Pickup Truck Tailgates Don't Have to be a Drag

Dear Car Talk:

Will I get better gas mileage with my pickup truck tailgate up or down? When I try to find the answer, I get mixed messages. -- Randy

Surprisingly, you'll get better mileage with the tailgate up, Randy.

Like most of the people whose half-informed posts you've been reading online, my late brother and I once tried to answer this question on our radio show. We puzzled it out for about six seconds and concluded that, of course, you'd get better mileage with the tailgate down! The tailgate is obviously a big wind blocker and a source of drag that lowers your mileage. Obvious, right?

A few days later, we got a letter from a listener of ours -- none other than the president of General Motors, Bob Stempel.

I believe the letter started out: "Au contraire, Piston Puss!" Bob -- who was an engineer and, crucially, had wind tunnels at his disposal -- explained to us that rather than blocking the wind as you drive along, the tailgate actually traps air in the pickup bed. And while that pocket of air stays still, the rest of the wind moves smoothly right over the top of the bed as you drive.

When the tailgate is open, he said, the wind actually creates more turbulence in the bed and reduces your mileage. And as if we didn't feel dumb enough by that point, he also reminded us that the closed tailgate is also an important part of the structure of the pickup.

When the tailgate's open, or removed, the truck is less safe in a crash. It's like removing one side of a cardboard box. It folds more easily, which is exactly what you don't want in an accident.

So, the pickup truck drivers you see with their tailgates removed or open are losing on two fronts, Randy.

Three fronts if you count all the stuff that rolls out while they're driving.


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