Is a Diesel Truck Right for You?

If you’re shopping for a pickup, one of your first choices will be between a diesel or gas engine.

There are some tradeoffs in terms of cost ownership, capabilities and lifestyle, and we’re going to help you weigh your options.

Diesel trucks typically cost more to purchase and operate. However, they can do things gas-powered trucks can’t regarding payload and towing capacity. And some people think the only true truck is a diesel, the spunky little cousin to the 18-wheelers roaring down the highway.

Buying a new, full-size diesel truck is a significant investment – the Chevy Colorado with the 2.8-liter diesel starts around $36,845, and the Ford F-350 Super Duty Platinum starts at $64,510. Used diesel trucks tend to hold their resale value, but you can still find good deals.

Here’s a look at some of the top considerations when you’re looking at buying a diesel truck. We’re talking consumer heavy-duty grade trucks, not the full commercial grades that might also be used for RVs or work trucks.

Heavy duty hauling

Most people choose a diesel to do a job. That job could be towing a trailer full of prized show horses, a cabin cruiser to the lake, or a flatbed with a skid steer to the job site.

Diesel trucks typically have a greater towing capacity and higher payload capacities than gas-powered versions. There’s one reason for that difference: torque. Diesel trucks usually have a higher level of torque output, which translates into pulling power. Diesels also put out about 25-50 more hp than gas engines of similar displacement.

Ford’s Super Duty lineup with the 6.7 liter Power Stroke V8 Diesel can haul up to 34,000 lbs. and carry a payload up to 7,630 lbs. when suitably equipped. That’s where the Super Duty’s 925 lb. ft. of torque come in to play.

For massive loads, check out the Ram 3500 Heavy Duty with the 6.7-liter Cummins High-Output Turbo Diesel that produces up to 385 hp and 930 lb. ft. of stump-pulling torque.

For 2019, Ford and Chevy offer diesels in the light-duty versions of their full-size trucks. Both the Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado have a 3.0 liter turbo diesel option available. The light-duty F-150 with the Power Stroke diesel will handle 11,400 lbs. for pulling boats, horse trailers or RVs.

If towing is important to you, make sure your diesel truck will be able to handle the load. Look for any accessory packages like gooseneck or fifth-wheel hitch packages, integrated trailer brake controllers and the new trailer cameras that make hitching up a cinch.

Total cost of ownership

Diesel trucks cost more to purchase, new or used, and cost more to maintain. Diesel fuel costs have been higher than gas, but diesel trucks get better mileage to help offset that difference. Diesel trucks often have a longer life, so if you pay it off and keep it, the fuel efficiency can help line your pockets over time.

Maintenance and repair parts for diesel trucks, such as starters, alternators, water pumps and batteries cost more than the same parts for gas engines. Your diesel may have other components the gas version doesn’t have like turbocharger maintenance, selective catalytic reduction (SCR) and emission system maintenance and repair.

Gas engines are closing the fuel economy gap, in part due to technology borrowed from diesel trucks. The Ram Ecodiesel, a 3-liter V6, returns a highly respectable 27 mpg on the highway, with a towing capacity up to 9,290 lbs.

Consumer Reports magazine tested several diesel trucks and found the better fuel economy didn’t offset the extra weight of the big heavy-duty trucks. However, a diesel truck with a heavy load may see better fuel economy because it’s not straining as hard as a light-duty gas engine pickup.

Bottom line, a diesel truck will likely have a higher total cost of ownership, but if it’s the tool you need for the job, it’s worth it.

Life with a diesel

Living with a diesel truck may take a little getting used to. Diesel engines have a sound all their own, and you and the people around you may notice the clattering under hard acceleration. Newer trucks have almost eliminated this issue, but diesel noise is still a thing.

Diesels have a hard time starting in cold weather because diesel fuel doesn’t flow as well when it’s cold, and requires spark plugs to initiate combustion. Many trucks offer an engine block heater to warm the engine block, assisting the compression ignition in the diesel engine. Or you can buy an aftermarket heater. But this means the truck has to be parked near an electrical outlet to use the heater.

Another thing diesel drivers have to contend with is diesel exhaust fluid (DEF). Since 2010, diesel trucks have used DEF as part of a SCR system to meet EPA regulations for tailpipe emissions. DEF is an additional fluid that must be added to the truck on a regular basis. If not, the truck will eventually stop running.

Many diesel fuel pumps have DEF dispensers built in or you can buy jugs at the gas station or many other places. Ideally, a tank of DEF will last as long as the interval between oil changes, so you can have it refilled while the truck is in for service.But if you tow heavy loads frequently or otherwise work the motor hard, you’ll use DEF faster. If you live in a cold climate, you may have to heat the DEF tank as well as the diesel engine block. DEF will freeze at around 12° F.

It’s relatively inexpensive, but running out can be a problem. A fluid gauge and warning lights will let you know when it’s time for a refill. Some trucks place the DEF fill nozzle next to the fuel cap; in others you’ll find it under the hood.

Using the right tool for the job can make all the difference. In many cases, the job will go better with a diesel truck, and that’s worth the investment.



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