A pickup truck isn't just a pickup truck. There are Class 1s, Class 8s, Half-Tons, One-Tons, Light Duty, Severe Duty, Heavy-Duty-Light-Duty... Its gets confusing, and the distinction matters because it affects how your truck is regulated and compared to competitors.
We'll start with the simplest; the US government's own truck classification system based on weight or "GVWR."
What Are GVWR Classes?
The US DOT puts trucks into classes by "Gross Vehicle Weight Rating" (GVWR) ranked from 1 to 8 (smallest to largest).
GVWR refers to the maximum operating weight a truck can possibly carry while driving including the truck itself. GVWR classes have nothing to do with what parts the truck is fitted with, how beefy the suspension is, or what the truck looks like. They are solely based on weight.
So if a truck's GVWR is 10,000 pounds, that's the most the manufacturer and government have certified the truck to possibly weigh with fuel, passengers, and cargo. These classes exist for safety regulation, commercial designation, and registration purposes.
Those "weigh stations" you see on the side of the highway exist to make sure truckers aren't exceeding their GVWR. Those stations generally only "apply" to you if your total-weight (your truck and whatever you're towing) exceeds 26,000 pounds– that's the minimum weight requiring a CDL in most states.
Here's a chart to help you visualize truck classes-by-GVWR:
Graphic by Jason Torchinsky. Classes as described by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Center for Transportation Analysis, Oak Ridge, TN. Weight category definitions from 49CFR565.6 (2000)
As you saw above, pickup trucks live in in Class 1, 2, and 3. Class 1 trucks are very small, pretty much only the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier are there at this point. The Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado 1500, GMC Sierra 1500, Ram 1500, Toyota Tundra, and Nissan Titan fall into Class 2.
I'm told manufacturers also consider a "Class 2B" (GVWR 8,500 to 10,000 pounds) because 8,500 pounds is the cutoff at which they no longer have to provide EPA MPG estimates on window stickers. This includes "heavy-duty pickups" like the Ford Super Duty, Chevrolet and GMC 2500s, and Ram 2500s. "3500" pickups are basically all Class 3 trucks as far as GVWR is concerned.
What Are Pickup Truck Classes?
In marketing and now common speak, pickup trucks are generally classified by a different system that revolves around "payload" rather than total weight. Payload is the amount a truck can carry in its bed, and the industry still uses three classes with archaic and misleading names.
PickupTrucks.com says trucks were initially advertised based on payload because they "competed directly against horse-drawn wagons" which is pretty wild to think about.
The classes that stuck were "Half-Ton," "Three-Quarter Ton," and "One Ton." Those designations came about years ago when each manufacturer pretty much offered three trucks and those were the minimum payloads they were respectively capable of.
What's Wrong With That?
These classes are confusing now because they're pegged to capability-levels modern vehicles have long surpassed. For example, a 2014 Ford F-150 is considered a "half ton" truck but most variants can carry a lot more than 1,000 pounds in the bed.
Since these terms are probably not going away any time soon, it's best just to think of them as "smaller," "mediumest," and "more than medium." (Pause for laughter).
S0 How Do Half-Ton, Three-Quarter Ton, And One-Ton Trucks Measure Up Now?
Modern "half-ton" trucks are pretty much the GVWR Class 2 list; Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado 1500, GMC Sierra 1500, Ram 1500, Toyota Tundra, and Nissan Titan. Today these trucks tend to have a curb weight (weight empty but ready-to-drive) around 5,000+ pounds and payload capacities between 1,000 and 3,000 pounds. Manufacturers tend to claim they can tow between 5,000 and 10,000+ pounds.
The argument could be made that a Ford F-150 Regular Cab 4x2 Limited 5.0 V8 is a one-ton truck because it has a claimed payload max of 3,120 pounds but I'm telling you most folks will classify by the number stuck to the fender, not actual capability.
Modern half-ton trucks are generally designed with "daily driving" in mind, so they tend to be refined and reasonably comfortable even when empty.
- Three-Quarter Ton
These are the first of what's considered "Heavy Duty" pickup trucks, and we'll get back to that later. The Japanese automakers don't compete in this category, it's just the F-250, Silverado 2500, Sierra 2500, and Ram 2500. If you can't find the badge you can usually make these out by wider rear-view mirrors (meant for peeking around trailers).
These tend to weigh over 6,000 pounds empty, have a payload max of 3,000-4,000 pounds and can tow up to around 13,000 pounds. They're also a lot stiffer than Half-Ton trucks so think long and hard about whether or not you really need the extra capability before you buy one.
Here's where the F-350 and now F-450 Pickup, Silverado 3500, Sierra 3500, and Ram 3500 are at. This where extreme towing goes down; the trucks weigh weigh 6,000+ pounds empty, can carry their own weight again (another 6,000+) in the bed pounds and are now towing over 30,000 freakin' pounds.
Chassis cabs look like pickup trucks with the bed lopped off and replaced with something else, but they're actually fundamentally different underneath. They're even stiffer than pickups and have really hardcore axles and transmissions.
Ford and Ram sell chassis-cab versions of their bigger light duty trucks. You could make any pickup look like a chassis cab by tearing the bed off, but "true" chassis cab trucks have frame rails that are 34" apart. This makes for universal fitment of aftermarket cargo components.
A chassis cab van is an enclosed van cab with nothing but frame rails behind it, while a "cutaway is the same thing but with an open back-half of the cab (think; ambulance). Cutaways are how things like U-Hauls and some RVs are born.
Wait, What About These Different "Duties?"
This gets a little trickier. All the "normal-looking" pickups you know and love; Half-Ton, Three-Quarter Ton, and One-Ton, are considered "Light Duty" trucks. When I called Three-Quarter Ton pickups "Heavy Duty" that's only in the context of Light Duty. So it'd be more accurate to call a Silverado 2500 a Heavy Duty Light Duty. Follow?
Commercial vehicles like Ford F-550 and F-650s (think; beer trucks, GVWR Class 6) are "Medium Duty." Really-big-but-not-quite-semi-trucks (garbage trucks, GVWR Class 7) are "Heavy Duty."
GVWR Class 8 then gets broken out into "Severe Duty" (off-road dump trucks, military airport firetrucks) and "On-Highway" (the semi-trucks you see every day.)
Will Truck Nerds Finally Take Me Seriously Now That I Know All This?
Are there... truck nerds?
Images: Jason Torchinsky, International, Hanson Equipment, GM, Ford, Ram, Oregon DOT