Cars and trucks both offer unique features and experiences, but which one is right for you?
The choice between buying a car or truck may be difficult for some. Unless the decision is made for you — such as needing a truck for work purposes — there’s no clear-cut winner in the battle between car vs. truck.
In 2020, the top three best-selling vehicles were trucks, with the Ford F-150 holding the title of best-selling vehicle for over 40 years. Unsurprisingly, trucks were also the most refinanced vehicles in 2020, holding down the top three places (as well as number seven) with the Chevrolet Silverado 1500, the Dodge Ram 1500, the Ford F-150, and the GMC Sierra, respectively.
But popularity alone doesn’t necessarily mean buying a truck is right for you. Though trucks are versatile and less restrictive in their functions as, for example, motorcycles, a truck may not fit your lifestyle, needs, or budget. On the other hand, a car may not be as capable of meeting your needs as its larger, heftier counterpart.
Before deciding if you should buy a car or truck, take a good, hard look at what makes each type of vehicle unique and the ways each fits into your lifestyle.
What Are the Differences Between Cars and Trucks?
Cars and trucks differ in more than just size or function. Some buyers might consider trucks too expensive compared to similarly-aged cars, while others may be head-over-heels for the speed of a sleek new sports car.
But there’s more to each than the ability to drive over rough terrain or achieve what feels like supersonic speeds. Comparing the features of cars and trucks helps car buyers make the best decision to meet their needs, desires, and budget.
Though new trucks cost more than comparable cars, how much you need to fork over depends largely on the type of vehicle you’re buying.
For example, a new mid-size truck costs an average of $41,868, whereas new mid-size car prices are $31,370, on average. However, a new full-size pickup, which costs an average of $57,719, can’t compare to a new luxury car’s sticker price of $73,005.
In other words, you may expect to pay a little more for a new truck than you would a comparably-sized car, but the difference in car prices between sedans and trucks skyrockets once you look at more luxurious offerings.
Prices between used cars and trucks are similar, with new vehicles costing an average of $25,890. Though used truck prices contribute to that number, the average wholesale price of a used truck is $30,093 due to continued ripples from the pandemic.
Gas mileage and fuel efficiency
Gas mileage is a concern for both car and truck drivers, especially as gas prices surge. The national average cost of gas, as of October 2021, is $3.399 per gallon. Although, it’s worth noting the cost of filling up your tank varies depending on the type of gas you’re putting in.
Drivers of electric cars have it easy, foregoing the cost of gas in exchange for potentially higher electric bills. Those who favor trucks are less fortunate. Electric trucks aren’t available yet, but they should liberate truck aficionados from high gas prices once they enter the market.
Car vs. Truck MPG
Cars have the advantage over trucks
with an average fuel economy of 24.20 miles per gallon (MPG) compared to an average MPG of 17.50 for trucks.
In general, pickup trucks use an average of 660 gallons of gas per year, whereas cars use an average of 474 gallons of gas per year, a difference of 186 gallons — or, at current-day prices, a difference of $632.21 per year.
Buying a vehicle costs more than what you pay for it at the dealership or over the term of your car loan. Maintenance costs contribute to your vehicle’s cost-to-own and include inspections, repairs, and replacement of:
- Warning lights (like that check engine light you’ve been ignoring — we’ve all been there)
- Brake lights and turn signals
- Fluids (windshield wiper fluid, oil, coolant, power steering fluid)
- Shocks and struts
- And more
Surprisingly, medium sedans are the most expensive to maintain, whereas electric vehicles are (understandably) the least. Ignoring both electric and hybrid vehicles, the smallest gap in maintenance costs is between small sedans and full-size pickups, with a difference of only $32 per 10,000 miles.
In other words, you won’t be saving that much money in maintenance costs by buying a small sedan instead of a full-size truck, especially if your heart’s dead-set on the latter.
Nor is there much of a difference in the cost or difficulty of at-home vehicle maintenance. Other than dealing with the slightly larger size of a pickup and increased frequency of service and fluid changes, DIY truck maintenance is much the same as working on a car.
Cargo and towing
One of the key differences between cars and trucks is a truck’s ability to haul cargo and pull heavy items. Though some non-trucks have ample cargo room and towing capacity, few hold up to the potential capacity of a truck.
However, some trucks sacrifice seating for extra cargo space. If you have a large family — or they just prefer ample legroom — you may find it difficult to find a truck that meets your needs. Similarly, the cargo room provided by a truck bed may not be as secure as locking your belongings in a car trunk, necessitating the cost of extra purchases, such as a truck toolbox.
Some cars, too, provide decent towing capacity, especially for lighter objects, like canoe or motorcycle trailers. If towing is the only reason you’re considering buying a truck, pay attention to the maximum towing capacity you require; in some cases, a car may work out just fine.
Vehicles are investments. As you pay off your auto loan, you build equity in your vehicle. If you purchase a vehicle with a high loan-to-value (LTV) ratio, you risk running into a situation in which your loan is upside down, or underwater — which means you owe more on the loan than your vehicle is worth.
This can make it difficult to trade in your vehicle when it’s time to make a switch. If your trade-in value is low, you’re on the hook for making a larger down payment or taking out a larger loan, which may result in paying more interest over time.
