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Big Three on a Budget: What’s the Best Pre-Owned 3/4-Ton 4x4 Truck Under $25K?

Posted in Features on May 18, 2018
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So, you’ve got a mortgage, minivan payment, and can’t swing the loan on a new truck, but you’ve got toys to haul, work to do, and a job to get to no matter what the weather… Believe us, we know the feeling. It’s a predicament that often lands folks in vehicles that are either undersized for their needs, or so old that they’re constantly in need of repairs. Trust us, the last thing you want is an unreliable 4x4. And you certainly don’t want to task a 1/2-ton with a 3/4-ton’s job. So how do you pick the perfect pre-owned 3/4-ton truck? If it’s our money, the search stretches back more than a decade, and we’re going diesel.

When it comes to finding the best used 3/4-ton truck for under $25,000, it’s important to remember that there is no silver bullet. No one brand or model is unequivocally better than the other. Each of the Big Three has (and has always had) its own unique strengths and weaknesses. We’ve narrowed our list down to the best pre-owned 3/4-ton Ford, GM, and Dodge Ram 4x4 trucks you can buy. The following trucks represent time-tested, real-world proven, reliable workhorses. They aren’t perfect, but their imperfections can easily be addressed—and they’ll last a good long time.

’06-’07 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD

Price Range: $14,000 to $23,000
Mileage Range: 70,000 to 180,000 miles

There is a lot to like about the classic–body style Chevy HDs. For starters, they boast powerful V-8s in the form of the 6.6L Duramax diesel or the optional 8.1L big-block gasser—both of which pack 300 hp or better. Backing up these potent engines, you have a choice between the Allison 1000 transmission—plucked right out of the medium-duty segment—or the trusty ZF-6 manual. In addition to that, you get the largest axle ever offered on a single rear wheel pickup, the AAM 1150, and the plushest ride of any 3/4-ton truck thanks to the independent front suspension.

Saving the best for last, the final two years of production represent GM’s finest hour with the GMT800 platform. By the time the ’06 model HDs came along, the fuel system and overheating quirks found in the Duramax-powered ’01-’05 trucks had been solved and the latest diesel engine, the LBZ, embodied the most tried-and-true version of the 6.6L ever assembled. On top of its class-leading 360 hp, the LBZ turned out 650 lb-ft of torque at just 1,600 rpm. Add in the fact that the Allison 1000 gained double overdrive in the form of a 0.61:1 ratio sixth gear, and you had a powertrain that was virtually incapable of breaking a sweat with a trailer in tow—and a truck that could achieve 18-21 mpg empty.

Learning from the injector failures and overheating issues associated with the LB7 (’01-’04) and LLY (’04.5-’05) engines, GM’s LBZ Duramax features a host of improvements over its predecessors. A less restrictive intake path to the turbo is employed, a larger radiator is used, and the Bosch common-rail injection system’s peak pressure checks in at 26,000 psi (versus 23,000 psi on earlier engines). As a result, the ’06-’07 HDs are more reliable and make substantially more power than their forefathers did.
At a time when Ford had yet to release the TorqShift automatic and Dodge’s TorqueFlite A727-based four-speeds were dropping like flies, GM dug into the medium-duty parts bin and pulled out a major trump card in 2001: the Allison LCT 1000. The heavy-duty slushbox gained a sixth gear (double overdrive) for the ’06 model year, and thanks to GM’s inclusion of a TapShifter along the shift column, customers had full control over its shift points.
As we stated, the AAM 1150 is the largest axle ever employed in a North American single rear wheel pickup—and it’s pretty darn tough. It features an 11.5-inch-diameter ring gear (hence 1150), 1.5-inch-diameter axleshafts, full-floating wheel hubs, and a 14-bolt differential cover. Its one Achilles Heel is the factory Gov-Loc limited slip that’s prone to failure when added horsepower and/or larger wheels and tires are combined with aggressive off-road driving.
The 8.1L big-block Vortec (L18) was also available during this time frame, and it was no slouch. The long-stroke 496ci V-8 pumped out 320 hp, 440 lb-ft of torque, and like the Duramax was also backed by the commercial-grade Allison transmission. If fuel economy isn’t your primary concern and you don’t plan to tow at max GCWR all the time, finding a 3/4-ton Chevy with the 8.1L under the hood will save you several thousand dollars over a Duramax-powered version.

