prioritize versatility across commutes, school runs, and box-store shopping and camping trips, her Super Duty prioritizes the ability to tow and haul thousands of pounds. It’s a tool designed to perform the exact job I’m describing here.
Addressing Heavy-Duty Truck Objections
But Heinel’s Super Duty is bigger than pretty much anything else out there. It’s also more expensive, has a huge turbo diesel engine, and people look at big trucks like these and assume they must be desperately unsafe for other road users.
Let’s compare her Super Duty to that first Tacoma I mentioned: the one that’s at least 2,000 pounds over GVWR. It’s an absolutely ridiculous comparison to make, but because it holds up, it really drives home the point that attempting to press a tiny truck into big truck duties just isn’t a smart thing to do.
That overloaded Taco probably can’t reach 80 miles per hour on flat ground, let alone over a mountain pass. Heinel’s fuel economy while towing 8,000 pounds is 18 miles per gallon. Simply fitting 33-inch tires (which appear to be what our example is wearing), is enough to reduce the fuel economy of an otherwise stock Tacoma to about 12 miles per gallon. Add the camper and I’d be surprised if that Tacoma breaks eight miles per gallon. Heavy-duty pickups may get worse fuel economy than smaller vehicles while both are unladen, but utterly decimate any other vehicle on miles per gallon once there’s work to perform.
What about safety? Big trucks like these carry a lot of momentum, they can be hard to see out of, and the height of their hoods, even on stock suspension and tires, comes up to the shoulders of an adult. Hit a pedestrian or cyclist with an economy car, and they end up on the hood. Do the same in a giant pickup, and they end up under the wheels. But again, we’re comparing a vehicle designed to commute with one engineered to move heavy loads. And once we shift the conversation to talk of moving that weight, heavy-duty pickups start to look a lot safer. How do you think that overloaded Tacoma handles the other side of that mountain pass heading downhill? Or if it needs to perform an emergency braking maneuver to avoid a pedestrian? Its brakes, suspension, and transmission simply aren’t designed to remain safe controlling all that extra weight. Meanwhile, Heinel’s towing about half the weight her exact truck is designed to pull. She’s operating well within the safety margins of her vehicle, and is the more responsible, considerate road user as a result. “I ride my bicycle around Berkeley,” she says.
What about the price? A Tacoma TRD Pro comes out of a showroom at about $52,000. Replacing the suspension, brakes, tires, and regearing it adds about $15,000 to that total. The roof rack, bumper, and lights on our example will be about another $3,000. The Bowen Customs tray is $18,400. That’s around $88,000 that I can count just by looking at a photo. Super Duties start at about $44,000, but Heinel paid $92,000 for her Platinum Tremor. She’ll make up that difference between her rig and this Tacoma from fuel costs alone in under 20,000 miles–every one one of which will be safer, more comfortable, and more confidence inspiring.
The right tool for this job exists. It is irresponsible not to use it.
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