LCFs, like this one from Ford, have superior maneuverability and visibility.

There are a number of issues to consider before buying any truck that is going to be used in pickup and delivery operations. And the most basic questions are those that must be answered before you even step onto the sales lot.

For example, what types of cargo will the truck carry and how much will it weigh? Where will the truck operate and who’ll drive it? How long will the truck be kept before it’s sold or traded? All these affect its size, weight class and powertrain equipment.

But common principles affect various operations. For instance, most P&D trucks will have a 14- to 24-foot-long dry van body with swing or roll-up rear doors, decent steps and handholds so the driver can safely get in and out, and perhaps special cargo-handling equipment like ramps or lift gates. Trucks that carry beverages or bottled water will have specialized bodies and stout chassis to tote the extra weight.

But there are general considerations for all types of P&D trucks, and these, too, must be pondered. Among them:

• Maneuverability and visibility. Low-cab-forward trucks excel at slipping through traffic and scooting into tight alleys and loading areas, so LCFs tend to be popular in congested cities. The new conventionals can also be good because their noses are short and steeply sloped for good visibility through their windshields. Both types can be bought with tight wheel cuts, which make them easy to turn.

Conventionals cost somewhat less to buy, but some imported LCFs have earned enviable reputations for reliability and long life. Most drivers prefer conventionals for perceived safety reasons, but many like low-cab-forwards for their compactness. If “buy American” is a consideration – and it’s less so since the globalization of our economy – then one must look closely at where the truck is assembled and from what parts. A lot of blurring between “domestic” and “imported” has occurred in recent years.

• Diesel power. Serious operators will almost always choose diesels because they offer stronger performance, longer life and better fuel economy than gasoline engines. The higher fuel prices go and the more miles a truck runs, the better is the argument for a diesel. One exception might be an operating area where diesel consistently costs more than gasoline.

Also remember that a diesel-powered truck costs thousands more than a comparable truck with a gasoline engine. The usual threshold where a diesel’s price premium can be gradually offset by better fuel economy is 20,000 miles annually; if a truck runs only 10,000 or 15,000 miles a year, chances are a gasoline engine makes more economic sense.

To be sure, in many cases the buyer has no choice but to take a diesel: Most Class 6 and 7 trucks and almost all imports are standard with diesels. Only General Motors offers gasoline power in these heavier classes.

However, domestically built Class 2 through 5 trucks can usually be bought with either type of engine.

Wise buyers of these truck types will do the math to figure out how much money the diesel’s better fuel economy will save in fuel (usually 30% to 50%), and how long that difference will take to pay for the diesel’s extra upfront cost.

Savings in fuel can take a surprisingly long time to actually make up the diesel’s price difference.

On the other hand, the price premium can be financed over a long term and the monthly payment can be planned for. Filling the tank requires out-of-pocket money, which can really hurt when prices spike. Also, a diesel usually will return its premium – and sometimes more – at resale time.

• Matching power to the job. Engines in Class 5, 6 and 7 commercial trucks are generally rated at 175 to 250 horsepower. Higher power costs more to buy, but will deliver better performance and might be necessary for heavier trucks and those running in hilly terrain or running frequently at highway speeds. Higher-horsepower trucks are also worth more at trade-in time.

Lower power can mean better fuel economy. And a lower-power engine sometimes means a smaller engine model, which costs less to buy. Since it’s a general rule that smaller engines won’t last as long as larger ones, it might not matter to someone who won’t keep the truck past 100,000 or 200,000 miles.

In other words, let the second owner worry about rebuilding the engine.

In domestic pickup trucks – even the so-called heavy duty models – engine ratings are the same for commercial service as they are for consumer use. You’d think a standard 300-hp diesel might also be offered as a 250 for an operator who’d like to get some extra fuel economy. But there aren’t any lower-power options.

Ford, GM and Dodge executives say that buyers of these trucks want lots of power, and that no one in their focus groups has ever asked for less power in a pickup.

Buyers seem to equate pickups with cars, and they want them to perform like cars, even in commercial service.

Also, many buyers of heavy duty pickups use them for both work and personal transportation, so they want high power and lots of comfort and convenience options.

Cargo vans generally have less horsepower in their diesels, but that’s because of space limitations. For instance, Ford’s diesel-powered E-series vans don’t have enough room under their hoods for aftercoolers, so they lose some power capability. And DaimlerChrysler’s European-style Sprinter vans feature a small diesel with low horsepower that delivers high fuel economy, yet has sprightly performance.

• Automatic transmissions. More than nine out of 10 Class 2, 3 and 4 trucks, and more than half of heavier midrange trucks are sold with automatic transmissions, according to manufacturers. Automatics are popular because most drivers today can’t handle a manual transmission in a car, much less in a truck. Automatics let drivers keep their minds on traffic and and not on shifting. Automatics also cushion drivelines and can eliminate maintenance and repairs on clutches, U-joints and rear ends.

For-hire carriers tend to buy manual transmissions because they cost less and the companies have shops that can make any repairs. Besides, their drivers are professionals who know how to operate manuals.

Private carriers and distributors whose drivers have other duties, like sales, are more likely to buy automatics.

Builders of lighter-duty trucks now use beefed-up automatics, which they say can take the beatings dished out by powerful engines in commercial service. These are standard or optional in domestic and imported trucks. Some products are better than others, and buyers should seek information on transmission longevity from colleagues or on Internet sites.

Most fears and risks can be offset by decent warranties, although these can cost almost as much as the premium on the transmission itself.

In Class 3 to 5 imports, Aisen automatics are gaining credibility as a durable and reliable product. In Class 6 and 7 trucks, an alternative to the highly regarded Allison automatics are automated mechanical transmissions – or AMTs – from Eaton and Mercedes-Benz.

Two-pedal AMTs – those without clutch pedals – can perform well in most pickup & delivery jobs. Latter-day products have improved in reliability, but owners and/or their dealers should have some knowledge of special troubleshooting that can occasionally be required to keep the units running.

AMTs haven’t sold well because some early heavy duty models were troublesome, and because buyers don’t know much about them. Neither do sales people, who tend to steer buyers away from AMTs.

Manufacturers are attempting to educate truck buyers so that their products get better consideration. If you read this, you are now a little better educated and know that AMTs are worth another look in many applications, and might even save you some money.

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