Well...the truth is that there is no universal answer to satisfy every taste out there. Especially when talking with aficionados, everyone has a brand preference and there are always good reasons to justify their affinity.
Also, while there are several articles on this topic that surfaced on the internet, many of these are dated a few years back making it obsolete from the perspective that the current edition of the dually models improved considerably from year to year.
Hotshots Are Not Limited To Duallies
Indeed, you might as well go for a single-axle semi. However, there are 2 main considerations when it comes to running your own business: first, the startup cost; second, the ongoing cost of running the operations.
In 2021, a well-thought-out configuration for a brand new dually to serve a hotshot carrier would be around $70,000. Contrary, a brand new semi-truck would easily be above $150,000. If you have good creditworthiness, with a $5-10k down payment you could get qualified for a dually, while for a semi the requirements as several times this amount (easily between $15-30k).
To address the second point, many drivers aspiring entrepreneurs don't realize that the highest cost when running the business is fuel. While the equipment finance or lease would amortize/go away after some time, the cost of fuel sticks with you forever. Consider the average OTR driver who scores an average of 15,000 miles a month, which over a year adds to a total of 180,000 miles. At today's diesel price of $3/gal and considering a common 7 mpg consumption of a semi, that cost rounds up to $77,000. Just a single-point mpg improvement, would give a saving of about $9,500 per year. The best dually config, combined with non-excessive driving style would put you at 10 mpg average and give you just about $23,000 in savings. And the best part, this never ends, repeats every year!
(Contact me to discuss the math behind the numbers above)
General Truck Classification
In the United States, commercial truck classification is determined based on the vehicle's gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which groups classes 1–3 as light duty, 4–6 as medium-duty, and 7–8 as heavy duty.
Generally, the manufacturer GVWR for duallies is up to 14,000 lbs which makes them a Class 3 - Medium Duty Vehicle. Furthermore, a Class-A Commercial Drivers License is required.
Alternatively, if rated by the payload capacity in tons, the most common dually models like Ford F-350, Chevrolet C30/K30, GMC 3500, and Dodge 3500 are one ton (1-ton).
Put it simply, we fell in love with Dodge RAM 3500 Tradesman. This model has a heavy-duty diesel engine made by Cummins, which is one of the biggest and oldest engine manufacturers in the world. Their engines power a great variety of equipment from semi-trucks (Volvo), agriculture, construction (excavators, steam rollers, backhoes, etc), school buses (yes, the yellow buses you see on the road every day) to specialized industrial machinery.
Instead of comparing our choice with the other options, we would list below the main reasons to justify our choice.
1. Engine Performance
The 6.7-liter Cummins Turbo Diesel Engine which comes with a standard 6-speed automatic transmission gives up to 900 pound-feet of torque, and up to 385-horsepower.
There are 3 standard axle ratios available for the 3500: 3.42, 3.73, and 4.10. Considering the same engine, a higher axle ratio gives a truck greater pulling power, but since the engine must work harder to spin the driveshaft more times for each turn of the rear wheels, top-end speed and fuel economy is sacrificed. The inverse also holds true. When the numerical ratio is lowered, the available top-end speed is increased.
We found the 3.73 option to be our sweet spot, giving enough power and a balanced fuel economy.
2. Towing and Hauling Capabilities
The 4.10 axle ratio gives 31,210 lbs of max towing, by far the best numbers for towing and hauling capabilities in the class.
Our choice is for the 68RFE transmission option which has a 3.73 axle ratio, and gives 370 hp @ 2,800 rpm, and 800 lb-ft @ 1,700 rpm.
Check the manufacturer's towing chart here.
Check manufacturer horsepower and torque here.
Check a good performance test review here.
3. Durable Transmission
The most popular option for Heavy Duty is the standard 6-speed automatic transmission which gives up to 900-foot pounds of torque. This transmission has optimized performance with state-of-the-art efficiency.
A nice to have but not a must would be the Aisin automatic transmission. This is the toughest option available that is specifically designed to handle higher engine output. The Cummins engine is turned up to 930-foot pounds of torque when equipped with this transmission. The Aisin transmission is a beast, but we found the standard 6-speed more than capable and never upgraded for an Aisin.
Dodge offers a standard 5-year or 100,000-mile Powertrain Limited Warranty. There is also the option of Extended Warranty through Mopar which is priced around $3,500. However, we haven't found an interest in getting this package.
4. Fuel Economy
The official manufacturer highway fuel rating for RAM 3500 is for an average of 14 mpg. However, this number doesn't provide any value to a hauler since we are utilizing the equipment at maximum towing capacity. Our recordings show an average consumption generally falling between 7.5 - 10 mpg based on the axle ratio, hauling weight, and driving style. Overall, the 3500 is giving absolutely the best fuel mileage in the class.
5. 4x4 vs. 2x4
We generally go for a 2WD since for our hauling needs we don't find a need for a 4WD. Most of our drive happens on highways, not in challenging terrain. Besides, the 2WD gets a bit better mileage per gallon than a similarly loaded 4WD.
6. Crew Cab
We opt for a 4-door crew cab truck so we could install a sleeper berth. This way drivers stay on the road, sleeping at truck stops and saving on hotel expenses. We remove the rear seat and install a DOT-compliant sleeper without modifying the vehicle frame or cab. More in our post here.
7. Pickup vs. Chassis; Gooseneck vs. 5th Wheel
The 3500 comes in 2 main body options: pickup and chassis. The chassis option comes without a bed straight from the production line.
Your choice should be based on the type of hitch. Technically, for hotshots, gooseneck trailers are built more robustly enabling higher hauling capacity but it comes to a cost which is lost capacity (up to 8ft). Unless you are getting into general freight and picking a flatbed trailer or opting for a 4 or 5-cars hauler, you should go for a chassis setup with a 5th wheel.
8. Maintenance Cost
The Tradesman model has best-in-class 15,000-mile oil change intervals, which gives a driver a full month of independence from the perspective of preventive maintenance.
Since the truck has 2 axles, it means fewer tires and also lower toll expenses.
Parts are easier to source, easily available and they have a decent price. Overall, Cummins is easy to work on if you are mechanically inclined. Conversely, in case you don't go under the hood, is also easy to get worked on. You can go just about anywhere and you should be able to find parts, and also a shop to help with repairs.