Reader Question: Diesel Pick-ups?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply! 

Kenn asks: I recently bought a house with some land on the edge of town. I am looking for an older used truck to be used for commuting and some hauling. I was thinking that an older diesel would be good because of their increased longevity and easier maintenance. I must admit though I am a city guy that has moved into the country so I know very little about automobiles in general and used trucks in particular. Do you have any recommendations on what I should look for in a truck? Any guidance would be much appreciated.

My reply: I’d avoid anything new or even recent (past eight or so years) for openers – unless you need to regularly pull a trailer weighing 10,000 lbs. or more. In that case, the diesel’s superior low-end torque still offsets the modern diesel negatives of complexity (diesels used to be simpler) and much higher costs (both to buy and to fuel; the mileage advantage is not big anymore and diesel fuel now costs 30-40 cents more per gallon than unleaded gas, which adds up fast).

If you want a diesel-powered vehicle with the virtues people still (mistakenly) associate with diesels, such as simplicity, lower maintenance and tremendous longevity – I’d recommend going with an older model made before the early 2000s. This will avoid among other things urea injection systems (and the need to buy DEF, or diesel exhaust fluid) and enable you to safely run “offroad” diesel (hint, hint) as well as homebrew (waste vegetable oil) and so on, which can dramatically reduce your fueling costs.

I’d personally get an even older model with mechanical injection and without all the modern cost-complexity adders and use it as my “farm truck” – with Farm Use tags, to avoid having to hand over money annually for registration renewal and be able to skip the government-mandated “safety” and “emissions” checks, if you have to deal with those.

And get a high-mileage/low-cost gas-powered car for the commute. The money you’ll save on fuel will add up quickly, if you have a long commute. A half-ton truck – even a diesel half-ton truck – will cost you at least $50 to fuel up vs. $25 or less for something like a Corolla – which will also go twice as far on that tank.

Save on fueling costs – and wear and tear on the truck.

As to which brand – this gets down to opinion and personal preferences. Some swear by PowerStroke, others prefer Cummins or Duramax. But they’re all good – provided you pick one that hasn’t been abused and isn’t too new!

. . .

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  1. Depending on where you live, if you have a newer diesel, #2 heating oil is the same except for the dye as on-road diesel.

    Heating oil is ultra low sulfur throughout New England. In my area, it’s averaging $2.20 (as low as $2), while diesel is averaging just under $2.70.

    • idi Ford 6.9 & 7.3 (pre 1994.5 Powerstroke) trucks are great if you can find them. Simple, durable, all mechanical. Don’t even need a batteries to start/run with a manual (if it is warm weather). Try to get the F350 if you can just for the solid front axle. Much more durable than the TTB.

      Not the huge amounts of power of today’s stuff, but still more than adequate unless towing massive loads.

  2. Diesel isn’t so good for short haul driving either.

    And keeping up a second vehicle to get better gas mileage is a toss up. Unless you drive it a LOT of miles it might be better to just buy a bit more fuel versus plates and insurance and upkeep on another vehicle.

    Though it is always nice to have a spare vehicle to drive when you are out of town.

      • Hi Eight,

        Good friend of mine has a half-ton Ram that averages maybe 12 MPG. She drives this thing 60 miles every day, round trip – and burns up a tankful every 3-4 days. So she’s spending around $300/month on fuel. She loves her truck and doesn’t want to get rid of it, but it’s killing her on fuel (and tire) bills. I told her: Keep the truck and invest $2,500 in a beater econobox that gets twice the mileage and it’ll have paid for itself in no time and after that, it’ll be saving you considerably each month.

        I love my TA – and have owned it since before I began getting press cars to test drive. But I rarely drove it to work. Instead, I drove a $700 ’74 Super Beetle…

        • eric, there’s something wrong with that truck. I drove one Dodge after the other when working for a construction company and never saw any except a 5500 roustabout truck get that sort of mileage.

          When they finally bought a couple of Chevy’s, one ex cab and one crewcab with 5.3’s, I got 17mpg driving 80-90 going back and forth to my truck in the wee hours in one of those Chevy’s. Still, that Dodge just doesn’t compute. If it were a one ton I could understand. I believe the first thing I’d do is find a good mechanic and find out WTH.

      • 50 mile round trip ain’t so bad. But “edge of town” could mean anything from 1 mile to 50 miles one way depending on the size of the town.

        I use my pickup a lot just on my own property: start it up, drive a hundred feet, load a fence post, drive a furlong, replace a post, drive over there, load some branches, drive to the slash pile, unload branches, etc etc etc …. I would just have to leave a diesel running through all of that.

  3. Good luck with finding an older diesel that’s not ragged out. There are plenty of them out there and they are not for sale.

    • Actually, a year or more ago I found a pickup nearly the clone to Blackie, one ton 4WD, diesel that was in excellent shape and low miles……$21,500 from a private seller. I think that’s slightly less than the cost when it was new.


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