It Runs Forever: Trucks with the Best Diesel Engines
Diesel engines have become staples of the “work truck” industry since their introduction to passenger vehicles in the late 1980s. Since then, it’s been possible to find diesel engines on vehicles of all shapes and sizes, from heavy-duty pickups to compact cars like the VW Jetta and Chevy Cruze. They tend to run a premium when new, but they last a very long time – you’ll save a lot of cash and have low risk buying one from a used car dealer near you. With that in mind, we’d like to highlight some of the diesel-powered trucks whose engines stand out the most. While the 2010-2013 Ram 2500 Heavy Duty may be the used truck with the best diesel engine, a 6.7L Cummins I-6 model, there is plenty to debate about the merits of Power Stroke and Duramax designs as well.
Diesel engines are the universal choice for commercial trucks. Diesel fuel is not gasoline; unlike traditional combustion engines, a diesel engine relies more on extremely high compression ratios to ignite the fuel. This results in substantially improved fuel efficiency over same-size gasoline counterparts. Diesel engines also produce twice as much torque, and at substantially lower rpm, as gasoline models, making them ideally suited to heavy-duty trailering work.
Performing so well at low engine speed is part of what helps boost efficiency and is key to the longevity of these systems. Gasoline engines that work hard do so at high engine speed with enormous internal forces, leading to premature wear and breakdown of components. While regular maintenance on a diesel can be more frequent and expensive than on a gasoline engine, it’s not unusual to see good diesel vehicles run well beyond 400,000 miles because they don’t need to work so hard to get significantly better results.
Diesel truck owners tend to be passionate about their brands and for good reason. The models we’re about to highlight come up in every discussion about the best diesel engines and the best trucks that used them. Whether your priority is reliability, price, value, efficiency, raw capability, or nostalgia and heritage, all of the above can be had with these used trucks and their great diesel engines.
2010-2013 Ram 2500 Heavy Duty – 6.7L Cummins
The 6.7L I-6 Cummins engine was introduced in 2007 on the Ram 2500 Heavy Duty, and models produced from 2010-2013 are still competitive with modern trucks today. Perhaps it’s telling that in a conversation about used trucks with the best diesel engines, we think the best overall is 10 years old (and also the newest model on the list).
This turbodiesel produces 350 hp and 800 lb-ft of torque and comes paired with manual or automatic 6-speed transmissions. With a standard exhaust brake to help stopping, this truck can handle a 5,000 lb payload or a 17,500 lb trailer.
While brand new engines – including the modern version of the 6.7L Cummins – are stronger and can have higher hauling capacities, the 2010-2013 Ram HD still competes with the best of them, which we find impressive for a model this old. As an added bonus, the simplicity of the system makes it relatively easy to modify yourself for even greater performance numbers.
That’s all before mentioning that Ram considers itself to be a luxury brand since 2010. Factoring in that this is the youngest model on the list, no other great used diesel truck comes close to the same degree of interior technology and conveniences alongside the sheer capability of the Cummins engine.
2006-2007 Chevy Silverado / GMC Sierra 2500HD and 3500HD – Duramax LBZ
In conversations about the best diesel pickups, no single truck is highlighted as consistently as the ’06-’07 Silverado/Sierra Heavy Duty. The 6.6L Duramax LBZ engine is identified as one of the greatest used diesel engines ever, picked out from a lineup of great Duramax models made from 2001 to today. Its Bosch common-rail injection system and 6-speed automatic transmission (a manual is available, too) combine to form one of the most reliable powertrains on the market.
The Duramax LBZ fits in a niche period where the Allison transmission was new, emissions systems (and their associated problems) were not required and neither Cummins nor Power Stroke could deliver 360 hp or 650 lb-ft of torque. GM had solved the problems inherent to previous models and produced a highly-tunable diesel engine that still runs well today. Ride quality is good for the era thanks to an independent front suspension, a bonus which helps justify the relatively high price these trucks still fetch on the open market. The LBZ and ’06-’07 Heavy Duty trucks stand out as superstars in GM’s legacy of excellence.
