By Matthew Barnes
Owning a pickup truck provides a lot of freedom and capability that a car doesn't. A pickup has plenty of room, a commanding view of the road, and it can tow significant loads. Many also have four-wheel drive. The price of the added capability, as you might expect, is higher operational costs from fuel and maintenance. The harder a vehicle works, the more maintenance it needs.
For many pickup trucks and SUVs, the owner's manuals have two named service intervals: one for regular use and the other for "heavy" or "off-road" use. The heavy- or off-road-use service intervals are typically much shorter than the regular-use intervals. Here's what to keep in mind.
Fluids and Lubrications
Towing and hauling can add a lot of wear and tear on a vehicle, but having clean fluids will greatly reduce the amount of wear a vehicle suffers. Always check the owner's manual for fluid and filter change intervals and specifications. There are a variety of product and brand options out there, but it's always best to use what the manufacturer recommends -- especially to protect your warranty.
Most fluids will have a mileage or time interval for when they need to be changed. If a fluid level is low, get into the habit of thoroughly checking all the lines and components in which that fluid flows to find out if there's a leak. Remember, all fluids should be checked with the vehicle on level ground.
Engine oil: Oil keeps an engine cool, lubricated and protected. New vehicles often have oil-life gauges or readouts that let you know when to change the oil, and keep in mind that oil life can be cut in half when driving in rough and dusty conditions. The oil level and quality should be checked at least once a month after waiting a few minutes once the engine has been turned off.
For any fluid that is being checked with a dipstick, wipe the dipstick clean first, then fully insert it into its housing. Remove it immediately to check the level and color. With a diesel, the oil will turn black quickly. This doesn't necessarily mean the oil needs to be changed; however, if the oil is black in a gas engine, it probably does. Mileage and usage are the best ways to tell when the oil needs to be changed. Remember to always change the oil filter when the oil is changed.
Transmission fluid: Transmission fluid cools the transmission, protects it and allows it to work properly. Transmission fluid should be checked at the same intervals as the engine oil. When checking automatic transmission fluid, the vehicle should be idling in Park. Check the dipstick the same way you would with engine oil. If the fluid is dark or black -- or if it smells bad or burnt -- it needs a change. Most manual transmissions (and some automatics) don't have dipsticks but can still be checked other ways. Note: Different vehicles have different transmission-fluid change intervals, and some even claim to be lifetime. The transmission filter should also be changed regularly.
Coolant: Coolant levels should be checked at least once before winter and summer. It's a good idea to check it at every oil change and before any trips where the vehicle will be worked hard or driven long distances; dirty or old coolant can prevent the corrosion inhibitors from working properly.
When opening the radiator cap, make sure the coolant is cool. Clean the cap to ensure a proper seal. If it is opened when hot, it can spray liquid that is likely to be near boiling temperatures. Be aware that there is often a minimum and maximum marking on the coolant reservoir, and some have hot and cold levels, as well. Depending on the model, engine and use, the coolant should be changed somewhere between 15,000 and 100,000 miles.
Brake and power-steering fluid: These fluids should be checked at every oil change. Both brake and power-steering fluids can last a long time, but change intervals will vary by manufacturer. Moisture and heat can affect the quality of both fluids; if either absorbs water or is overheated for extended periods of time, they should be replaced. Water causes rust and heat degrades fluid quality.
Differential oil: Most vehicles will have between one and three differentials in the vehicle that will need to be checked and maintained. If the vehicle is front- or rear-wheel drive, there will only be one differential to be checked. If the vehicle is all- or four-wheel drive, there will most likely be three differentials: the front, center (inside the transfer case) and rear differential. The front and rear differentials often use the same type of gear oil, but not always. The transfer case typically uses a different type of oil than the front and rear differentials.
For most vehicles, these components might last the life of the vehicle, but for vehicles used for towing and hauling, they may need to be inspected regularly. Again, check your owner's manual and follow manufacturer guidelines. At every oil change interval, all greaseable joints should be greased. This will protect the joints and push out old, degraded grease. Many people are unaware that most pickups have steering, suspension and drive-shaft joints with grease fittings that need to be greased regularly.
Suspension: When used heavily, the suspension runs the risk of sagging or breaking. It's a good idea to inspect the suspension before and after hauling any heavy loads or traveling long distances. Check the springs for cracks and make sure the bolts are properly tightened. Check the shock absorbers for any leaks or loose bolts, too.
Spark Plugs: Spark plugs should be replaced regularly, with most lasting between 60,000 and 100,000 miles. Most vehicles have one spark plug per cylinder; however, some engines (such as Ram's 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi) have two. Inspecting the spark plugs when changing them allows for a look inside the engine. If you find any oil on the spark plug or if it's heavily blackened, there's probably an oil leak. If the plug is exceptionally clean, there may be a head gasket leak allowing coolant into the cylinder.
Steering: Loose steering components can cause the vehicle to wander and, in some conditions, create what is known as "death wobble." Death wobble happens when components are worn enough that the front wheels start to move side to side without any steering input. The wheels may toe in and out rapidly, causing loss of control. We recommend checking the steering components at every oil change interval and greasing the ball joints to keep things well-lubed.
Brakes: Brakes will wear significantly faster when stopping hard or heavy loads. Brake pads and shoes should be checked at every tire rotation interval (check your owner's manual for instructions). If heavy loads are moved regularly, a brake upgrade might be a good option.
Frame: Frames are thought of as the biggest and strongest parts of a vehicle, but they can crack, bend and rust if neglected. It's a good idea to inspect the frame once a year to check for excessive rust and any areas that may be bent or cracked. If the vehicle is used for towing heavy loads often, then it's a good idea to check the frame where the trailer hitch receiver attaches, either near the bumper or under the bed. If the vehicle is used in an area with high salt content on the roads, it should be washed regularly or have an undercoating applied before winter to protect it from extra corrosion.
Air filter: Although the owner's manual will recommend a certain mileage interval, the air filter should be changed whenever it's dirty. Regular intervals can vary widely, but when driving on dusty roads, the air filter may need to be changed after just a few hundred miles. If the vehicle is consistently used in an extremely dusty environment, a snorkel might be a good upgrade to increase filter life.
It's worth noting here that diesel engines require a few more maintenance items that gas engines don't. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
DEF (diesel exhaust fluid): DEF greatly reduces diesel emissions out the tailpipe. It should be topped off at every oil change, if not more often, depending on usage. For some vehicles (Ford, Nissan and Ram), the DEF tank is filled from the same fuel filler door. Others (Chevrolet and GMC) have the fill port under the hood. Many truck stops have DEF at the pump, or it can be bought at most places that sell oil in 2.5-gallon boxes.
Fuel filter: Both gas and diesel engines have fuel filters, but diesel engines require the filter be changed more often. The filter on a diesel engine will be placed somewhere easy to reach, whereas on gas vehicles, the filter is often in or close to the gas tank.
Water separator: Diesel engines have an additional filter that separates water out of the fuel. That water needs to be drained out of the separator regularly to keep it functioning properly. If it isn't drained, there will most likely be a warning light notifying the driver that it needs to be drained.
There are many important things to do to keep a pickup or SUV running strong for a long time, but driving it regularly and performing regular maintenance is the key. Sitting for long periods of time allows components to rust, dry up, crack or seize when they otherwise wouldn't. Take care of worn parts before they become a problem and damage other parts. Use high-quality, manufacturer-approved fluids and filters, and replace them regularly. By all means, use the vehicle for what it was intended for, but drive and maintain it with care. And as always, be prepared.
Cars.com photos by Matthew Barnes