Class 1-2 Roundup

Redesigns, New Features Add Value

October 2008, - Test Drives

by Tom Berg, Senior Contributing Editor - Also by this author

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The 6-speed Hydra-Matic, meanwhile, will be mated to all 5.3 V-8s installed in Crew and Extended Cab pickups; it's optional, along with the 5.3, in Regular Cabs. First used with bigger 6- and 6.2-liter V-8s in upscale SUVs, the 6-speed automatic's wide ratio coverage means the 5.3 engine can pull as well with the 3.08 axle ratio as the 4-speed Hydra-Matic does running through a 3.42 rear-end, Hillenbrand says. And because the 6-speed's overdrive keeps engine revs down, fuel economy is as good as a 4.3-liter V-6 with a 4-speed automatic. The V-6/4-speed's remaining advantage is its lower purchase price.

GM, Dodge and Toyota offer V-6 engines in their full-size pickups and at least two V-8s, but Ford dropped the six-cylinder from its half-ton models several years ago and Nissan never offered one in its Titan. For power and fuel economy, Ford compensated last year by applying three valves per cylinder to its 4.6-liter V-8, like its higher-volume 5.4-liter Triton V-8. A two-valve 4.6 remains as the price leader. Nissan is standing pat with its 5.6 V-8, as the Titan has not achieved the volume to support much advanced development.

Nissan's next-generation Titan, due out in the 2011 model year, will be built by Chrysler, using a Dodge Ram chassis with other components being "Nissan-specific." Nissan won't say whose body and powertrain will be employed, but suggests that the new Titan won't be a rebadged Dodge Ram. In return, the agreement between the two builders will have Nissan building a "Chrysler-specific" small car based on the Nissan Versa subcompact.

Nissan meanwhile has formed a Light Commercial Vehicle arm that will market trucks as heavy as Class 5, according to Joe Castelli, who joined Nissan last December to head this group after 23 years at Ford. Light pickups like the Titan are not part of this venture. Nissan builds and sells more than a half-million commercial trucks a year in various world markets, including Mexico, where it is the segment leader, Castelli says. Nissan LCV will display three initial models at the Detroit auto show in January.

Dodge has extensively redesigned its 2009 Ram 1500s with more aggressive exterior styling that's also more aerodynamic; nicer interiors at all trim levels; advanced audio and visual entertainment equipment; more storage bins and cubicles, including covered compartments built into bed sides; and a variety of load securement racks. Standard on all Ram 1500s is a new coil-and-link rear suspension that delivers a smoother ride, especially when the truck is lightly loaded or empty.

Ford has similarly reworked its 2009 F-150 with interior refinements, electronic audio-visual equipment, side steps to help users reach into the high-sided beds, "mid-bed" storage compartments, and a bright-styled Platinum model. Most of these features are aimed at the personal-use market, but Ford also has some unique towing features that make pulling a trailer easier and safer (see product description).

Some observers think both Dodge's and Ford's efforts turned out to be poorly timed, given the fuel crisis and resulting slump in pickup sales. But when asked about that reality at an event last summer, Dodge marketers argued that "the message is the same," that their trucks are definitely nicer to drive and use for those who still want and need them, and those customers still total in the millions. Executives didn't use as an excuse another reality: Auto and truck manufacturing is a long lead-time business, and work on these products began before the runup in fuel prices.

Toyota officials are grateful that sales of their Tundra are not down as much as competitors'. The Tundra is off by 14 percent compared to last year, says Richard Bame, national marketing manager for trucks, while industry full-size pickup sales are down by 25 percent. Because commercial sales are off less, Toyota is gunning for more of them by offering special incentives to "business" buyers. A business can be a corporation, an entity with a sales-tax license, or a farm or ranch. "Businesses want to see some cash," he explained, so one incentive in mid-September was an allowance of $1,500 beyond any other special deals.

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