Electric Work Truck Showdown: F-150 Lightning vs. Chevy Silverado EV

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A few weeks ago, Chevrolet revealed the upcoming Silverado EV. Long story short, it’s a half-ton-ish pickup truck that has a lot of the features that made the Avalanche cool. The midgate gives it a short bed that can act like a long bed (if you’re willing to fold down the rear seats). Beyond that, it looks fairly similar to other upcoming electric trucks like the Ford Lightning and Rivian R1T. Four doors, electric drive, power outlets for worksites, and many other features are promising. There’s just one problem that Forbes got into and that I want to expand upon: it’s a unibody truck. That means it might not be as good for work as the Lightning is going to be.

Chevy Silverado EV
Chevy Silverado EV

Before I get into the specifics, I want to be fair and thank Chevrolet for making the truck a little more conventional than the Cybertruck. I know with many people, the Cybertruck is a big hit. I’m sure it will sell well, and at no point will I try to argue that the Cybertruck is useless. As I pointed out before, we shouldn’t judge trucks by their covers, but unlike books, a truck’s cover does tell you a lot about what lies beneath.

The underlying problem with both Cybertruck and the Silverado EV is the same: they have no spine. Sure, they’ve got great torque and aren’t exactly weak. When I say no spine, I’m being very literal. They don’t have a backbone. They don’t have a frame that body modules like the bed and the cab are bolted onto.

For many, if not most buyers, this won’t matter much. The Coca Cola cowboys, mall ninjas, and suburban commandos won’t notice a difference at all. Commuters who buy trucks for looks or the occasional Home Depot run will be fine, too. Even many people using a pickup truck for work won’t have a problem with a unibody truck. Landscapers, handymen, plumbers, and others usually just don’t demand enough out of the truck to bring it to the limits. For this last category, the Silverado is probably superior to the Cybertruck, as side-bed access will be better (the sail panels don’t go all the way back).

The problems will only appear for the most serious of truck uses. Rock-crawlers and other serious off-roaders will run into issues. People pushing up against the limits of the claimed 10,000-lb towing capacity will also start to notice problems. Why? Because frames are more resistant to the forces these activities put into the frame. Cybertruck’s extra thicccc exoskeleton will at least partially make up for this, but at the limits, problems still seem likely.

The other problem that makes the Silverado and other unibodies not as good for work is the lack of modularity. Once again, the average commuter or handyman won’t be negatively affected by this. To really appreciate modularity, you’d need to actually have need to seriously modify the truck with a whole new bed.

You could do this, or put any other bed made to fit an F-150, to Ford’s Lightning. It’s designed to use as many parts and accessories made for F-150s as possible. Like other F-150s, the bed can be unbolted and other things can be put on. To do the same thing to a Silverado EV, you’d need a special bed attachment or camper shell-like accessory that fits in and/or over the bed. If anybody produces these at all, they’ll be more expensive than comparable things for the Lightning. Utility bed manufacturers know that they can sell to a wider market, and not to just the owners of one truck.

Repairs are another area where extreme use favors frames. If you drop something extremely heavy onto the side of the bed of a framed pickup and smash it up really bad, you can just buy another bed. Even fairly bad wrecks that seriously damage the cab of the truck can be rectified by just replacing the body. This saves money if you have a fleet that takes regular abuse.

While rare, this is true for body-on-frame cars like the Ford Crown Victoria. Police departments and other heavy users kept those Crown Vics around for far longer than seems rational on the surface because they could literally replace the surface after an accident. Just unbolt the body panel, put another body panel on, and you’re back in business. Welding repairs of the body generally didn’t matter, because the body didn’t serve as the structure of the vehicle.

“You Think You’re Smarter Than GM?”

Nobody asked me that, but people are constantly asking me that when I disagree with Elon Musk. The answer to that is that I’m not arguing that the use of unibody vehicles is wrong. Like I’ve said, for most users it just won’t matter. Plus, there are advantages to unibody that are worth it.

Lighter weight is the big one. Because the body is the frame and the frame is the body, you have fewer heavy parts and thus save a lot of weight. You lose rigidity and towing ability, plus the ability to customize and repair as easily, but if the buyer isn’t going to need that, it makes sense to just go unibody in many cases. Better range, more car-like handling, and other weight advantages are helpful.

Another advantage to unibody is cost. Saving just a few dollars adds up over the production of hundreds of thousands or millions of vehicles. Saving a few more dollars means you’re more competitive when it comes to finding buyers. Saving thousands? That’s the difference between selling and not selling. It’s a big deal if you’re in the business of selling trucks to people who don’t need the beefiest of trucks.

Bottom line: the Silverado, like the Cybertruck, is not as good for work, at least the more hardcore kind of work. But that’s OK. Just don’t assume that the Silverado EV is going to be a serious heavy duty work truck. Use it for what it was made to do, and it will do great. Take it to the limits and beyond, and you’ll have problems.

Images by GM

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1871 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba