Why, Exactly, Are Pickup Trucks So Expensive These Days?

Once humble and affordable, pickups are now among the market's most expensive vehicles. Here's why.

ford f f150 raptor

These days, pickup trucks cost a lot. That won't come as news to anyone who has bought (or opportunistically sold) one lately. The average full-size truck purchase price approached or even exceeded $50,000 in 2019, depending on who compiled the data. And that price has ballooned even more during the pandemic and chip shortage.

Why have pickup trucks become so expensive? A confluence of factors. But, essentially, pickup trucks are a lot better vehicles than they once were. And demand for them — stemming from fashion or necessity — has never been higher.

Pickup trucks have evolved into giant family cars

Let's start with the basics: pickup trucks generally got bigger. The default pickup truck used to be a single cab with a bench seat; now it's a two-row, four-door crew cab model. Midsize trucks are expected to seat five people (which means that cool two-door Jeep Gladiator is never happening, but that's another story). Full-size trucks, which have become now America's default family cars, are expected to seat five in comfort.

Pickup trucks have become performance cars

Pickup trucks used to be simple, no-frills machines. Engines were underpowered, and amenities were basic; features like "three on the tree" manual column shifter stuck around until well into the 1980s. A great pickup was like Karl Malone: 6'9" and 250 lbs, durable, and exceptional within a defined role.

Modern pickups are some of the most dynamic and sophisticated performance machines in the market. Picture LeBron James: also 6'9" and 250 lbs, also durable, but capable of anything.

2022 toyota tundra driving on dirt road
Toyota

Pickup truck engines have gotten vastly more powerful, despite technology allowing them to become smaller and more efficient. The first-gen Toyota Tundra could pack a big 4.7-liter V8 that pushed out 245 hp and offered max towing of 7,200 lbs. The all-new 2022 Tundra upgrade engine is a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 hybrid delivering 437 hp, 583 lb-ft, and a 12,000-pound max tow rating. And more complex, super-powered engines are costlier than simpler ones.

Raw power is only part of the equation. Pickup trucks are also under pressure to drive well. That means ditching basic leaf springs for more intricate and costly coil spring suspensions. Nimble-handling requires trucks to shed weight, so say hello to features cribbed from sports cars like the F-150 moving to all-aluminum construction in 2015, or GM building a truck bed out of a carbon fiber composite.

Pickup trucks have become tech-laden luxury cars

These days, upper-trim pickups do a better job of being luxury cars than many luxury cars. GMC has its popular Denali sub-brand, Ram makes opulent Laramie Longhorn and Limited models, Ford offers both Platinum and Limited trims; these trucks offer seats made from the most sumptuous leather and open-pore wood paneling. They have massive infotainment touchscreens, and pack a ton of convenience tech including cameras for reversing, parking, towing, and seeing trails. The current F-150 can basically be a mobile luxury lounge with 180-degree flat-folding seats and a center console with a fold-down work table.

2021 ford f 150 raptor
Ford

Pickup trucks have become true off-roaders

Off-roading is perhaps the biggest automotive trend right now. Getting your truck properly off-road capable (or at least looking the part) doesn't come cheaply. Trucks have always been relatively good off-road, thanks to heavy-duty suspensions and an option for four-wheel drive. Those qualities made it easy for recreational off-roaders to modify them using parts from the aftermarket. But now, manufacturers have moved that market in-house — and made it more accessible.

The most expensive trucks are hyper-specialized off-roaders like the Ram 1500 TRX, the Ford F-150 Raptor and Toyota's TRD Pro models. Manufacturers typically offer a less-fancy off-road trim or package like the Ford FX4 that provides off-road enhancements. OEMs offer a myriad of accessories. A high percentage of trucks are being delivered with some form of off-road enhancement driving up the price.

Used trucks aren't that much cheaper

The natural reaction when new vehicles are expensive? Buy used and save your money. That strategy does not work with pickup trucks. Used pickup truck prices have risen at a faster clip than new trucks. The average used full-size pickup truck eclipsed $40,000 in 2021. Some used trucks were going for more than the new models.

Why? Trucks are built to be durable, which gives them a high resale value. And demand from fleets and individuals who need trucks for their job can outstrip supply. If used trucks aren't that attractive of a proposition, you might as well buy a new one.

Longer loans make trucks seem more affordable

Americans buying cars tend to budget by the month. The ultimate sticker price may be jarring — but as with a mortgage, car buyers are looking at the monthly payment. A typical car financing agreement once lasted about 36 months; now, it's normal to spread the cost over 72. Some manufacturers are even offering 84-month loans. Lower monthly payments lessen sticker shock and lure buyers to pay for vehicles they otherwise couldn't afford.

The Chicken Tax helps keep prices high

Manufacturers like Toyota and Honda offering quality, affordable vehicles muscled Big Three manufacturers out of the domestic car market. That didn't happen with trucks in America because of the "Chicken Tax" introduced in 1964. After European companies imposed tariffs on American chicken, the U.S. added a retaliatory tariff that added a 25% tax on foreign light trucks. It's still in place nearly 60 years later, because it protects the truck market.

That extra 25% makes it impossible for a foreign manufacturer like Isuzu to introduce one of its basic $20,000-ish workhorse trucks to drive prices down. Companies like Nissan and Toyota that do sell trucks in America have to build them in the U.S. and bear the same labor and materials costs. That's great for automotive industry profits...but not as great for consumers looking for a great deal.

Truck manufacturers can just lower the price with incentives

Manufacturers can raise the price when the economy is humming, so it would follow that manufacturers would lower the price when the economy is doing poorly. But it doesn't really work like that with trucks. If the $55,000 trucks aren't selling, the manufacturer can juice sales by adding cash back bonuses, financing deals and other incentives that create the impression you're getting a deal while still enabling the company to a substantial profit. When demand exceeds supply, they can cut off the incentives...and make even more money.

Is there a cheap pickup truck alternative?

2022 ford maverick 2l ecoboost awd lariat preproduction vehicle with optional equipment shown available fall 2021
Ford

Yes. Buy a Ford Maverick. Ford's new vehicle is not technically a pickup truck, as it uses a unibody crossover architecture. But Ford is marketing it as a truck. With up to 4,000 lbs of towing capacity and a 1,500-plus pound payload rating, it's capable enough at truck activities for many work use cases. The base model starts just above $20,000, and it will save you even more money as a hybrid that gets 42 mpg in city driving.

The one issue with a Maverick will be finding one. Ford had to shut down new orders until this summer due to popular demand.

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