Specs
Engine: 6.6L LBZ Duramax (403ci) OHV V-8 diesel
Injection system: Bosch high-pressure common-rail (26,000 psi)
Turbo system: Single variable-geometry Garret GT3788VA with air-to-air intercooler
Horsepower: 360
Torque: 650
Transmission(s): Allison 1000 six-speed automatic or ZF-6 six-speed manual
Transfer case(s): NP261XHD (manual shift) or NP263XHD (electronic shift)
Front axle: AAM 9.25 (IFS)
Rear axle: AAM 1150

Pros:
*Duramax/Allison combo is a 400,000-mile proposition, if not more
*LBZ Duramax came with a higher injection rate (26,000 psi vs. 23,000 psi) than on ’01-’05 engines, which accounted for the 50hp gain over the LLY
*Allison transmission gained another gear on ’06-’07 models (i.e., double overdrive)
*TapShifter and highly effective Tow/Haul mode greatly improve towing performance and control
*IFS provides arguably the plushest ride in the 3/4-ton segment
*Lighter curb weight than comparable Super Dutys or Ram HDs (also a con)
*Thanks to their light weight, IFS, and double overdrive transmission, these trucks typically get the best mileage of the Big Three when empty

Cons:
*Common “pump rub” issue causes premature transfer case failure (internal pump housing and/or anti-rattle clip wears into the T-case housing, causing a leak that’s hard to detect)
*Lighter curb weight than comparable Super Dutys or Ram HDs leads to a slightly less confident towing experience
*GM Gov-Loc in the rear AAM 1150 is prone to failure when trucks are fitted with bigger wheels and tires, or driven aggressively off-road
*Tie rods flex and tie-rod ends can break under big load and heavy throttle while in four-wheel drive
*Allison transmission won’t handle more than 120 hp over the factory rating for very long
*Rocker panels and cab corners are prone to rusting
*LBZ Duramax is notorious for glow plug failure

’99-’03 Ford F-250 Super Duty

Price Range: $8,000 to $16,000
Mileage Range: 70,000 to 190,000 miles

For a rock-solid Blue Oval in this price range, there is really only one recommendation we’ll make: a first-generation Super Duty with the ever-faithful 7.3L Power Stroke under the hood. The ’99-’03 Super Duty isn’t exactly the new kid on the block anymore, but these are still great trucks. Four-wheel-drive versions came with a leaf-sprung, Dana 50 solid front axle and the 10.5-inch ring gear Sterling in the rear, your choice of a 4R100 automatic or ZF-6 manual transmission, and some 3/4-ton configurations are rated to tow as much as 13,500 pounds. They are well-vetted, dependable workhorses, and more than a million of them were produced.

As for the 7.3L Power Stroke, sure it takes its time getting from point A to B, but the 444ci cast-iron big-bore V-8 was built for longevity. With proper maintenance, you’re all but guaranteed to glean at least 400,000 miles out of the rotating assembly. At 200,000, the fuel injectors might be due for an overhaul, it may be time for a $10 glow plug or two, and a new water pump might be in order, but no diesel engine accumulates hundreds of thousands of miles without needing something addressed here or there. We know, we know, the 6.0L can be “bulletproofed,” but then you’re out at least another 5 large on top of the purchase price of a $15,000 to $22,000 ’03-’07 model year truck. Take it from us—at this price point a 7.3L-powered Ford is the truck to own.

The 7.3L Power Stroke is no young stallion in today’s 900 lb-ft diesel market, but it’s a battle-proven workhorse that will never let you down. If you’re looking to add a little more giddyap without sacrificing engine, transmission, or driveline longevity, an aftermarket switchable position chip will wake a ’99-’03 Ford up in a huge way (100-plus hp, 200 lb-ft of torque).
In addition to introducing a more powerful 7.3L, stronger transmissions, and a larger 10.5-inch ring gear rear axle, the ’99 Super Duty brought four-way disc brakes to Ford’s 3/4-ton truck line. More than adequate, 13-inch-diameter rotors are employed up front, while 12.8-inch units are found in the rear. Ring-and-pinion options include 3.73:1 or 4.10:1, with 3.73s being more popular on F-250 models.
While the 4R100 automatic is more than capable of handling regular towing duties, it does have its weak links, which can surface sooner rather than later if you’re towing through the mountains at max GCWR, or you’ve juiced up the power of the 7.3L Power Stroke. Either way, it’s always good insurance to treat the ’4R to a tow-ready valvebody and a reputable aftermarket torque converter. While a bit harder to find, the ZF-6 manual transmission is a sound choice for those of you wishing to shift your own gears, and it will likely need nothing other than an eventual clutch replacement.

Specs
Engine: 7.3L Power Stroke (444ci), OHV V-8 diesel
Injection system: Hydraulically activated electronically controlled (HEUI)
Turbo system: Single fixed-geometry Garret GTP38 with air-to-air intercooler
Horsepower: 235 (‘99) to 275 (’01-’03 with manual transmission)
Torque: 500 lb-ft (‘99) to 525 lb-ft (’01-’03 with manual transmission)
Transmission(s): 4R100 four-speed automatic or ZF-6 six-speed manual
Transfer case(s): NV271 (manual shift) or NV273 (electronic shift)
Front axle: Dana 50
Rear axle: Sterling/Ford 10.5

Pros:
*Ultra reliable engine (if the 7.3L doesn’t last 400,000 miles, you did something wrong!)
*Sufficient transmission options
*Solid front axle
*Frame and leaf-spring suspension was overkill for its application
*Electric lift pump lasts forever
*Over 1 million produced means high parts availability and aftermarket support

