Should You Buy a Diesel Pickup Truck?


There are a lot of decisions you’re going to have to make when you are thinking of buying a new truck, and one of the big ones these days is should you buy a diesel pickup truck? If you’re not familiar with the pros and cons of diesel-powered pickup trucks, I’m going to tell you all about them here so you can decide if diesel is going to be for you.

If you are going to be doing a lot of heavy towing, a diesel pickup truck is going to be the perfect tool for the job. A lot of people think that’s the only reason you would want a diesel engine under the hood of your truck, but there’s a little more to diesel trucks than just their towing capability.

What’s the main advantage of a diesel pickup?

As I just stated, the most popular reason why people buy diesel trucks is that they are staggeringly good at towing, and that’s because of the amount of torque they produce. The first rule of towing is the bigger the job, the bigger the engine displacement you need, but gas and diesel engines have very different characteristics. Towing puts an awful lot of strain on a truck’s engine, and the more torque you have available the less strain that will be put on the engine.

Diesel pickup trucks are capable of towing heavier trailers than their gas counterparts, they can do it for longer, and they can do it more often. If you have a gas pickup truck and you are towing close to its maximum trailer rating day-in-day-out on long journeys, you’re going to start having reliability issues way sooner than you would with a diesel. If you want to tow big and often, a diesel pickup is the sensible choice.

Other advantages of diesel

Another reason a lot of commercial trucks have diesel engines is they deliver better fuel economy than gas engines. According to the US Department of Energy, you can expect to get 30 to 35 percent better mileage from a diesel-powered truck than you’d get from a truck equipped with a comparable gas engine. If you’re running a business doing something like 20,000 miles per year or more, the money you’re going to save on fuel can be significant and obviously helps with bottom-line profitability.

Diesel engines tend to require less maintenance than gas engines too, which is another boost when every cent counts towards the profitability of a business. Diesels have fewer vulnerable, tricky components than spark-ignition gas engines, so there can’t be any issues with spark plugs or distributors. This doesn’t mean you can neglect regular maintenance though, and if you do, the eventual problems could be bigger and more expensive than they might be with a gas engine.

As well as being better for towing, lower-maintenance, and more fuel-efficient than their gas equivalents, diesel engines are also tougher and more durable. At 100,000 miles, when a gas engine’s best days are definitely behind it, a diesel engine is only just getting started. If you’re planning to keep your truck for a long time and you’re going to be putting serious miles on the odometer every year, you’re definitely better off with a diesel. A further bonus of the durability of a diesel engine pickup truck is that it will also have a better resale value than the same truck with the same miles on the odometer would have with a gas engine under the hood.

2020 Chevrolet Silverado Diesel

Are there any disadvantages then?

Like any piece of equipment, a diesel pickup also has a few drawbacks that need considering before you take the plunge and buy one. Perhaps the biggest issue buyers are likely to have with diesel engines in pickups is they cost a decent amount more to buy than the same vehicle would do if it had a gas engine.

For example, to upgrade a 2019 Ford F-150 XLT from the standard 3.3-liter gas engine to the 3.0-liter Power Stroke turbodiesel puts an additional $4,999 onto the asking price. That’s a lot to add to a truck that costs around $35k with the standard engine, so it’s a decision that needs careful consideration. It’s an even more expensive upgrade with a heavy-duty model like the F-350 where upgrading from the standard 6.2-liter V-8 gas engine to the 6.7-liter Power Stroke V-8 turbodiesel costs an eye-watering $9,120.

In theory, diesel trucks can be more difficult to start in extremely cold weather, although this can be alleviated by using a block heater if you have a nearby electrical outlet. In my experience, and I spent almost ten years running nothing but diesel 4x4s, I never found starting a problem even when the temperature was well below freezing.

As I’ve already mentioned, diesel engines don’t develop as much horsepower as a gas engine of similar displacement. Like a lot of issues with diesel engines though, the gap between the horsepower of similar size gas and diesel engines is not as big as it used to be and it’s narrowing all the time.

Another “issue” I’m going to highlight is the public perception of diesel vehicles in America. Diesels are seen by many as being noisy, dirty, smelly, messy and unrefined, and that would be fair if you were talking about diesels of 25 years ago. On the other hand, some people who like the big, tough and rugged image that goes with large pickup trucks actually revel in the “outcast” image that diesel sometimes conjures up.

The environmental paradox

Something else you might want to think about is the environmental impact of a diesel pickup, but this really is an area of contention and even environmentalists are not entirely settled on whether gas or diesel engines are worse. Basically, it depends on what you consider to be the bigger evil; CO2 or toxic emissions.

Until relatively recently, European governments were encouraging vehicle buyers to go for diesels instead of gas vehicles because diesels put much less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the belief that CO2 was the greatest threat to mankind since we started to walk upright as a species, European governments were offering substantial financial incentives to get buyers to choose diesel as a means of hitting self-imposed targets for lowering CO2 emissions.

