The Best Trucks for a Budget Buyer
Getting a Hardworking Pickup on the Cheap
The average transaction price for a new pickup in 2019 was nearly $50,000, the highest it's ever been. That figure, sourced from the auto analysts at Edmunds, is high for many would-be truck shoppers, requiring seven-year loan terms and the resultant interest costs. But regardless of budgetary constraints, do you really need something that expensive? If you don't have half a mint to spend, may we recommend the following list as some of the best trucks for a buyer on a budget?
You'll sacrifice the latest technology and driver-assistance features, and no one will accuse these trucks as being faster, more efficient, or more capable than their modern successors. But if your truck isn't going to be a daily driver and instead an errand machine or something to keep at your cabin upstate, save the money by buying pre-owned and pre-loved.
1992-1996 Ford F-Series
The 1992-1996 Ford F-Series was one of the first of its kind to offer genuinely modern driving dynamics in a pickup, and though it still drives more like a Mack than a Mercedes, it is all but guaranteed to make its new owners smile. That's because the OBS (or "old body style") F-Series strikes a nice balance between the vintage charm of older trucks and the highway-friendly driving dynamics that are all but mandatory in this world of 80-mph speed limits.
Because this is a weekend-use truck, our pick would be an OBS F-150. The -ton F-Series variant can be had with a 300c.i. I-6, a 302c.i. V-8, and a 351c.i. V-8. Our picks would be either the torquey straight-six or the bigger V-8—the 302 started life as an engine for passenger vehicles like the Mustang, with peakier horsepower and torque curves. Then again, the "5.0" V-8 (it technically displaces a shade over 4.9 liters) offers plenty of aftermarket support, so hotting one up would be a fun weekend project.
What's more, this generation was the first to receive the SVT Lightning treatment, and though it's less extreme than the later supercharged pickup, it still offers lots of payload capacity and 1990s-chic sport-truck styling. A nice Lightning could be a hilariously fun Home Depot support vehicle, as long as you treat it like the collector's item it is.
The OBS Ford F-150, F-250, and F-350 can be had in excellent condition for under $10,000, although opting for the SVT Lightning or getting an F-250 or F-350 with the legendary 7.3L turbodiesel V-8 will bring prices closer to $20,000.
1988-1999 Chevrolet and GMC C/K
Codenamed GMT400, the Chevrolet and GMC C/K trucks brought many advancements over their "Square Body" predecessors, including a standard independent front suspension on all models, a fully welded frame with a boxed front section, and improved aerodynamics thanks to flush-mounted window glass and integrated lighting elements. GMC trucks all carried the Sierra name, while Chevy went with Cheyenne, Scottsdale, and Silverado branding—C models are two-wheel drive, while K models get four-wheel drive.
The base engine was a 4.3-liter V-6, while 5.0-liter and 5.7-liter V-8 engines, as well as a 6.2-liter diesel V-8, were optional on the 1500. The 2500 and 3500 also offered a 7.4-liter V-8.
The 6.2-liter diesel, replaced for 1994 with a turbocharged 6.5-liter mill, is a unique proposition in the 1500, offering genuine big-truck torque in a smaller -ton package.
We think a later 6.5-liter turbodiesel Chevrolet K1500 would be a fun and unique pickup, and though they're rare, they're not terribly expensive. Excellent-condition C/K pickups cost around $10,000, even with the diesel.
2004-2015 Nissan Titan
The previous-generation Nissan Titan has a reputation of being a bit of an also-ran, but that's largely because it was on the market so long that by the time it was replaced, the competition had surpassed it in most metrics. But when Nissan's first full-size truck was launched for the 2004 model year, it was actually pretty revolutionary.
For example, every single first-gen Titan came standard with a 5.6-liter V-8 that produced 305 hp and 385 lb-ft (upped to 317 hp for 2007). In a time when the contemporary Ford F-150's top-spec Triton 5.4-liter V-8 only made 300 hp and 365 lb-ft, the Titan offered lots of muscle. Nissan also offered locking cubbies in the bedsides just aft of the rear wheels, a good storage solution for things like tow ropes, tie-downs, or trailer accessories.
The Titan was initially available with one wheelbase, offering either a King Cab with a 6.5-foot bed or a crew cab with a 5.5-foot bed. In 2008, the King Cab could also be ordered with an 8-foot bed or the crew cab with a 7-footer. Four-wheel-drive was optional across the board.
