What Even Is a "Truck" These Days?

Rarely in the history of trucks have we had much reason to question the word’s definition. Indeed, for much of that time, trucks have been simple machines, tools. At times, though, we’ve been forced to consider the breadth of their genotype. This is one of those times, and it’s directly related to the annual arrival of MotorTrend’s Truck of the Year award.

From the first horse-drawn wagon fitted with an engine, the entire truck concept has been relatively simple: a sturdy frame and stout suspension propelled by contained and exploited explosions meant to move heavy loads from one point to another, more quickly and for longer durations than any animal could achieve. It wasn’t until the 1950s that vehicles like the Ford Ranchero and Chevrolet El Camino asked us to consider whether a car could … be a truck? The entire notion was something of a technicality, what with nearly all vehicles of all types using body-on-frame construction, but it fundamentally questioned what a truck is, its purpose, how it should look, and for whom it should be largely intended.

The question arose again in the late 1970s with the birth of the minitruck. Vehicles like the Ford Courier and Chevrolet LUV asked us to consider how small a truck could be without losing the usefulness that made it a truck, how small its engine could be, and what amount of brute capability was necessary to do the job.

In the 1980s, vehicles like the Volkswagen Rabbit pickup, Dodge Rampage, and Jeep Comanche compelled us to consider whether pure body-on-frame construction was a defining characteristic of a truck, an immutable component of its entire purpose for existing.

In the early 2000s, Honda asked the question more directly: Can a truck be credibly derived from a unibody construction designed to underpin the car-based crossover SUV? Is all-wheel drive an acceptable substitute for a transfer case, locking hubs, and low-range gears? Do live axles make a truck a truck?

We face similar questions today, and they’re not only posed about one vehicle or one new class of truck. Offerings like the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz raise many of those past considerations simultaneously. The Ford asks you to consider how much truck you really need for your real-world requirements. The Hyundai asks what utility means to you. In other words, how large and how heavy of loads must a vehicle carry to be defined as a truck?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the new GMC Hummer EV and Rivian R1T pickups force you to consider whether utility is the be-all, end-all of truckiness. Whether metal springs riding on live axles is the best way to haul the load or conquer the relevant terrain. Whether the internal combustion engine is even necessary, much less the best way to do truck things.

Somewhere in the middle of the road, the Nissan Frontier and Ford Ranger force you to consider whether we’ve all gone off course and forgotten how blunt an instrument a truck used to be, and why. Is this really a genre in need of reinvention when the old ways still get the job done the same as ever?

At the heart of the matter: Is a truck defined by its ability to do traditional work? Is a cheap, stripped-out, work-grade trim level an absolute must? Are payload and towing capabilities the most important metric to judge whether a truck is a true member of its species? Or are vehicles designed primarily for “lifestyle” appeal equally deserving of the “truck” classification?

As the automotive authority, it’s our job to find out; welcome to MotorTrend‘s 2022 Truck of the Year competition. It kicks off on page 48.

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