How to Choose the Right Truck Size

December 10th, 2021 by

A white 2017 Chevy Silverado 2500HD is shown parked at a Cincinnati used truck dealership.

We often tell our customers that buying the right vehicle – any kind of vehicle – comes down to making a series of decisions to get the right answers. When you’re looking at a sports car, for example, you’re deciding between different engines, levels of performance, interior features, and other options that make for the most exhilarating experience behind the wheel. On the other hand, when you’re shopping at your Cincinnati used truck dealership and looking for the perfect pickup, then you need to decide between different sizes, configurations, and engines to get a truck with the kind of power you need.

Of those different options we mentioned, the size of the truck is something that can often trip up our customers, especially if they’re looking to buy their first truck – or they want something new and different from what they’ve had in the past. While we always love answering questions and working directly with our customers to help you figure out the perfect vehicle, we also know it can be frustrating to feel lost while shopping for a pickup. Let’s take a look at the different truck sizes to help you figure out which size is right for you.

What Does Truck Size Mean?

It doesn’t matter if you’re buying a new or used pickup; you’ll want to consider the size of different models you’re looking at to figure out which ones will best meet your needs – and which ones you can skip. This makes it a lot easier to shop for and find the right pickup since you can narrow down your options and really focus on what works for you. But what do we mean when we talk about the “size” of the truck?

Truck sizes really come down to two factors: the literal size of the pickup and the kind of work it can handle in terms of payload and towing capacities. In general, when you see descriptions like “compact” and “midsize,” this typically refers to the physical dimensions of the pickup in terms of its length, width, and height. On the other hand, terms like “light-duty” and “heavy-duty” tend to indicate how much weight it can handle regarding towing and payload.

You’ll also see terms like “half-ton” and “one-ton” pickup used a lot when people talk about trucks. In the past, those terms referred to how much payload the truck could handle, and they were literal. A one-ton truck had a maximum payload of about 2,000 lbs (one ton), while a half-ton had about 1,000 lbs of maximum payload. These days, however, the terms are used more out of habit since modern payloads almost always surpass those amounts; for example, the half-ton Chevy Silverado currently has a maximum payload of up to 2,280 lbs. This would make it a “one-ton truck,” but it’s still called a half-ton because that’s what it was historically.

A red 2020 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison is shown off-roading on a rocky path.

Compact Trucks

When looking at different pickups on the market, compact trucks tend to be the smallest that are available. These aren’t too common – at least they haven’t been over the last few decades, though it seems they might be on the rise again in terms of popularity. They’re the smallest in overall size, usually sacrificing bed length, especially models with a decent-sized cab.

In recent years, the Hyundai Santa Cruz has been one of the few real compact pickups available here in the US – they tend to be a bit more popular overseas. If you go back about 20 years, then other models like the Ford Ranger and the Chevy Colorado were offered as compact trucks. However, these sizes generally proved less popular than the manufacturers hoped, and the current Ranger and Colorado are now midsize models instead. Recently, the Ford Maverick was announced as an all-new compact pickup, which has a lot of people curious to see if this segment is making a comeback.

Midsize Trucks

Here in the US, midsize trucks are generally the most popular and common “small” pickups in the auto industry. They offer a great combination of small size and decent performance, giving you plenty of towing and payload for general use. These are certainly not massive workhorses that can meet the highest demands of tradesmen and farmers, but they still work great. Midsize options are especially popular for going off-road, where their small size makes them easy to maneuver in tight quarters.

Popular midsize trucks include the Chevy Colorado, Ford Ranger, and the Honda Ridgeline. Other models like the GMC Canyon and the Nissan Frontier demonstrate just how many different midsize options there are out there. The modern Colorado has up to 7,700 lbs of towing capacity and about 50 cu. ft. of total cargo space.

Full-Size Light-Duty Trucks

The biggest trucks you’ll typically see, certainly among average drivers rather than commercial vehicles, are full-size models. Full-size light-duty pickups are typically called half-ton trucks, even though most of them have payload capacities well beyond a full ton at this point. Most people looking for a large truck with plenty of muscle will find a full-size light-duty option like this to be just right.

These models include the most popular trucks on the road, such as the Chevy Silverado 1500, Ram 1500, and Ford F-150. Other full-size light-duty trucks include the GMC Sierra 1500, the Nissan Titan, and the Toyota Tundra. By comparison to the midsize options, the current Chevy Silverado 1500 can handle up to 13,300 lbs of towing, more than 2,000 lbs of payload, and gives you nearly 90 cu. ft. of total cargo volume.

A silver 2018 Chevy Silverado 2500HD is shown towing heavy machinery.

Full-Size Heavy-Duty Trucks

Finally, we have the full-size heavy-duty trucks, which typically look very similar to the other full-size models, but they’re designed to handle even more work. These models often have stronger frames that can support more weight on them, along with engines that are more powerful than what you’ll find on the light-duty models. You can also find full-size heavy-duty trucks with a dual-rear-wheel configuration available, also called a dually, which provides for unbeatable payload and fifth-wheel or gooseneck towing.

These trucks are designed for handling serious amounts of weight, and they’re often used by professionals in trades who need to be able to haul many tons of cargo. The Chevy Silverado HD, the Ford Super Duty, and the Ram heavy-duty pickups are among the most popular heavy-duty options. Although it is still called a one-ton truck, the current Silverado 3500HD can handle more than 7,000 lbs of payload and 36,000 lbs of towing with a dually setup.

Which Truck Size is Right for Me?

With all of these options available to you, narrowing down your options to choose the right one might seem tricky, but it really comes down to how much weight you need your pickup to be able to handle. The differences between these sizes of trucks can be significant – as you saw, a midsize option might offer about 7,000 lbs of towing, compared to a full-size truck with 13,000 or even 36,000 lbs of potential towing capacity. So if you have a trailer and you typically need to tow up to 10,000 lbs, then a full-size light-duty pickup might be perfect for you.

Just keep in mind that larger trucks are almost always more expensive than smaller models, which is pretty common for any type of vehicle. While you certainly want a pickup that’s strong enough to handle your needs, you might not want to spend $10k more on a truck with potential that you’ll never actually use. Be generous when estimating the amount of weight you need your truck to handle, but don’t assume you need a Silverado 3500HD just because you have a boat you want to tow. Once you have a sense of what you need, then you’re ready to head to your truck dealership and get exactly the right pickup.