The economy's slowly improving, and so are the Class 3 to 5 segment's truck sales, up modestly to substantially since the 2009 trough, depending on who's citing the numbers.
The economy remains a source of anguish because of lagging job growth, so there's wariness among some forecasters.

One is Lisa Whalen, director of corporate strategy at General Motors, whose recent bankruptcy has to result in reticence. "Recent activity tells us that we need to be cautious about the rate of recovery," she says. "Double-dip (recession) is not out of the realm of possibility, but we seem to be moving at least sideways" in economic activity.

GM's Heavy Duty pickups aren't the attraction they were during the housing bubble, Whalen says, because high fuel prices in 2008 prompted some customers to turn to crossover sport-utility vehicles that deliver better fuel economy. But "core commercial customers" still need big pickups, and for them recent pricing incentives have helped sales.

There's more optimism from Todd Bloom, the new president of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America (previously head of marketing at Isuzu Commercial Truck). "I do not believe the economy will take a double dip into recession," he says. "I think we will reach levels in Class 3 to 5 to about the same as we had in 2006 and 2007, by 2012 and 2013.

"I see a large demand for Class 3 through 5 trucks. The economy's coming back and there's all the pent-up demand since 2007 to 2009. The typical replacement cycle is three to five years, and that's coming due, so you see the demand has to be there."

Basic industry year-to-date numbers are up 16-17 percent, he says. The cabover segment, which Fuso's a part of, along with Isuzu and UD Trucks, is up about 45 percent. Best of all for Bloom, Fuso's sales alone are up 209 percent year over last year.

Fuso selling down

Fuso is in a "sell-down situation," Bloom says, with dealers steadily depleting ranks of pre-2010-engine trucks. These are still 2010 models, meaning Fuso's '10 model year will be almost two years long. Fuso in Japan will begin shipping 2011-model trucks with 2010-legal diesels early next year.

Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America answers to Fuso of Japan, which is owned by Daimler of Germany. But there's no official interaction with Daimler Trucks North America and its Freightliner and Western Star brands.

Isuzu after GM

Isuzu, which has had about three-fourths of all low-cab-forward sales n this country, is in a similar model sell-down. Its dealers are still marketing low cabovers with pre-2010 diesels. Isuzu in Japan has begun shipping NPR models with '10-legal SCR-equipped diesels; these will be 2011 models. Imports will replace heavier Isuzus lost when GM pulled out of the medium-duty business and closed its plant in Flint, Mich.

Brian Tabel, marketing chief at Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, says the NPR Gas will return after going out of production last year at GM's old Janesville, Wis., plant. GM will still supply a Vortec gasoline V-8 and Hydra-Matic transmission, and Spartan Motors will assemble the NPR Gas for Isuzu starting next spring.

Gas to diesel NPR sales were at a 30 to 70 ratio. Tabel expects a slightly higher percentage of gasoline-powered trucks to be sold as buyers are faced with a stiffer upcharge for the costly EPA-'10 diesels. "The upcharge will be a flat $4,500, and it makes the cutoff of 25,000 miles annually where it was worth going to diesel a little higher, maybe to 30,000 or 35,000 miles."

Many GM dealers sold Isuzus badged as Chevrolet and GMC W series, but can't after Oct. 31, Taber says. About two dozen of those dealers wanted to convert to Isuzu franchises, but can't because other Isuzu dealers were already in their marketing areas. There are 285 dealers now, and that's probably where it'll stand on Nov. 1, after which Isuzu will consider further expansion.

UD's new models

UD Trucks North America has embarked on a new branding and image campaign, says Brian Wagner, recently appointed director of marketing. (Nissan Diesel - the old name - still exists in Japan, and it's owned by Volvo AB of Sweden.) Over the next 12 to 18 months, importers of UD trucks around the world will all adopt the new brand and image.

UD here is selling 2011-model trucks with pre-2010 diesels. The '11 model year will be short because 2012s with new SCR diesels will begin arriving in October, Wagner says. A current Class 4 model is being dropped, so the lightest 2012 model will be a Class 5 UD1800, along with the UD2000 (numbers approximate GVW ratings in pounds). These trucks will have a new aerodynamic cab with composite body panels over steel structural members. New air-ride seats will have more adjustability and increased track length, and air-over-hydraulic brakes with real-wheel parking brakes (no driveline brake).

Nissan UD was obtaining 4-cylinder engines from Hino in Japan, but the 2012s will have a UD-made 6-cylinder GH7 diesel, a 7-liter (427-cubic-inch) overhead cam, direct-injected engine making 245 horsepower and 530 pounds-feet. Like most diesel makers, UD is using selective catalytic reduction.

"UD Trucks developed the first SCR Class 8 engine in Japan in 2003," Wagner says. "So this technology that we're using today on our chassis is seven years old, though modified. We are doing what the world is doing, and it's been very successful."

Sales are on the increase, he says. "We're not where we were in 2006, 2007. We're in the same predicament as everyone else. 2008 was 50 percent of previous years. Our marketing plan is commensurate with the market - slow increases."

Ford Dominates Big Three

Despite the activity among the importers of low-cabover products and the advantages of cabovers in tight urban quarters, North America is still a conventional-cab market.

Eighty percent of all sales in North America are conventional-cab trucks, and close to 60 percent of the sales in Class 2 to 5 are by Ford, notes Todd Kaufman, Ford's F-series chassis-cab marketing manager. Ford's SuperDuties were completely redone for 2011, with new exterior styling, new interior trim, enhanced infotainment electronics, and new powertrains, including a 6.7-liter PowerStroke V-8 diesel and a 6.2-liter gasoline V-8, both paired with 6-speed TorqueShift automatic transmissions.

Other members of the Big Three were also at work. Chrysler's Ram Heavy Duty series and General Motor's Heavy Duty models were both upgraded for 2011, and have eased into production with revised styling and updated powertrains.

Among exclusive equipment in this segment is Ford's F-450 pickup, aimed primarily at people who tow heavy RV, boat and horse trailers. GM is no longer in Class 4 or 5, while Chrysler's Ram 4500 is a chassis-cab model. And Ram alone among the Big Three domestics still offers a manual transmission, the Getrag G56 six-speed, available with the 5.7-liter gasoline Hemi or 6.7-liter Cummins Turbo Diesel.

Numbers wars

Big Three diesels have been 2010-legal for varying amounts of time. But along with the technical enhancements, Ford and General Motors are again doing some leapfrogging with their diesel power and torque claims.

In February, when Ford unveiled its new 6.7-liter PowerStroke V-8 that replaced the last Navistar diesel, Ford claimed a best-in-class rating of 390 horsepower and 735 pounds-feet. In May, GM showed off its revised Duramax diesel and announced higher numbers: 397 horsepower and 765 pounds-feet. In August, Ford again declared superiority by means of a software upgrade. Flashing the PowerStroke's electronic control module will raise power and pounds-feet to 400 and 800, respectively, with 2 percent better fuel economy, to boot.

Earlier in this decade, GM and Dodge embarked on a similar torque war, which Dodge's C