A first-generation Nissan Titan is a reliable, muscular pickup that offers a lot of daily drivability along with a budget of about $15,000 for a good example with low mileage.
1995-2004 Toyota Tacoma
Back when small trucks were actually small, the first-generation Toyota Tacoma came on the scene to build on the success of its predecessor, the creatively named Pickup. The Tacoma is unique among that vintage of pickups because it features a frame that's almost completely fully boxed—only a small portion of the frame aft of the rear suspension is C-channeled. That construction yields a pickup that's surprisingly robust, an impression backed up by the interior that even now, 25 years later, holds up with few squeaks and rattles. The Tacoma was designed exclusively for the North American market, which is why it's much more comfortable on-road than its global-market predecessor.
It's available with a 2.4-liter I-4 or a 2.7-liter I-4, as well as the much more powerful 3.4-liter V-6. As you'd expect from a Toyota, each engine is very reliable—the I-4s make use of low-maintenance timing chains, while the non-interference V-6 uses a timing belt that should be replaced every 60,000-90,000 miles.
A Tacoma is a truck that excels in a variety of use cases. Models with the on-road suspension make for perfect errand trucks, a low bed liftover height making loading heavy cargo easier. The two-wheel-drive PreRunner uses the off-road suspension, and like its name suggests, it makes for a fun and flingable desert toy. Meanwhile, the 4x4 comes standard with the off-road suspension, and it's a reliable and nimble forest machine.
The first-generation Tacoma's reputation has made it relatively expensive, especially compared to the larger and more powerful trucks on this list. A good, rust-free 4x4 with the V-6 could cost as much as $15,000, though high-mileage garden trucks can be had for a tenth of that price.
1973-1987 Chevrolet/GMC C/K
Although we already mentioned their successor, it would be rude to not include the legendary "Square Body" Chevrolet and GMC C/K on this list of fun and budget-friendly pickups.
Discussing the Square Body's technological and safety advancements for its era is pretty comical (did you know it was the first full-size pickup with a standard passenger-side door mirror?), but it's not without merit. The C model also included an independent front suspension with coil springs, a legitimate engineering step forward (the four-wheel-drive K model kept leaf-sprung live axles in the front and rear).
However, buying a Square Body isn't really about practical things like safety or on-road comfort. Owning this boxy old truck is an exercise in nostalgia, not logic.
A 1973-1987 GM pickup will cost about $10,000 in very good condition, with four-wheel drive adding about $5,000 to that price. Scruffier, but still presentable, pickups can be had for $7,000, while museum-quality restorations demand $20,000 or more.
1983-2012 Ford Ranger
The Ford Ranger was built in three generations before being discontinued for 2012 and revived again for 2019. But if your budget can't support the bare-minimum $30,000 a new Ranger 4x4 would cost, allow us to persuade you into its predecessor.
The first-generation compact Ford Ranger was available with a lineup of I-4 and V-6 engines, but the only one you should shop for is the 4.0-liter Cologne V-6 found in the 1990-1992 pickup. Producing a healthy 160 hp, the bigger engine also came standard in the first-generation Ford Explorer (of Jurassic Park fame), which was closely related to the Ranger. Like the movie SUV's dino-enticing paintwork, the first-gen Ranger stokes lots of nostalgia in you readers of a certain age, offering a driving experience that's reassuringly truckish but still entertaining.
The second-gen Ranger picked up the baton for 1993, keeping the first-gen interior intact but adding a rounder design that fit in with the rest of Ford's 1990s lineup. A matching interior came on board in 1995. Like its predecessor, the Ranger to have is the one with the 4.0L V-6, preferably in 4x4 guise.
The Ranger went through another change in 1998, bringing with it a significantly revised suspension and chassis that provided improved road-holding and torsional stiffness. The best engine to get is—say it with us—the 4.0L V-6, which was available with overhead valves for 1998 to 2000 (160 hp) and a single overhead cam from 2001 to 2012 (207 hp). An FX4 off-road package, available in two levels, provided some genuine trail capability.
Excellent first-generation trucks are starting to see a value uptick as Gen Xers and Millennials start spending money on nostalgia. Plan on spending the same $5-8k on a good 1991 4x4 as you would on a good 1997 4x4. Third-gen trucks offer a bit more in the way of a modern driving experience. Excellent examples of the FX4 Level II truck can cost $15,000 or so, although driver-quality 4x4s without the off-road package can be had for a third of that price.