Unfortunately, there are much nastier and more dangerous things that come out of the tailpipe of a diesel engine than CO2, but this was overlooked as governments virtue signaled over CO2. Now it has been pointed out to politicians that having more than half of all vehicles on European roads burning diesel has been dangerously polluting the air, especially in cities. Now the incentives for buying diesel have been withdrawn, and it’s actually going in totally the other direction as punitive measures such as congestion charges are being introduced to discourage the use of diesel. You really couldn’t make it up.

Let’s face it; unless you’re driving an EV or a fuel cell, you wouldn’t want to crouch down and breath in what comes out of the tailpipe of a diesel or a gas vehicle. Either way, in the US there has never been this “dash for diesel” that European governments rushed into, so for the time being it’s up to your conscience and your own point of view as to how you feel about driving a gas or diesel pickup truck.

2020 Ram EcoDiesel

Availability

In the not-too-distant past, if you wanted a diesel pickup truck you were pretty much limited to heavy-duty models like the Ford Super-Duty and its rivals. That’s definitely starting to change, and most of the big players in the full-size, light-duty segment now offer a diesel option, and you can even get a diesel in some midsize trucks.

If you fancy a diesel full-size, light-duty pickup you can choose from the Ram 1500 and the Ford F-150. The Ram offers a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 that boasts 240 horsepower and 420 lb.-ft. of torque, and its maximum tow rating is 9,290 pounds and its maximum payload is 1,640 pounds.

That’s not bad, but if you want to tow more with your light-duty pickup you’ll want to look to the Ford F-150. The Ford’s diesel option is also a 3.0-liter V-6, but this time it puts 250 hp and 440 lb.-ft. of torque at your disposal. Thanks to the Ford F-150’s lightweight construction and aluminum body, the F-150 diesel can tow up to 11,400 pounds and haul up to as much as 1,940 pounds.

For those who want a midsize truck that tows more like a full-size, the Chevy Colorado and related GMC Canyon have a 2.8-liter Duramax inline-four diesel option that develops 181 hp and 369 lb.-ft. of torque. The maximum payload for this one is an impressive 1,532 pounds, and its maximum tow rating is a creditable 7,700 pounds.

Fuel economy

Unfortunately, the EPA doesn’t publish fuel economy ratings for heavy-duty trucks, so I can’t give you definitive comparisons between the gas and diesel engine mileages of trucks like the Ford F-250, Ram 2500 and Chevy Silverado 2500HD. What I can tell you is the diesel variants will get you better fuel economy than their gas equivalents, but it’s not going to be a particularly huge disparity.

Things are different with full-size trucks, and the EPA does publish those ratings. The Ford F-150 is probably the best place to start, and rear-drive models equipped with the Power Stroke diesel are rated at 22 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. If you went for the same truck with the standard 3.3-liter gas six-cylinder engine, the EPA figures then drop to 19 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

When it comes to the Ram 1500 it’s a bit of a strange one as the best EPA ratings diesel versions can offer are 20 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, while the 3.6-liter gas V-6 boasts ratings almost as good at 20 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. The reason for this is the Ram’s gas V-6 is now a mild hybrid that gets a little help from an electric motor, so you’re unlikely to choose a Ram 1500 diesel on fuel economy alone.

Ford Power Stroke

The truth about diesel

It’s strange that while sales of diesels are plummeting in a market like Europe where until recently diesel was king, in America, things are going in entirely the opposite direction, at least they are as far as diesel pickup trucks are concerned anyway. The big difference is Americans have never liked diesel cars and probably never will, but they are definitely warming to the idea of diesel pickup trucks.

In fact, diesel engines are much more refined than many people outside the auto industry tend to realize these days. Yes, old diesel engines were dirty and noisy, but today’s clean diesels really do live up to their name and in some cases, they are actually cleaner than gas equivalents.

If your idea of a diesel pickup is a vehicle with a clunky, loud, Neanderthal lump of an engine under the hood belching plumes of smoke out of the tailpipe, you really need to check out a modern one in something like an F-150. They really are a revelation compared to oil-burners of years gone by, and you could find yourself wondering why anyone would consider a pickup with anything but a diesel under the hood anymore.

I will add one caveat though. Ram is the first manufacturer to introduce any sort of hybrid technology into its pickups, and there’s a lot of potential that’s so far untapped. Hybrid cars in the retail market are primarily focused on fuel efficiency, but if you look at the realms of Formula 1 and even road-going supercars like the Porsche 918 and McLaren P1, you can see hybrid technology can also be focused on staggering performance instead.

It may be a few years until you can buy a hybrid Silverado HD with a 1,000-lb.-ft. torque rating, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility by any means. In the meantime though, you can get diesel pickup trucks with such a mind-blowing amount of peak torque if that’s what your application requires.  

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and now an automotive writer and journalist for the last 7 years

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