2000 Ford F-250/F-350 Super Duty – 7.3L Power Stroke
Nothing encapsulates “Ford Tough” like the 7.3L Power Stroke diesel engine that was found in late-1999 and early 2000 Ford F-250 and F-350 Super Duty pickups. With a power output of 235 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque, it doesn’t impress against a new engine, but it’s still strong enough for virtually any task you would ask of it. Improved ride quality and all the luxuries the era had to offer made these trucks reasonable commuter cars too.
Those who argue that the 7.3L Power Stroke was the best diesel engine on any pickup truck ever made have a strong case. The block and body are engineered to stand up to all kinds of abuse such that it’d likely be the last truck standing in any head to head showdown against a newer truck. These trucks easily eclipse 500,000 miles when maintained properly, bringing excellent value to their owners even 20 years after they were built. Talk about “buy it for life.”
1991-1993 Dodge Ram 250 and 350 – 5.9L Cummins
For passionate, tight-knit communities, historical figures and founding fathers are venerated for what they were in their own time and how they continue to inspire through the decades. That’s what the 1991-1993 Dodge Ram with a 5.9L Cummins diesel engine is to diesel enthusiasts. While 160 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque are easily outdone by any heavy duty engine built today, those power numbers, along with fuel efficiency that was enormously beneficial in the time, made it a revolutionary option.
As it transforms into an antique and collector’s item, the value of this truck has stayed high. Many still see regular use on ranches and farms across the USA. They have a DNA of resilience and reliability that’s missing from many modern offerings and hearkens to an era of inspired truck building. It’s no longer the strongest, most capable, or most efficient engine on the used market, but it certainly deserves a place in the diesel hall of fame.
Some of the other great diesel engines worthy of note include:
5.9L “High Output” Cummins (2003-2004 Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 Heavy Duty): This engine still has the strength to significantly outperform modern light-duty trucks and a legacy of reliability that provides excellent value to their owners.
3.0L Chrysler EcoDiesel (2014 – 2015 Dodge Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee): At the time, this was the only light-duty diesel on the market, delivering best-in-class efficiency and 240 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. Today, most truck builders offer a diesel alternative on their ½-ton pickups, but for a great value truck that was unique in its day, look for Rams and Grand Cherokees with the early Chrysler EcoDiesel.
5.0L Cummins (2016-2017 Nissan Titan): The late-10’s Titan slots in as a kind of 5/8-ton truck – bigger and badder than any other ½-ton, but not as beefy as a heavy duty ¾-ton. It produces 390 hp and 401 lb-ft of torque en route to a towing capacity over 12,000 lbs, beating gasoline engines of all sizes and setting its sights on larger, less-efficient diesel competitors.
2.8L Duramax (2016-2018 Chevy Colorado / GMC Canyon): The only diesel engine in the mid-size pickup market gives the Colorado / Canyon best-in-class fuel efficiency and towing capacity. At less than half the size, its 161 hp / 389 lb-ft of torque is comparable to the original 5.9L Cummins and achieves 7,700 lbs towing when properly equipped.
Declaring any one diesel engine to be “the best” is a dangerous game when all the major players have loyal fan bases and genuinely competitive candidates with serious upsides. Even when limiting the scope to used pickup trucks, there’s plenty of individual engines and even more engine-truck combinations to consider. Smaller modern engines are worthy of note for changing the game in the present, and the iconic 5.9L Cummins in the ’91-’93 Dodge Ram deserves enduring respect as it continues to put mud on the tires. But none of these are truly the best diesel engines out there.
Ford’s 7.3L Power Stroke V8 on the 1999-2000 Ford F-250 could still drive to the moon and back, and then some while hauling your spaceship on a trailer. No conversation about diesels is complete without praise for the 6.6L Duramax LBZ on the 2006-2007 heavy-duty GM trucks, an engine as reliable and useful as it is tunable. We think the best of all is the 6.7L Cummins I-6 engine in the 2010-2013 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty trucks, with power and towing capabilities that rival brand-new heavy-duty trucks to this day at a bargain price.
Diesel engine trucks are possibly the only regular-use class of vehicle where many of the best used engines and trucks on the market are well over 5 years old. That’s because diesel trucks aren’t about the latest comforts and technologies – they’re about thoughtful design, passionate construction, and moving mountains for decades on end. They’re about a legacy, and an engine, that runs forever.