What's America's favorite family vehicle? The SUV? The minivan? These days, it could very well be the pickup truck.
While heavy-duty pickup trucks are still common tools of the trade for contractors and people who move equipment about for a living, so-called half-ton light-duty trucks have been making a steady move toward family vehicle status for years. Recent market changes and product developments have only bolstered that trend.
It started some time ago when automakers introduced the big four-door crew-cab configurations to this volume-selling segment. Before long, crew-cab truck sales outpaced those of extended-cab trucks, which had themselves overtaken regular-cab trucks before that. In 2013, crew cabs accounted for close to 57 percent of truck sales. In 2018, that figure is nearly 70 percent.
Changes in SUV-buying habits have accelerated this trend. When they first hit it big and displaced minivans as the default family vehicle, most SUVs were large, truck-based fully framed vehicles that were little more than a pickup with a permanent cap and a full interior. But SUV tastes have steadily drifted toward more comfortable, easy-driving and fuel-efficient crossover SUV offerings with car-based underpinnings.
These car-based crossovers fulfill the people-moving role of SUVs quite handily, but they're not as capable in terms of raw utility as their truck-based forebears. This shift in SUV preference has increased the appeal of having a pickup truck sit alongside that crossover in the driveway of many active households.
Trucks are enablers for outdoor adventures. You can haul dirt bikes without the need for a trailer. And they have no trouble towing any number of family-fun implements, from fishing boats to snowmobiles to good-size double-axle camping trailers. Beyond that, certain four-wheel-drive versions are solid off-road vehicles in their own right. Pickups have retained the low-range gearing and high ground clearance that crossover SUVs have shed.
None of this would matter if pickups didn't also meet the must-have criteria of a well-equipped family car. The latest crop of pickups scores well here. They have comfortable seats and overall spaciousness, especially in the backseat, that puts many cars to shame on an extended road trip. Newer crew cabs are roomier than ever: Manufacturers have been lengthening their cabs and improving the size of the rear door openings for easier entry and exit. From accommodating teenagers to infants in car seats, crew-cab truck cabins can be a good fit for a family.
Pickups also offer up an abundance of convenience features and the latest infotainment technology. You don't have to shop the highest end of the price range to find smart entry with push-button start, heated and ventilated leather bucket seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, and touchscreen navigation paired with premium audio sound and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone support.
MORE FOCUS ON SAFETY
Of late, trucks are becoming an increasingly safe choice. Size and mass always worked in their favor, but trucks no longer rely solely on physics. Truckmakers are paying more attention to crashworthiness in the structural design of their cabs and frames. Pickups can also be equipped with crash avoidance systems, such as automatic emergency braking, though such systems tend to be optional. Commercial buyers still prefer low-priced entry-level models.
These safety upgrades are paying off in a big way. The newly redesigned 2019 Ram 1500 crew cab scored top marks in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crash and automatic emergency brake testing. The same goes for the 2018 Ford F-150 and Nissan Titan. The 2019 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra have not been tested as of publication time, but as all-new designs they should do well.
BUT TRUCKS ARE EXPENSIVE
If you have money to spend, truck options are nearly endless. The 2019 Ram 1500 can be equipped with a panoramic sunroof and a 12-inch tablet-style touchscreen. You can also opt for smooth-riding air suspension. On the General Motors side, the 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 is available in the sought-after Denali trim level.
Edmunds' 10-year trend data says families are willing to spend big for a kitted-out truck. The average transaction price of a full-size truck has risen almost $16,000 to a current level of $48,431, even though base prices have risen barely $10,000 in the same period. There's room to spend even more: The average starting price of the highest trim levels rose from $43,135 in 2008 to $65,670 in 2018.
EDMUNDS SAYS: Yes, they're big and their gas mileage is unspectacular. But modern full-size pickups are roomy, well-equipped and capable. That makes them well-suited to families with active outdoor lifestyles.