When you buy a car, you might start with brand affinity: Maybe you’d rather push a Ford than drive a Chevy, to quote a hat. Buying a semi truck is different. A truck isn’t just a vehicle; it’s a business asset, often tied to outside forces (leasing companies, lending banks, customer requirements) that have as much to say about your power unit as any brand preference you carry.
So while we’re certainly up for discussing the best semi truck brands—and we do have thoughts on the subject—let’s get this out of the way first: Most major manufacturers will offer models that meet your business’ needs. Don’t buy a Mack because it’s a Mack; buy it because it meets the technical specifications you require to keep your trucking company profitable—or lease it because it’s what a trusted lease agent recommends for your business.
With that caveat out of the way, here’s an introduction to the best brands of semi trucks—which is to say the top five major manufacturers of semi trucks in the U.S., based on 2021 market share.
The Best Semi Truck Brands: Exploring the Major Players
Freightliner is the leader in class 8 truck sales, securing 37.7% of the total market share in the U.S. as of December 2021. (According to the Federal Highway Administration, a class 8 truck has a gross vehicle weight rating of 33,001 pounds or more; it’s what we usually mean by the term “semi truck.”)
Freightliner celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2022, and they offer a full range of heavy-duty semi trucks complete with Detroit powertrains. Most recently, they’re investing in 100% electric vehicles like the eCascadia. Freightliner maintains its market dominance with continual re-investment in technological innovation.
In a distant second, with 14.8% U.S. market share, Peterbilt focuses on customization to match every truck with specific use cases. Its on-highway, class 8 offerings include Model 579 and Model 389, both of which use PACCAR powertrains; the Model 579 is designed for aerodynamics, while the Model 389 features a more classic profile.
Kenworth is pacing Peterbilt with 14.6% of the U.S. market share. Like Peterbilt, Kenworth trucks feature PACCAR powertrains—which is no surprise, since PACCAR owns both brands. PACCAR has a reputation for reliability, which makes both Kenworth and Peterbilt great choices for over-the-road services.
Generally speaking, however, Kenworths come in at a lower price point compared to Peterbilt. And yes, Kenworth has also entered the EV market, with the T680E being its zero-emission offering in the class 8 category.
Volvo’s heavy duty truck division controlled 10.2% of the U.S. market share at the end of 2021, with its flagship VNL built for long haul jobs. When the VNL hit the market in 1996, it brought a new low-profile hood that promised greater aerodynamics—features every manufacturer touts today. Volvo manufactures its own powertrains (the D series), but also provides the option to substitute a Cummins engine in some models.
Like Volvo’s consumer vehicle counterpart, Volvo Trucks is plunging into the EV market. The VNR Electric with a 6×4 wheel configuration goes up to 275 miles on a charge, taking it beyond regional delivery routes.
Mack is one of the oldest semi truck manufacturers in the U.S., dating back to 1900. By 2021, they commanded just 8.4% of the total market share. Still, many drivers swear by the Mack name. Mack trucks use Mack powertrains; but since Volvo acquired the company in 2000, truckers have debated the real differences between the Volvo D-series engines and today’s Mack MP engines.
The class 8 Mack Anthem is known for making life simpler on service mechanics, with its modular design and tilt-assist hood. So far, Mack’s only electric offering is a refuse truck, which is probably fine for now, since we’re still some time off from recharging infrastructure making over-the-road electric hauls the norm.
Going Beyond The “Best” Semi Truck Brand: How To Choose A Semi Truck
It’s hard to call any one manufacturer the “best.” If you’re one of the top five manufacturers in your class, you probably offer pretty good products. Every company on our list offers multiple models, each with their own set of customizations; they can all set up a fleet owner for success.
The point is, if you find yourself behind the wheel of a brand new semi truck from any of these manufacturers, you’ll be able to move freight—and keep building your business.
So what makes one semi truck the best for your unique requirements? That will change from one trucking company to the next. As you begin your pre-purchase research, start by answering these five questions (and for more advice on buying your first semi truck, read this):
1. Do you want an older or a newer truck?
Another way to phrase this question is: How much can you afford? Used trucks have lower price tags but probably require more maintenance. You may even find that some brokers or shippers refuse to work with you unless you have newer equipment. Consider all these angles when deciding on the right price point and age of the next truck you add to your fleet.
2. What are the technical requirements of your routes and freight?
If you run freight through high-grade mountain roads, you may need an engine that puts out more torque. If you’re more concerned with getting up to speed while hauling heavy loads, you may look for higher horsepower. Know your routes to choose a vehicle that delivers value based on everything from regional weather to likely load weights.
3. How do the states you operate in regulate vehicle emissions?
Some states are more aggressive than others in trying to regulate tailpipe emissions. That can help you make decisions about truck purchases, or suggest you need add-ons like auxiliary power units (APUs) to limit emissions during idling time. It could even steer you toward zero-emission technologies like electric trucks.
4. What are your strengths as a business operator?
An owner-operator may have a strong background in truck mechanics. A fleet owner may be great at logistics and sales, but not have a clue what’s going on beneath the hood. That leads to a very different path to purchase; the former owner may know exactly the model and year that will deliver results, while the latter should find a salesperson or leasing agent they trust, and give them the data about what they need—letting the expert recommend the right equipment to match.
5. How do you plan to maintain cash flow while making payments on the investment?
Like most capital investments, buying a semi truck isn’t a one-time operation: It’s an ongoing financial relationship. You’ll need a solid plan for making those monthly payments, which doesn’t just mean transactions on paper—it means cash flow.
Brokers and shippers can take weeks to pay. Truck payments are due every month. Many business owners have strong revenues, but run into cash flow problems thanks to the realities of billing and payment schedules. In the trucking industry, at least, there is a solution.
Invoice factoring is a financial tool: A third party purchases your invoices, paying you nearly their full amount instantly, then collecting from your customers when the invoices come due. You’ll pay a small percentage of the invoice amount for the service, but in return, you get the cash flow you need to pay down your new semi truck.
Bobtail is a trucker-friendly factoring service that keeps things simple. Unlike many factoring companies, we don’t require contracts of any kind. We don’t require you to factor all your invoices or charge hidden fees. You simply open the app, upload a bill of lading and rate confirmation, and get funded—all with a single 1.99% to 2.99% factoring fee, depending on the size of your business.
Finding the best semi truck brand for you is just the first step toward ownership. Bobtail can help later in the process, ensuring you always have the liquidity you need to stay up to date on payments. And you can try Bobtail right now, for free. Sign up to learn more about Bobtail and start factoring your trucking invoices today.