By Mathew Barnes
When selecting options for a pickup truck, what are the most useful and cost-effective upgrades? Some options may seem pointless and overpriced, while others may be important and priced so low that you can't afford not to get them. You have to know what you need, and we're here to help you figure that out.
Although many of the options below may be expensive -- especially when compared with less expensive aftermarket options -- we're listing what we think are the best pickup truck options you can order from the factory.
For General Use
Traction devices/four-wheel drive: A limited-slip, auto-locking or selectable locking rear differential and four-wheel drive will both cost significantly less when ordered from the factory than installing them after purchase. If you think your pickup will ever [be used in low-traction situations, then ordering these options from the factory is the most cost-effective way of getting them equipped the way you want. Full-size pickups, and many mid-sizers, offer 4WD with a separate low-range gear. Low-range multiplies the usable torque at the wheels, usually by twice as much or more when compared to high-range settings.
Some vehicles will never be placed in a situation where extra traction or torque is needed; if that's the case, cost of ownership will be significantly lower without 4WD. Choosing a 4x4 option adds weight and rolling resistance to the pickup, both of which decrease fuel efficiency.
Extra storage: This is an option that some owners can't live without. If protected or lockable storage is needed, there are a few new pickup options that offer it. The Honda Ridgeline comes standard with a large amount of storage space underneath the bed floor. This space is inaccessible and protected when the tailgate is closed; the locking tailgate secures any cargo placed in the storage bin.
Ram offers the 5-foot 7-inch and 6-foot 4-inch RamBox option, which has a lockable storage bin on each side of the bed. They lock -- along with the tailgate -- automatically when the truck's doors are locked. The RamBox does shrink room in the bed, but it leaves enough width in the bed for a 4-foot-wide sheet of plywood.
Ford, in both the F-150 and Super Duty, has a rear under-seat storage system that can be configured in a variety of ways and can be separately locked with the rear seat folded up or down. GM also offers under-seat storage cubbies for the rear in its pickups as well, but they cannot be locked.
LED bed lighting: For camping or other nighttime or early-morning outdoor activities, bed lighting makes items in the bed of a pickup more visible for loading or unloading. Cab-mounted cargo lamps work well but don't provide the amount of light needed to see the whole bed.
Spray-on bedliner: If the truck is going to be used to haul items that could scratch the paint or puncture the bed, then a spray-on bedliner is an excellent choice to protect it. Bedliner spray is tough stuff that prevents damage to steel or aluminum beds in all but the worst situations. With material this durable protecting the it, the bed should outlast the rest of the truck.
Mirrors:[ One of the most important things for towing, especially for tall and wide loads that can block the driver's view of the rear, is good visibility. The extra height and width of the tow mirrors allow the driver to see along the sides of the trailer. Regular mirrors will create large blind spots near the rear of the trailer. This will make it more difficult to change lanes safely.
Less expensive aftermarket mirrors can be added to regular mirrors, but those can be noisy in the wind, usually must be adjusted manually, and most don't have a defrost option. The best tow mirrors for a new truck are the ones offered by the manufacturer; they should be extendable (manual or electric) and split (upper and lower mirrors).
Camera system: Having a backup camera makes connecting and disconnecting trailers a breeze. Some manufacturers now offer additional cameras for viewing cargo in the bed; some systems provide 360-degree top-view sights around the truck; and a wireless camera can even be placed on (or inside) the rear of a trailer to aid in backing up. Ford offers a seven-camera system [JB14]that makes driving off-road, parking and cargo monitoring much easier and safer. The most useful camera in a pickup is the rearview camera on the tailgate. It allows for safer driving in Reverse and easier trailer hook ups. Additional cameras can be costly and may not be that beneficial unless they have a specific purpose.
Axle ratios: The axle ratio is a reduction in gearing. If the ratio is 3:1, that means the driveshaft will rotate three complete times for every one rotation the wheels make. This multiplies the available torque by 3, but also divides the speed by 3. Ratios in the front and rear axles vary by manufacturer; just because one has a 4.10:1 axle ratio and another has a 3.73:1 axle ratio, it doesn't necessarily mean that the 4.10:1 will tow better or that the 3.73:1 will get better gas mileage.
Transmission gear ratios also vary and affect the overall power output and feel of the pickup. When choosing a truck, look at the available ratios offered by the manufacturer and determine which ratio will work best for the conditions your truck will experience most often.
Depending on the model, a pickup may or may not be offered with a variety of axle ratios. If more than one option is available and fuel mileage is a higher priority than towing and/or hauling, then a numerically lower (typically called a higher-gear) axle ratio would be preferable. When towing or hauling heavy loads, or if you're planning to swap in taller tires, a numerically higher (low-gear) axle ratio is better.
The axle ratio can be changed later, but if the ratio desired is available from the factory, it will be cost effective to order the pickup with that ratio.
Integrated trailer brake controller: Factory trailer brake controllers are often included in towing packages that usually come with trailer tow mirrors. Like the mirrors, there are aftermarket options that are less expensive, but they don't integrate nearly as well into the braking and powertrain system as those from the factory.
Factory-installed trailer brake controllers will have an anti-sway system built in as well. This system is software based and uses sensors already on the vehicle to determine when the trailer is swaying. It will apply the trailer brakes and/or tow-vehicle brakes to specific wheels of the truck or trailer to minimize and stabilize the unwanted motions. When compared to aftermarket options, factory-installed trailer brake controllers are easier to read, easier to adjust and often positioned in a location that is much easier for the driver to engage manually, if needed.
Bed access steps: GM pickups have corner bumper steps and grab holes that provide easy access to the bed. It doesn't matter if a trailer is hooked up to the truck, the steps are still accessible. Ford offers a step that stows inside the tailgate. It's a bit of a commitment to use this step because it must be deployed, but for some people the extra effort is worth the ease it provides in accessing the bed. It cannot be used with a trailer hooked up.
Cab and bed configuration: It's important to select the right size cab and bed from the factory. While this can be changed, the costs are astronomical. Ram offers a monstrous MegaCab, while all the other truckmakers offer a crew cab (although Toyota calls it a CrewMax for the Tundra). Whatever the manufacturer calls it, a crew cab has plenty of room for adults and gear in the rear seats.
Parking sensors: Pickups are large and the corners can be difficult to see; having parking sensors will make parking much easier for those who use their trucks as daily drivers.
Upgraded engine: [Upgrading to a more powerful gas engine can cost less than $1,000. Upgrading to a diesel, depending on the application, can cost $10,000 or more. If the additional power is really needed, then it's worth the cost.
Transmission: When towing, it's helpful to being able to select gears manually and see what gear the truck is in. For the ultimate in control and driving fun, there are still a few pickups offered with a manual transmission: all the mid-size players except the Honda Ridgeline and the Ram 2500/3500.
Fifth-wheel/gooseneck prep: If your pickup offers an in-bed trailer attachment, then it might be a good idea to get it installed from the factory. If you get the factory option, it's more likely to be universal and will increase the resale value in case you ever sell your pickup.
Tire-pressure monitoring system: What you want is a tire-pressure monitoring system for truck and trailer. That allows the driver to keep an eye on the tire pressure of each tire.
You may not need, or want, all the options listed here. And longtime pickup owners/buyers may have aftermarket products they prefer to factory equipment. But for first-time pickup owners and car buyers in general, ordering options from the factory will provide the best bang for the buck.
Cars.com photos by Matthew Barnes