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Should you buy the first model year of a new pickup truck? Digging into the data

first model year

2021 Ford F-150 Limited (Image courtesy of Ford Motor Co.)

A common saying you’ll likely hear from friends, family and automotive forums has to do with the sage old advice never to buy the first model year of a new pickup truck. But is this good advice? We looked back at some data, and the answer is kind of. Maybe. Sort of.

This question caught my attention as I’m actively shopping for the first model year of the new 2021 Ford F-150. It has a lot of new features as well as changes to the powertrain — including a new hybrid version.

This got me thinking about the reliability of this all-new truck.

For my own curiosity, I decided to look back at the data of model-year changes from each of the large-volume truck manufacturers — Chevy, Ford and Ram. I compared the data from before the model year change, the year the change happened and the year after.

Why compare three different years? If the adage is true, my assumption was the year before should have the least issues since most of the so-called bugs for that generation have been worked out. The year after the change should also have less issues since the automaker has had a year to address any new bugs.

Let’s take a look at the data I found using CarComplaints.com and NHTSA.gov for consumer problems and recalls. The data is presented alphabetically.

first model year

2019 Chevrolet Silverado (Image courtesy of General Motors)

Chevy Silverado

This truck was significantly changed for the 2019 model year with a new design, a new 3.0-liter diesel engine, a 10-speed automatic transmission and a whole new trim level called the Trail Boss. With this many changes from design to powertrain, the odds seem high there would be several issues to work out in the first year.

Looking at the data, I found this to be kind of correct with the 2018 model having 3 recalls, the 2019 model year have 5 and the 2020 model year having 3 recalls.

Digging deeper into these recalls, we can see they aren’t the big ones you would expect with numerous engine or transmission problems.

First year pickup truckWith so little recalls, what has been the biggest issue? Brakes. Loss of power, brake failure or brake lights on the dash. This problem dominated the list on Carcomplaints.com and there have been numerous Technical Service Bulletins for brakes sent to dealers in response to these issues.

About the only complaint I’ve heard about the new 3.0-liter Duramax diesel engine has been a few documented cases on YouTube of the truck overheating. Chevy addressed this concern in an interview while discussing the controversial wet oil belt design element of the engine in the video below.

Ford F-150

The top-selling half-ton was significantly changed for the 2015 model year with the introduction of aluminum body panels throughout the truck. This ground-up redesign saw a significant amount of changes to the frame, interior as well as a new 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine.

This many changes surely means a significant amount of recalls, right? Sort of. For the 2014 model year, Ford issued 6 recalls, 2015 saw 12 recalls and 2016 had 11 recalls.

With this truck, as it is on the top of my list to buy, I decided to really dig into the problems. Looking at the various model years and comparing the data, it is clear there is a pattern here with brakes.

2014 Top 5 Complaints# of NHTSA Complaints2015 Top 5 Complaints# of NHTSA Complaints2016 Top 5 Complaints# of NHTSA Complaints
Exterior Accessory Problems107Body/Paint119Body/Paint119
Drivetrain96Exterior Accessory Problems81Exterior Accessory Problems89

Wow, right? Clearly Ford has/had an issue with brakes for those three model years spanning the old, new and then a year-old new model.

What’s the deal? A faulty master brake cylinder on 3.5-liter EcoBoost powered trucks is to blame for all three model years and Ford issued a master cylinder recall for the 2014-2017 models to fix this issue.

This means, the new edition of the truck had nothing to do with this recall. The problems were from a change to a prior edition that carried forward.

Oh and about the repair costs of aluminum vs steel which was a BIG part of the story when this truck launched? The reality has been it is a non-issue with the truck being designed in a way to simply replace panels rather than fix them as are what many body shops are starting to do anyway. A recent study confirmed this was the case.

About the only big engine issue was a problem with the 3.5L V6 getting water in the engine due to the charged air cooler collecting condensation build up in humid areas. Oh wait, that was for the pre-2015 models and a new design took care of this.

Besides the engine issues, a problem with the 10-speed transmission has been noticed by several consumers and there is a class-action lawsuit out there for 2017-2020 models. Again, not a first year 2021 issue.

How can this be? Don’t new, first-edition trucks have all-new engineering? I said it was a ground-up redesign for 2015, or maybe it truly wasn’t it. More on this later.

first model year

2019 Ram 1500 (Image courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

Ram 1500

For the Ram 1500, this truck broke new ground in 2019 with not only one of the best looking interiors in the business, but by also putting new trucks on dealer lots just a month after the truck debuted (typically it takes at least 6 months). This new design, upgraded interior, mild hybrid powertrain additions to the 3.6-liter V-6 and 5.7-liter Hemi and speed to market should have meant a lot of problems.

Looking at the data, that’s exactly what happened, mostly. Ram had 6 recalls for the 2018 model year trucks, 19 for the new 2019 model year trucks and just a paltry 4 for the 2020 models. Yes, 19 recalls! But, they weren’t all bad recalls.

Consider this. Ram had one massive, 4.8-million-plus recall for cruise control, which couldn’t be canceled. However, this affected 2014-2019 Ram trucks as well as a large variety of other FCA vehicles, so you’d be hard pressed to convince me it just impacted the 2019 model year.

After the massive recall, there were some smaller, yet still significant recalls such as:

first year pickup truck

Now, the floor mats were easily modified so they don’t interfere, the windshield wipers affected Ram 1500, the prior model Ram 1500 and Jeep Compass vehicles and required a tightening of the wiper nuts. Finally, the rearview image was a software issue, which was easily remedied with an ECU flash.

They all required a trip to the dealer, but they were nothing catastrophic.

There were other recalls as well, which included:

first year pickup truck

Yep, those items count as recalls, but again, it is clear they aren’t a massive concern item — like the truck catching on fire.

The bottom line the first model year

Clearly, automakers want you to think trucks are so significantly changed, you rush out to buy the new models since all those past problems have been fixed. This is not the case at all.

The facts are all trucks are really a combination of various parts and those parts are delivered by parts suppliers who have a vested interest in improving their products to retain the manufacturer (OEM) contracts. Also, OEM engineers have a vested interest in continual improvements, or not-improvements as the case may turn out to be, to show they are working on bettering their product to their bosses. Change for the sake of change if you will.

Combine this with the hotly contested truck market, and trucks now see changes each year — heck, sometimes even during the year — to keep up with all the competition. Where it used to be every seven years a whole new truck comes out, there are now new parts, engines, transmissions and features coming out on a continual basis.

Plus, with the vast amount of changes and rapid pace of the market, if you wait another model year for the automakers to “work out the kinks,” there could be “new kinks” introduced thanks to continual improvements.

What does this all mean? What should you do?!? While it seems like a lost cause to wait for an automaker to work out the kinks, there is something to be said for using a little patience. For example, give a new truck sometime before making the plunge. Just don’t wait years to see dependability results because by then, you’ll be looking at completely different trucks.

Related posts:

How reliable is the Ford F-150 pickup truck?

Is the 2014-2018 Chevy Silverado 1500 reliable? One year to avoid

Are Ram 1500 pickups reliable?

Tim Esterdahl

Automotive Journalist Tim Esterdahl has been a lover of trucks and SUVs for years. He has covered the industry since 2011 and has pieces in many national magazines and newspapers. In his spare time, he is often found tinkering on his '62 C10 pickup, playing golf, going hunting and hanging out with his wife and kids in Nebraska.

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