I have a few buddies that roll their eyes every time I buy a new or used car. They always talk about how trucks are so much more reliable and how I’m just wasting my money. That got me thinking — are trucks really more reliable than cars?
According to the matchups I put together, trucks are more reliable than cars. They have a much sturdier frame, better frame construction, a longer average lifespan, simpler engines and transmissions, and a much higher towing capacity. The combination of these facts makes trucks a clear winner in this matchup.
I did some digging and I’m here to present what I found. I’m going to clarify what I mean by “reliable”, then get into an 8-part head-to-head matchup of pickup trucks versus cars. By the end, you’ll have a definitive answer to this big question.
What Goes into Reliability?
When it comes to car reliability, there are a few ways to gauge it. Consumer Reports looks at how long a car lasts and how many inconveniences the driver can expect along the way. I doubt they’re talking about a bad hair day — it’s more like, “how many times will you try to turn your key and nothing happens?”
They send out all these customer surveys and get information from people who really own the vehicles.
The Problems with Unreliable Vehicles
When people say “I want the most reliable vehicle”, what are they really saying? This is a buzzword you’ll hear all the time, but I want to break it down for a second. The best way to do that is to look at what unreliability means in a vehicle.
First and foremost, you’ll have to deal with a ton of breakdowns. Like an unreliable friend, you never know when your vehicle is going to arrive and do what it’s supposed to.
That means early mornings are spent smacking your steering wheel since your car won’t start for your daily commute. It also means hours spent on the side of the highway watching cars whiz by one foot from your broken-down vehicle.
In short? It sucks.
Every time there’s an issue, it usually means something expensive just went wrong. Something as simple as a gasket deteriorating could set you back way more than a hundred bucks.
It’s really hard to budget for random things that will go wrong with an unreliable car. The only guarantee is that plenty of things will break along its life.
Money Wasted on Repairs or a New Vehicle
There’s always a big decision that has to be made when you encounter a massive problem in an unreliable car. Do you spend the money to fix it, or do you buy a new vehicle? My rule of thumb is that I’ll never spend more money repairing a car than its Kelly Blue Book value.
Time Spent Troubleshooting
It’s also worth mentioning how much time you’ll waste. If you start counting all the hours, you’ll want to throw in the towel.
Troubleshooting a car’s problem is basically just a process of elimination. You fix one part and if the problem persists, you try to fix another part. Each one of these fixes could be a whole Saturday blown. If you’re anything like me, you hate wasting a second of your precious weekend.
The Big Components to Talk About
This might differ a little bit from person to person, but here’s my take: when I’m thinking about reliability, I’m thinking about a few big components and whether they break:
- The engine
- The transmission
- On-board computer(s)
- Belts and gaskets
Maybe belts and gaskets don’t belong on that list, but I’ve had too many mechanics quote me over a thousand bucks to fix them, so I have to add it.
Anyway, this is the list of items that if they go bad, your car is unusable. If you want a reliable car, you want these parts to operate as long as humanly possible.
You’ll notice that in two of these four categories, trucks are very different than cars. (Spoiler: it’s the engine and transmission).
How Long Does the Average Car or Truck Last?
A group of car and data enthusiasts at iSeeCars put together a case study of the longest-lasting vehicles on the road. To save you the trouble of scrolling through, here’s what it says:
- Of all the cars on the road, 1.0% of them reach 200,000 miles
- From all the trucks sampled, 1.9% of them reach 200,000 miles
- The Toyota Tundra stands out with 3.7% of their sold trucks over 200,000 miles
- Looking at the top 16 longest-lasting vehicles on the road, 14 of them were large SUVs (truck-based, body-on-frame) or pickup trucks. The Prius and Avalon were the only cars on the list.
I also wanted to point something out about this data. If you drive 12,000 miles a year, it would take nearly 17 years to rack up 200,000 miles.
This data isn’t saying that 99% of vehicles die before hitting 200 grand. I’m using it to show that trucks are twice as likely to hit that figure over the same period as a car.
In other words, cars sold after 2004 probably don’t have 200 grand on their odometer yet. 200,000 is still very possible for a 2005 car to hit (sorry for the confusion).
Six truck and SUV models average a lifespan of 300,000 miles, believe it or not (Toyota Tundra and Toyota Tacoma were the two trucks. Ford Expedition, Toyota 4Runner, Toyota Sequoia, and Chevrolet Suburban were the SUVs).
Comparing Reliability of Trucks and Cars
Without wasting any time, let me compare trucks and cars. For reference, I’m looking at a general pickup truck versus an everyday commuter sedan. In the end, I’ll declare a winner (will it be unanimous?)
Different Models to Choose From
The first step of reliability is picking the right make and model. You could always pick up an old Jag or any Alfa Romeo and sign up for a life of misery and breakdowns. Alternatively, you can grab a Camry or Civic and put hundreds of thousands of miles behind you.
That forces a buyer to look at how many different makes and models there are on the market. If you compare the car market and the truck market, you’ll notice that there are significantly more cars.
Although this isn’t reason enough to claim trucks are less reliable, it’s a good baseline to understand that there’s fluctuation. There’s a range.
Earlier I was talking about how the engine is one of the bigger components to keep an eye on. In fact, it’s probably the most important part of a car. Don’t believe me? Take the engine out of your vehicle and try to do anything. Short of getting a role in the Flintstones, an engine-less vehicle is pretty useless.
