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What Is A Pickup Truck?

The definitive spotter’s criteria to determining what makes a pickup truck.

May 21, 2020
Figuring out what makes a pickup truck these days is only getting harder. Is it enough to have an open bed? If you are looking at the market from the perspective of a truck person, we'd emphatically answer "no." For example, I'm not sure any of us would consider the unibody and car-based Honda Ridgeline a real pickup. Yet, we think an argument could be made for an El Camino being in the truck club, and no one will argue that the 1961-63 Ford F-100 unibody is a pickup, but then how can that be a pickup if the Ridgeline isn't? Hmmm.
What about sport utility trucks (SUTs), such as a Chevy Avalanche or Hummer H2 SUT? Are those pickups? How about the slew of new electric "trucks" on the way that will ride on a skateboard chassis, are those pickups? So, as you can see, defining what is and what isn't a pickup truck is just getting muddier. We think true pickup enthusiasts knows a pickup when they see one, but how do you define the vehicles that live in the gray area?
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To answer this question, we've designed a simple pickup litmus test of five questions. If the vehicle in question answers three or more of the five questions in the affirmative, it's a pickup truck. If it doesn't meet at least three, it's not a pickup truck.

The Questions

1. Is there an open cargo area?
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A no-brainer, of course all pickups need an open cargo bed; it's perhaps the most identifiable feature of any pickup.
2. Is the bed separate from the cab?
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Pickups that are designed to do real work have a bed that is separate from the cab. The reason for this is to allow the bed with the payload to flex independently of the cab, eliminating undue stresses on the body.
3. Does the drivetrain have a longitudinal layout?
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We think this one is important because pickups are traditionally rear-wheel-drive-based to better balance out the weight distribution of the chassis and to ensure there is weight on the back half of the vehicle to improve traction, even when the pickup is unloaded.
4. Is the chassis capable of, or ever offered in, an all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive configuration?
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Pickup trucks should always be available in four-wheel drive. For the purpose of this test. we'll even consider all-wheel drive applicable because the e-trucks can do some tricks with power delivery that don't require a low range gear the way internal-combustion-based drivelines do. For the purpose of this discussion, we consider four-wheel drive as having a two-speed transfer case, while all-wheel drive has a single speed transfer case.
5. Is the vehicle body on frame?
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This question will eliminate a lot of pickup posers and we consider upcoming electric trucks with a body sitting on top of a skateboard platform to be body-on-frame for this discussion. As technology changes, we have to be mindful of new construction techniques, so this type of design meets our criteria.
 

The Test

So let's check a few vehicles against this test and see if our control group agrees with what we would consider a pickup truck.
 

Ford F-150

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Who is going to argue about whether or not the Ford F-150 is a pickup? Probably no one, which makes it the perfect control subject for this test. If the test shows the F-150 is a truck, we are on to something here.
  1. Yes
  2. Yes
  3. Yes
  4. Yes
  5. Yes
Verdict: It's a pickup truck!
 

Honda Ridgeline

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The other control subject in this test is the Honda Ridgeline. While no doubt a solid and capable vehicle for the right buyer, there isn't a truck enthusiast out there that would consider it a real truck. So, let's see how it performs against our pickup criteria.
  1. Yes
  2. No (and no, we don't consider a two-piece side stamping a cab separate from the bed)
  3. No
  4. Yes
  5. No
Verdict: Not a pickup truck!
 

The Outliers

OK, so now that we know the two obvious control subjects have validated our test, let's see what happens with some more thought-provoking choices. These outliers live on the fringes of Truckdom, and we want to determine once and for all which ones are pickup trucks, and which ones are not.
 

Tesla Cybertruck

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Truck in name only, or does this futuristic electric vehicle have the chops to be considered a pickup? Let's take a closer look:
  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. No (Electric drivetrain lives at each axle)
  4. Yes
  5. Yes
Verdict: It's a pickup truck!
 

Subaru Baja

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This is an interesting one. It's as close to a capable crew cab midsize truck as you can get but done in Subaru's own special way. Would you consider the Baja a truck? Does our test?
  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Yes
  4. Yes
  5. No
Verdict: It's a pickup truck!
 

Chevrolet Avalanche

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Ahh, the Chevy Avalanche. With a cult-like following, the Avalanche was a Suburban with an open bed instead of third row and featured GM's innovative Midgate. It also featured the half-ton Suburban's better riding coil-sprung rear suspension on six-lug trucks.
  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Yes
  4. Yes
  5. Yes
Verdict: It's a pickup truck!
 

Volkswagen Rabbit Truck

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The VW Rabbit trucklet looks the part and even had a diesel option, but does this front-driver pass the test for pickup truck glory?
  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. No
  4. No
  5. No
Verdict: Not a pickup truck!
 

'61-'63 Ford F-100 Unibody Pickup

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We don't know a soul who would openly question the unibody F-100's pedigree as a truck, but this era gets a bit complicated, as even Ford realized the limits of the Unibody and offered them on only two-wheel-drive trucks. Check four-wheel drive in the option box got you a step side bed separated from the cab.
  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Yes
  4. Yes (The chassis was offered in four-wheel drive, but it got you a cab separate from the bed)
  5. No
Verdict: It's a pickup truck!
 

Chevrolet El Camino

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The beloved (by some) Chevy El Camino is a hybrid of sorts, half car and half pickup. So, where does this one land on the automotive spectrum?
  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Yes
  4. No
  5. Yes
Verdict: It's a pickup truck!
 
So, there you have it, the definitive way to determine what is a pickup truck. Use this test to impress your friends with your authoritative truck knowledge and allow yourself to answer that burning question with certainty, "Is that a pickup truck?"

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