The RateGenius State of Auto Refinance: 2021 Report found that trucks carried a retail LTV of 104%, the lowest of all vehicles refinanced in 2020. At 118%, sedans had the second-worst average LTV, only beating out station wagons by a single percentage point.
What’s this mean for you? Purchasing a truck may make for a better investment because it holds more residual value, making it easier for you to trade it in for a newer vehicle down the line. However, achieving a low LTV may require you to make a significant down payment and maintain a good credit score.
Longevity and reliability
Purchasing a vehicle is an expensive investment. More importantly, you likely rely on your vehicle to earn a living, support your household, and otherwise take care of yourself and your family. It’s important that the vehicle you purchase is in it for the long haul.
Of the most reliable vehicles on the road (measured by vehicles most likely to reach 200,000 miles), truck-based SUVs last the longest. An average of 1.9% of trucks are likely to reach 200,000 miles, compared to an average of just 1% for all vehicles. In contrast, only one sedan — the Toyota Avalon — ranks on the list, though that may be expected given Toyota’s well-known reliability.
Getting from point A to point B safely is important, especially if you’re transporting precious cargo, such as your family (including your pets).
When it comes to safety, cars visibly outshine pickup trucks. Overall, both small and large pickups earn lower safety ratings than small, mid-size, and large cars.
Because of the way trucks are designed — using a body-on-frame design compared to a car’s unibody design — they don’t “crush” as well as a car does. As a result, pickup drivers and passengers in single-vehicle accidents are more likely to get injured or killed than car drivers in similar accidents.
And though truck drivers are more likely to walk away from a multi-vehicle accident, they also represent a hazard to pedestrians and other drivers.
That said, though pickups aren’t always as safe as cars, they’re not far off, either. Practicing safe driving goes a long way toward mitigating the likelihood of accidents, and truck manufacturers are working to improve truck safety.
Buying auto insurance for a car is the same as buying coverage for a pickup. Regardless of vehicle type, insurers consider the same factors, including:
- Your driving history
- How the vehicle is or will be used
- Where you live and where you park the vehicle (including the likelihood of theft; cost of legal fees, repairs, and medical care; rate of auto insurance fraud; and likelihood of severe weather)
- Your demographics (age, gender, and marital status)
- The vehicle’s specific make and model (including safety features and aftermarket additions)
- How much damage the vehicle could inflict in an accident
Though there are ways to save money on car insurance, you’ve gotta fork over something each month. And when it comes to the battle between buying a car or truck, cars win out on lower insurance rates.
According to The Zebra, insuring an average sedan costs $102 less per six-month policy period compared to insuring a truck.
Pickups appeal to some drivers for their size and weight. It’s why so many truck commercials show drivers conquering nature and dominating the roads. For others, bigger isn’t always better.
Trucks — particularly full-size — may be difficult to maneuver, especially in tight spaces, such as parking lots. It’s partly why insurance rates are higher for trucks: it’s much easier to do a whole lotta damage fast when you’re behind the wheel of the very machine “engineered to move Heaven and Earth.”
If you frequently deal with small driveways, tight parking lots, and heavy traffic, a truck may not be the best option for you. In contrast, a small or mid-size sedan may offer just the maneuverability you need to fit into a compact parking spot.
However, the trade-off is that you’re likely giving up some versatility, especially if you like tearing up off-road trails. For that, you’ll likely need a truck to explore the wide-open outdoors without worrying about size getting in the way — or posing a threat to other vehicles.
The fun factor
Cars and trucks each offer heaps of fun, but that fun is limited by your interests. Before choosing between buying a car or truck, ask yourself what purpose you intend to use the vehicle for.
Do you need four-wheel drive? How necessary is a convertible top? Do you prioritize speed over function? Is the vehicle you’re considering capable of towing a camper or boat?
If your weekends are full of off-roading, a truck may serve you better. But if you like the unbridled thrill of the wind running through your hair as you cruise along an empty highway, a sports car (or even a sporty sedan) may be the better choice.
Owning a truck makes you very popular among your friends, too. Any time someone you know decides to move, you can bet your phone will be ringing with a request that you help them out. After all, why else would you want all that cargo space?
In This Age-old Battle, neither Is the Ultimate Victor
When looking at pure data to decide whether to buy a car or truck, neither choice edges the other out to take home a clear-cut victory. As a result, the decision is personal, driven by preference, need, and budget, though one that should be influenced by research.
For example, a car may be more affordable than a truck, but it’s limited in its function. And though trucks tend to get worse gas mileage, the difference is slim. In terms of safety, cars clearly come out ahead, though that doesn’t mean you need a massive risk tolerance to purchase a pickup.
In reality, the type of vehicle you buy should be the one you need or want most. Though there may be a wrong answer for you, either choice you make is entirely valid and may be supported by cold, hard data. What matters most is choosing the car or truck that serves your lifestyle and needs.
About The Author
Daniel Mattia is a freelance content writer and author. He's written extensively about insurance, personal finance, and small business. Daniel's past and current clients include The Zebra, Bestow, Ensurem, and others across a variety of industries.