That means that the expected life of an engine is paramount. After all, the car dies when the engine dies.
Statistically, truck engines last longer than car engines. This goes back to the 50,000 extra miles a truck gets on average and the fact that a truck is twice as likely to hit the 200,000-mile mark than a car would.
Understanding Towing Capacity
The idea of towing capacity helped me to understand the big difference between these two styles of vehicles. Trucks have towing capacities that are orders of magnitude higher than cars.
For instance, a Honda Civic can tow up to 1,000 pounds while a Chevy Silverado 2500 can tow up to 14,500. Since a Civic only weighs about 3,000 pounds, you can stack up to four of them and pull them all behind a single Silverado with another ton to spare.
Okay, so why should you care about this? Big deal, a truck can carry more weight. Well, it means that the truck was designed to carry more weight. That Silverado can tow seven tons every day and there’s no problem.
It means that a Silverado that isn’t towing anything is completely over-engineered. It has more strength and power than it needs, so it can handle everyday driving very easily.
On the other hand, a Civic loaded with 5 beefy guys could be overloaded and the engine could be taxed and straining.
Think about it like this: a shelf that’s rated to hold 14,000 pounds can take a lot more damage than a shelf that’s rated to hold 1,000 pounds.
Another part of an engine’s life expectancy is its complexity. The more simple the engine is the fewer things that can go wrong and therefore the longer it will last.
A standard truck usually has a straightforward overhead V6 or V8 that’s nice and simple. They’re often naturally aspirated and made of cast iron or an aluminum block.
A compact car probably has an aluminum alloy engine and could have a turbo or supercharger in it. These parts are more fragile and a lot more complicated, which in turn makes the engine more unreliable. For example, a BMW 335 E90 N54 engine has two turbos.
In this match-up, the simpler engine wins. That means that a truck’s engine is more reliable.
Looking At the Transmission
The gearbox is part of the transmission. It has gears that are used at different speeds to achieve the best possible performance of your vehicle. I talk about this idea a lot in my guide on how to drive a manual car.
The transmission will deliver power from the engine to the wheels, to oversimplify things. It’s another component that you want to be simple in order to maximize the vehicle’s reliability.
In the world of sedans and sports cars, you might find a fancy and overcomplicated 8-speed gearbox with a double-clutch transmission.
Take a look at a truck and you’ll probably see an old-school, tried-and-true, simple 5-speed or 6-speed automatic transmission. A cousin of mine has a 2016 Dodge RAM with a 6-speed manual transmission that already has over 300,000 miles on it and still going. He uses it to haul vehicles for a living.
This goes back to the thought I had after seeing a BMW with little wipers for their headlights: it’s just another thing that can break. When things in cars get overcomplicated, they get expensive to repair and more susceptible to big damages.
Since trucks have simpler transmissions, they win this comparison.
Although I didn’t mention it in the big components to look out for, a vehicle’s frame is a huge deal. This is the metalwork that your vehicle is supported by.
A really sturdy frame will be able to take a beating day after day. It also allows you to get into a fender bender and not have to deal with cutting and welding new frame pieces which cost (thousands upon thousands of dollars in repairs).
More reliable vehicles will have a sturdier frame. The other thing about weak frames is that a lot can jiggle loose or wear out as you ride along.
Trucks are built with really strong frames. In fact, they use what’s called a “body-on-frame” buildup. This is where the body is mounted separately directly onto the metal framework. It’s the strongest means of commercial vehicle construction, and you won’t find many sedans that offer the same.
Sedans use a “unibody” frame. The frame and body are a single piece and built together like a little skeleton for your car. If there’s a collision, you’ll be looking at a much bigger bill and a more tedious repair.
Since truck frames are stronger and use the body-on-frame technique, they are the clear winner by a mile in this category.
Record-Holding Mileage Vehicles
For a little fun, I looked at the list of record-holding mileage vehicles. These are the vehicles that have the most miles ever recorded on their odometers (legitimately, not a rolled-forward odometer).
The source I saw listed the top 15 highest-mileage cars and the result was a little surprising. It isn’t until spot #7 that you see a truck. Furthermore, only 4 of the 15 were pickups, all the others were cars.
As a fun trivia fact, Irv Gordon holds the world record of 3.25 million miles on his ‘66 Volvo P1800. The 7th place driver racked up 1.29 million miles on their ‘91 Chevy C1500.
Maybe this isn’t the best indication of which type of vehicle is more reliable, but it’s still an interesting category to look at. Given the data, cars win this slot.
How Many Miles it Lasts
In an earlier section, I talked all about how long trucks last versus cars. The verdict was that cars last an average of 150,000 miles and trucks last 200,000 miles with two models lasting up to 300,000 miles.
50,000 miles might not seem like a ton, but that’s an extra 4 years if you drive 12,000 miles a year.
Are Trucks More Reliable Than Cars?
Let me cut to the chase now. I just compared trucks and cars in a few different categories to determine which is more reliable. So, are trucks more reliable than cars? I will have to say, yes. Six of the eight categories were won by the truck, and most of them were landslides.
Also, keep in mind that the two wins in favor of cars were in record-setting mileage vehicles and how many makes and models are available on the market. If these categories don’t really matter to you, then it’s a landslide victory in favor of pickups.
Well, that’s it. You just learned more about how pickup trucks compare to cars when it comes to overall reliability. Trucks are a lot more reliable than cars and won this matchup by a landslide.