Canadians buy more pickup trucks than any other type of vehicle—here's what makes them unique to drive, a bit quirky at times, and invaluable to so many drivers.
When your pickup's 4X4 is engaged, it locks the rear differential (usually)
Your pickup truck has its weight distributed mostly over the front wheels
Understeer plagues your pickup truck when pushing to maximum cornering speeds
Going over your truck's suggested payload capacity is a really bad idea
Exceeding your truck's tow rating is not at all safe
A trailer anti-sway system is definitely a thing you want
Your pickup’s got a serious backbone
Aerodynamics are not your truck’s forte
The tow/haul button isn’t just there for its blue-collar cool factor
Trailer brakes are a pickup driver’s best friend
That’s right—you’ve bought a truck, replete with a hard-core 4X4 drivetrain that’s tough enough to handle punishing off-road assignments. When the rear differential (the device between the rear wheels that allows the outside wheel to turn faster than the inside wheel when rounding a corner) is locked the rear wheels are forced to turn at exactly the same speed, meaning that if one of the rear wheels loses traction, all the torque at the rear axle is instantly transferred to the wheel that still has grip, propelling the truck forward.
A locking rear differential is a great feature, allowing you to trudge further off-road in deeper mud, sand, or snow without getting stuck—but there’s a catch. When taking a corner at higher speeds on slippery public roads, a locked rear differential limits traction at the rear axle, meaning the truck is more likely to oversteer (think go-karts, which have solid rear axles, causing them to tend toward oversteer). To the uninitiated driver, a “tail-happy” moment could potentially lead to a spin—just the opposite of what you want when you engage your vehicle’s 4X4 system. Thankfully, electronic nannies are at the ready to intervene, limiting the likelihood of a spin, even when the rear diff is locked.
Those hauling heavy loads in their pickup beds should be mindful to avoid the use of 4X4 on grippy surfaces, as, at best, this will cause excessive tire wear and, at worst, this can cause catastrophic drivetrain damage—you could snap an axle, or destroy your rear diff!
Some pickups, such as the Ford F-150, can lock their rear diff on-the-fly, without engaging the full 4X4 system, which is handy when just a touch of extra traction is needed. And Ford’s highly-esteemed Raptor is equipped with a limited-slip rear differential, which mitigates the aforementioned traction limits on public roads, while still providing extra traction when it’s slippery.
Fun fact: off-road enthusiasts and those well versed in 4X4s commonly refer to locking differentials as “Diff lockers” or simply as “lockers,” and some trucks, such as the RAM Power Wagon off-road pickup, can lock both front and rear differentials, ensuring the truck can power ahead, even if only one of the front wheels has traction.
Much like a forklift, your pickup is designed to be balanced when loaded. When the rear bed of your truck is carrying nothing more than a few freshly fallen leaves, the majority of the vehicle’s weight is distributed over the front axle. (Pickups typically have a front:rear weight distribution of 60:40—or worse!)
This will result in less-than-ideal handling characteristics – again masked and safety-blanketed with electronic nannies – should at-limit driving be on the agenda. Because the amount of weight resting on a tire is directly correlated to the amount of grip it has, pickups tend to have better traction at the front axle, while more easily spinning or sliding the rear tires.
When driving on slippery roads, many pickup owners choose to add weight over the rear axle by throwing sand bags in the cargo bed. Some companies have gone so far as to fabricate and weld thick steel plates into the beds of their pickup fleets so as to improve the handling and rear-end traction of their pickups (which are mostly driven empty) after achieving a 50:50 front/rear weight distribution.
Fun fact: This forward weight distribution makes pickups particularly well-suited to lurid, smoky burn-outs, since pickups typically have big engines weighing down the front end, sending enough power and torque to the rear wheels to easily overcome the limited grip available to them.
Partly because of the aforementioned forward weight distribution, manufacturers have tuned their pickups to exhibit understeer when pushed to the limits of grip while cornering. This design measure is implemented in the interests of safety, since tail-happy pickups are a handful to control, particularly since there’s less grip available at the rear wheels when driven empty.
Every pickup has a maximum payload capacity identified by the manufacturer. This maximum payload weight should be respected for your safety, and the safety of those around you on public roads.
“But my pickup can handle way more weight than what’s stated by the manufacturer!” you exclaim.
Well, it may be true that the frame and suspension of your pickup can handle more weight—but it’s the brakes and transmission that typically limit a pickup’s cargo bed weight capacity. An over-loaded pickup will quickly overwhelm its brakes, resulting in brake fade, which can be very dangerous, ultimately presenting as brake failure with minimal stopping power available until the brakes cool back down.
Driving the pickup while overloaded for extended periods of time also puts excessive stress on the transmission, which is likely to wear out prematurely, and could suffer catastrophic failure whilst struggling to accelerate the load.
Manufacturers also publish maximum tow ratings for their pickups, and much like the payload capacity, these figures are established for your safety. If you hitch up to a trailer that weighs too much for your pickup, you risk “jack-knifing” your truck under braking, or failing to stop the truck and trailer in time due to brake fade.
Towing a trailer too heavy for your truck can result in a “tail wagging the dog” scenario—so if you need to pull more weight, you’ll have to upgrade your truck to a 2500 or 3500 series, which have much higher tow ratings.
Even when towing a trailer that weighs less than the maximum tow rating, high winds, surface undulations in the road, and poorly executed steering inputs can trigger trailer sway, which, again, is reminiscent of a dog being “wagged” by its tail. You’ll feel your truck rhythmically sway side to side, with yaw threatening to break your tires loose, which could lead to a jack-knife incident or total loss of control whilst veering off the roadway.
Thankfully, most pickup manufactures have begun offering trailer anti-sway systems, which constantly monitor the yaw of the pickup, and cancel out trailer sway by quickly adding brake input to individual wheels. The systems are well-proven, and are advantageous safety nets to have, particularly when traversing great distances while towing large and heavy trailers.
Pickup trucks – with the exception of the Honda Ridgeline – are built using body-on-frame construction. The ladder frame chassis that pickups are built upon are extremely strong and capable of withstanding serious abuse. Off-roading, crashing over big rocks? No problem. Towing a heavy trailer on bumpy roads? Bring it on.
Ladder frames are built tough to handle tough challenges, and while total vehicle weight is higher using this chassis technology than unibody construction, the benefits outweigh the fuel-thirsty consequences.
Pickup trucks have unique aerodynamics thanks to their open rear cargo beds, with vertically mounted tailgates. The open rear box renders pickups more susceptible to cross-winds, and the disruption of laminar air flow over the body isn’t great for fuel economy, as it increases drag.
Many pickup owners install tonneau covers, which help to improve the aerodynamics of their truck, while also securing any objects placed in the bed.
The transmission in your pickup is equipped with a tow/haul function, which keeps the transmission in a lower gear than it would normally run in. Keeping the engine revs higher keeps engine torque up, and prevents engine lugging (which can be damaging). The responsiveness of the throttle pedal will feel much improved while towing or carrying a heavy load when tow/haul mode is engaged. You’ll find the button on the drive selector lever of most pickups, or somewhere nearby.
When it’s time to slow things down, pickups equipped with trailer brakes can come to a shorter stop. When driving on snow-covered roads or in the mountains, trailer brakes are extremely helpful, reducing the risk of jack-knifing or over-heating the pickup’s brakes, causing brake fade. Trailer brakes are actuated by a squeeze-button mounted on the dash, and you can modulate how much trailer brake force is applied by varying how much you squeeze the button.