Advances in gasoline and diesel engines for pickup trucks are just in time to catch the beginning of the end of the recession, the worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s
The all-American vehicle gets engine advances as the Great Recession begins to end. Pictured is the new Dodge Ram 2500.
The all-American vehicle gets engine advances as the Great Recession begins to end. Pictured is the new Dodge Ram 2500.
. It's not over for millions of workers and businesses, for whom recovery is still in the future, but one aspect - improvement in new-housing starts - bodes well for truck sales, especially for pickups, which closely follow that segment of construction.

Sales of Ford's F-150 were up enough recently that the manufacturer scheduled extra production to keep up with demand. And the government's Cash for Clunkers program resulted in sales of many smaller pickups that were on the qualifying list. Toyota says its Tacoma compact pickup was among the top 10 sellers in the program.

Saving fuel

Of course, overall sales have been seriously down since fuel prices spiked last year and the financial crisis wounded the economy last fall. Pickups remain popular in consumers' minds if not their spending, and sustained lower fuel prices for nearly a year have almost erased bad memories of $3 to $5 gasoline and diesel fuel last year.

Those memories are faded but not forgotten, and customers continue to ask about better fuel economy, manufacturers say. They are answering with refined, smaller gasoline engines:

* Ford, which just announced its new Power Stroke diesel for 2011-model SuperDuty trucks, offers a three-valve-per-cylinder version of its 4.6-liter V-8 that's rated at 15 mpg city, 21 highway on F-150s;

* GM has applied variable valve timing to its 4.8-liter Vortec V-8 that delivers 20 mpg in the Silverado/Sierra 1500;

* Dodge has updated controls on its 4.7- and 5.7-liter V-8s so they shut off fuel while their Ram trucks decelerate; and

* Toyota introduced a new, modern 4.6-liter V-8 that gets 20 highway mpg in the Tundra. Its share of engines put in the Tundra is 25 percent versus 11 percent for the old 4.7, while the stronger but thirstier 5.7 has declined from 87 to 65 percent. The 4-liter V-6 accounts for about 5 percent of Tundra sales.

The pickup market

Ford, which has led in pickup sales for more than three decades, continues to lead with its F series, followed by the Chevrolet Silverado, Dodge Ram, Toyota Tacoma, GMC Sierra, Toyota Tundra, Ford Ranger, Chevy Colorado, Nissan Frontier and Nissan Titan. Combined sales of the Silverado and Sierra actually exceeded Ford's F series in July. That would've allowed General Motors to claim leadership in full-size pickups, but executives were preoccupied with bankruptcy and besides, its two divisions remain rivals.

Sales numbers can be sliced many different ways, but marketing people tend to keep pickups' model names somewhat separate because they represent two or three basic sizes and weights. GM, Ford and Chrysler include light- and "heavy" duty pickups in their respective full-size names, while Nissan and Toyota offer only half-ton pickups among full-size models. All builders also make mid-size or compact pickups, which are bought mostly by consumers but are in commercial service, as well.

American makers

General Motors' dropping out of the medium-duty truck business means GM's heaviest models now end at Class 3, with the Silverado and Sierra 2500HD and 3500HD pickups and the 3500HD cab-chassis (plus equivalent G-van models). As before, GM also sells many 1500-series half-ton full-size pickups for commercial use. And it fields the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon mid-size pickups and cab-chassis versions, the latter with special bodies to try to fill the gaps created with the demise of GM's smaller vans several years ago. Spokesmen said that in spite of the company's controversial franchise-yanking while in bankruptcy, more than 400 commercial-truck dealers remain with GM.

While GM's 2-Mode Hybrid system has not been a big seller, and it's only available in 1500-series Crew Cab pickups and full-size SUVs, it may gain popularity if gasoline prices go back up. It adds 5 mpg to city fuel economy, and its premium is a little over $3,000, which is mostly offset by a $2,200 federal tax credit. Thus the hybrid is a more economical proposition, especially for a higher-mileage commercial truck, than most passenger-car hybrids.

Dodge Truck's plans for updated Ram Heavy Duty pickups and Chassis-Cab trucks are back on track after Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy. They'll use the bolder, more aerodynamic styling and nicer interiors of the '09 Ram 1500. More powerful gasoline engines are part of the 2010 Ram HD products. The current Cummins Turbo Diesel will be used into the new year, when an SCR version of the Cummins will go into Chassis-Cab models. The current 6.7-liter Cummins is already EPA-'10-legal and will continue in the lighter-duty Ram HD pickups for 2011 and beyond.

(On the van side, Dodge is losing the Mercedes-made Sprinter Euro van, following an agreement between Chrysler and Daimler Trucks to end the supply agreement. Dodge dealers will sell Sprinters on their lots until they're gone. Chrysler is seeking European-style commercial-van replacements from Fiat, its new part-owner, and Iveco, a Fiat affiliate. Sprinters will be sold as Freightliners, as they are now, and as Mercedes-Benzes, as Daimler reintroduces the M-B truck brand to North America.)

From Japan

The future of Nissan North America's Titan half-ton pickup is cloudy. Nissan has ended the deal under which Chrysler would've supplied rebadged and restyled Dodge Rams starting in the 2011 model year. The deal was effectively negated by Chrysler's bankruptcy, which also put the project on hold. Meanwhile, "worldwide business concerns," including part ownership of the new Chrysler by Fiat, a competitor in Europe, caused Nissan to move away from it, a source said.

There will be a 2011 Titan pickup, Nissan planners insist, and they're now figuring out what it will be and where it will be built. The current vehicle, with or without some restyling and other changes, could still be assembled at the Titan and Armada SUV factory in Canton, Miss. This plant will produce a new commercial van for 2011, but there'll be space to continue the Titan. This is also an opportunity for the Titan to expand into a 3/4-ton version that would be more attractive to commercial users. It would take a heavier frame, suspensions and other components, but is entirely doable if a business case can be made and the money is available for development. Nissan's Light Commercial Vehicle arm would love to have it.

Toyota continues its fleet-seeking activities with virtually all auto and truck models, and added ammunition last spring with a 2009-model Work Truck version of its Tundra Double Cab. Like the previously available Work Truck two-door Regular Cab, the work-oriented four-door has vinyl floor and seat covers.

Toyota's popular Tacoma compact pickup is now assembled in Fremont, Calif., but that plant is closing in March and Tacoma production will move to San Antonio, Texas (Tacomas are also made in Baja California, Mexico).

GM, which jointly runs the Fremont plant with Toyota, previously announced that it was leaving because it's dropping its Pontiac brand and the Vibe compact wagon is the only other vehicle made there. The Fremont plant is the last automotive factory operating in financially strapped California, where International Harvester, Peterbilt, Mack and Freightliner once had heavy-truck plants.

Buying American?

Buying products made in the USA is a desire of many customers, and one might think that pickups from the Detroit-based Big Three, which originated the uniquely American vehicle type in the 1920s, would have the most U.S. content. But their full-size pickups have 75 percent American parts content, while Toyota notes that its Tundra has 80 percent, based on reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated by the American Automobile Labeling Act, wh