By G. R. Whale
From the very beginning, manufacturers have tried to make the bed box of a pickup truck more functional, better looking and somehow uniquely their own. Not surprisingly, sometimes they succeeded, and sometimes they didn't. In some cases it wasn't even the bed itself they changed to make an improvement, but an associated part: The sliding rear cab window and bed light, for example, or the long-wheelbase/same overall length camper specials like the 1970 Ford F-350 SRW configuration, or Chevrolet putting a small bed in a Suburban and calling it the Avalanche.
Here is our list of the top 10 bed-tech features available on current-model pickups. You probably have a few others you like as well. We'll note that some pretty good optioins did not make the list, like Tacoma's weatherproof 120V plug, bed extenders, and bed-access side steps to name a few. Of course, you should stay tuned for even more versatile bed technology, as future pickups get ready to debut for 2015 and beyond.
Finally, let us know if there's something you'd like to see pickup makers include as part of their new bed-tech options list. We'll be sure to pass your ideas along.
1. Integrated Kingpin Hitches
In the 1970s, slide-in campers became popular enough that pickups started getting dedicated RV plugs in the bed, as well as wiring pigtails. However, as frame rails became more sophisticated, manufacturers thankfully have offered factory gooseneck and fifth-wheel-base plate systems. No more welding, drilling through important cross members or dealing with measuring tape disasters. Today's integrated factory packages are solid, warrantied and still allow for complete use of the pickup bed.
2. Dual-Swing Tailgate
Popular with domestic station wagons of the late 1960s, the dual-swing tailgate allows you to lay it flat for tailgating parties or for carrying long objects, or open it sideways to avoid leaning over that long tailgate. That makes it much easier to reach the cargo deep in the bed. Our only beef is that the gate can't open a full 90 degrees.
3. Under-Bed Storage
Many years ago I considered a crew cab short bed to be a rather nice car with an open trunk in back. Then Honda put a decent-size trunk under the bed in the Ridgeline, made it lockable and just for good measure hid the spare tire in there where it was completely secure. Just as the independent rear suspension makes SUV third-row seats livable, the bed trunk hides lockable space down low where you want your center of gravity to be.
4. The Bumper Step
GM added a step built into the corners of the rear bumper (like Nissan's Xterra SUV several years earlier) and recessed comfortable handholds in a stake pocket in the bed rail. We almost wonder if this was designed in from the beginning or an aerodynamicist wanted to soften the corner for better mileage and somebody said, "What if?"
5. Tailgate Step
As pickups get bigger and further off the ground (especially in three-quarter and one-ton configurations), using the bumper as a climbing step becomes less practical. Ford introduced a pop-out tailgate step and climbing bar integrated right into the tailgate, echoing the fold-down ladders on motorhomes and boats. On the plus side, it makes it easier for everyone to climb into the bed, but it works only with the tailgate open, without a load in it, and it adds quite a bit of weight to the gate. The Ford Atlas concept, seen at last year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, takes the step one step further, using the pop-up step as a cargo rack as well.
6. Spray-In Bedliner
Drop-in bedliners were the standard and were pretty inexpensive to buy. And its benefits (protecting the painted bed floor from nasty scratches) far outweighed its costs. But the fit of drop-ins were never tight, and the constant rubbing at contact points could wear through paint and create rust points when water crept in. At the same time, spray-on bedliners, once an expensive proposition, dropped in price and offered a much cleaner look, not to mention their almost-bulletproof protection. Nissan was the first to offer the option on its Titan, and now everyone else does too.
7. Bed Utility
Back when a pickup shell could be dropped on any of the Detroit Three trucks with equal aesthetic results, the aftermarket had a good selection of cargo retention, tie-down and bed-rail accessories, but shorter beds and unique bed rails (they all seem to be different now) forced truck manufacturers into the fray. When the Titan showed up with the highly adjustable Utili-track securing system, it had a leg up on other full-size pickups.
8. Bed Lighting
Cab bed lights have been around for years, but they usually sit up high above the rear window. The unconventional-looking Ridgeline and Avalanche added lights in the sides of the bed because of their SUV/minivan underpinnings but the new GM half-tons take this idea a notch further. By using LED lights under the bedrails, they can run forever without flattening a battery; also, they're tucked under the bed rails for better protection with less light shining in your eyes (and more light on the job).
9. External Locking Storage
Lockable storage areas have been around for a long time (Ford was putting locking bins beneath the bed floor decades before Nissan reintroduced it with the current-gen Titan), but the RamBox has a lot more space than the Titan's rear quarter-panel bin and now it works with the central locking system on the key fob. On the downside, though, it takes away nominal payload; limits tonneau, rack or shell use; and the fenders tend to get messed up by things being dragged in and out of the RamBox. Of course, your cab has more usable storage space, but these storage bins are integrated into the bed and are a handy place to put things like tire chains and tow straps.
10. A Real Sliding Rear Window
One of our favorite "non-box" pickup features is the Tundra's vertical drop-down sliding rear window; we're mildly surprised no one has copied it. Well-sealed, defrostable and without hurting rear visibility, the electric rear window completely opens to the outside when retracted, making it easier for kids to crawl through into the bed or back into the cab. When matched with a sunroof, it offers the most open-air experience you can have in a pickup since the Dakota offered a convertible (and don't forget about the Chevy SSR).