Cons:
*Sluggish power (but nothing a performance chip can’t fix)
*The secret is definitely out that 7.3Ls last forever, expect to pay a premium for a clean one
*Vacuum line leaks are very common on models with vacuum-assisted front hubs
*A faulty bypass tube can stop transmission fluid from flowing through the 4R100’s external transmission cooler
*Notorious hard-starters in cold weather (stay on top of your glow plugs, glow plug relay, and UVCHs)
*Leaking turbo up-pipes are common with age

’03-’07 Dodge Ram 2500

Price Range: $14,000 to $25,000
Mileage Range: 80,000 to 190,000 miles

Every truck guy has heard of the 5.9L Cummins, and it’s the primary reason older Dodge 3/4-tons continue to bring in so much money. The legendary inline-six mill is highly renowned for its anvil-like construction, fuel efficiency, and mountain-moving torque. The version found in ’03-’07 Dodge Ram 2500s was the quietest and most powerful 5.9L ever produced, thanks in large part to its Bosch common-rail injection system and 24-valve cylinder head. Depending on the model year you’re looking at, peak torque is available as low as 1,400 rpm. If you’ve got big loads to move, this is your mule.

The ’03-’07 (third-generation) Rams are light-years ahead of the ’94-’02 (second-generation) trucks they replaced. The paint holds up better to the elements, the interiors are more spacious, and the ride quality is better. Four-wheel-drive 2500 models come with an AAM 925 solid front axle and the overkill AAM 1150 in the rear—both of which hardly ever experience any major failures. The only real area of concern with these trucks lies in its automatic transmission option. If you like rowing your own gears, you’ll be fine, as both the NV5600 and G56 manuals are hard to beat in terms of reliability. But when it comes to the 48RE, it’s simply outmatched by the abundance of low-end torque turned out by the 5.9L Cummins. If you must have an auto, leave the programmer on the shelf, as the 48RE won’t tolerate any added power being sent through it for very long.

The same robust architecture that was employed in the earlier 5.9L powerplants—the engine that effectively saved Dodge’s heavy-duty truck line back in ’89—lives on in the Cummins that powers the ’03-’07 Rams. In addition to its Bosch high-pressure common-rail injection system making it a real powerhouse, the common-rail 5.9L Cummins offers quiet, clean, and efficient operation. If you’ve got a heavy load behind you, a Cummins-powered ’03-’07 Ram will be the most fuel efficient option from the Big Three. Simply put, the Cummins was intended for hard work, and it excels at it.
Throughout the history of Cummins-powered Dodge trucks, Chrysler has struggled to get an automatic transmission to live behind the huge torque of the inline-six—and it’s no different in the ’03-’07 Rams. Even at the stock power level, the four-speed 48RE can be damaged by the Cummins, namely under heavy load conditions. If you’re adamant about finding an auto, it’s a good idea to address the 48RE’s lack of line pressure with an upgraded valvebody and replace the factory torque converter with a stronger aftermarket version. Also refrain from adding a programmer. These trucks make plenty of power in stock form and those extra ponies running around under the hood won’t be worth it if you smoke the transmission.
Like the 3/4-ton Chevy HDs, the AAM 1150 rear axle (with leaf-spring suspension) was used on the ’03-’07 Rams, although the version Dodge used could be optioned with a more conventional, helical gear–style limited-slip differential. The massive AAM axle features an 11.5-inch-diameter ring gear and 1.5-inch-diameter, 30-spline axleshafts. Up front, the solid axle AAM 925 got the nod, and while it uses a smaller diameter ring gear than the Dana 60 found on ’94-’02 Dodge 3/4-tons, the AAM 925 is in no way a downgrade. It utilizes 33-spline, 1.4-inch-diameter axleshafts (versus 31-spline, 1.31-inch units on the Dana 60), and incorporates larger ball joints and unit bearings.

Specs
Engine: 5.9L Cummins ISB (359 ci) OHV I-6 diesel
Injection system: Bosch high-pressure common-rail (23,000 psi)
Turbo system: Single fixed geometry Holset HY35W (’03-‘04), Holset HE351CW (’04.5-‘07) with air-to-air intercooler
Horsepower: 305 (’03-‘04), 325 (’04.5-‘07)
Torque: 555 lb-ft (’03), 600 lb-ft (’04 H.O.), 610 lb-ft (’05-‘07)
Transmission(s): Chrysler 48RE four-speed automatic, NV5600 six-speed manual (’03-‘05), or G56 six-speed manual (’05-‘07)
Transfer case(s): NV271 (manual shift) or NV273 (electronic shift)
Front axle: AAM 925
Rear axle: AAM 1150

Pros:
*Extremely reliable engine, even at higher horsepower levels
*Quiet (for a Cummins)
*The last Cummins offering that was (essentially) free of emissions control devices
*Solid front axle
*Stout AAM 1150 rear axle
*If you plan to tow a lot, the Cummins is the best engine for it

Cons:
*48RE automatic won’t last for the long-term, even at stock power levels, if you tow heavy or install any type of power-adder
*Injector replacement will be needed roughly every 200,000 to 250,000 miles
*Injection system components are expensive to replace
*No factory exhaust brake function, as would become standard in ’07.5

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