Almost left idle by the high cost of fuel in 2008 and the recession, sales of pickup trucks are now recovering.
Sales of SuperDuty pickups for commercial use are up a small 2%, but chassis-cab versions have climbed 48% since last year, signaling a resurgence among commercial buyers, Ford says.
Sales of SuperDuty pickups for commercial use are up a small 2%, but chassis-cab versions have climbed 48% since last year, signaling a resurgence among commercial buyers, Ford says.
An American innovation, pickups remain highly useful, and in a recent survey, 14% of new-vehicle buyers say they still intend to acquire them.

The problem of high gasoline consumption is being addressed by more efficient powertrains in light-duty versions. Ford has downsized most of the engines in its F-150 series, and the premium offering is now a double-turbocharged V-6 that acts like a V-8 but drinks less gas. Ford and General Motors advertise highway economy ratings of as much as 22 mpg - something unheard of not many years ago.

"A year ago our business started pretty well," said Len Deluca, sales manager for Ford Commercial Truck. "Overall our business is up 17% as of July. We expect it to be up again in August. We're up in every vehicle line. SuperDuty is up 10%, and that's driven by chassis-cab, which is up 48%. That's good to see because that's construction, home building, landscaping and so forth. That business has been down for a while."

Sales of SuperDuty pickups for commercial use are up over 2% compared to last year - much more modest, but still positive.

He estimated the diesel-to-gasoline engine split in SuperDuty is about 60-40. The diesel is Ford's own 6.4-liter PowerStroke. Two gasoline engines, a 6.2 V-8 and 6.8-liter V-10, go into various pickup and chassis-cab models.

Alternative fuels

Meanwhile, alternative fuels are getting attention from customers, Deluca said. "If you look at it, if you talk about all fuels, converting vehicles to compressed natural gas and propane, it's starting to gain a lot of traction. I hear more about it today than I did even a year ago, people wanting to convert to alternative fuels" that cost less than petroleum-based gasoline and diesel.

But everyone's getting conditioned to higher fuel prices, he added. "This morning on the way to work I passed a gas station and the sign said $3.59" per gallon. "Now I'm OK with it, whereas a year ago I was upset with it." This, too, colors customers' buying decisions.

In a few years they'll evidently have more choices. Last month Ford and Toyota announced a collaborative effort to develop a hybrid drivetrain that they both can use (see p. 70). GM continues to offer its fuel-saving Two Mode hybrid in half-ton pickups and SUVs, but fewer than 1% of buyers seem to be choosing the somewhat pricey option. Other builders offer small V-8s or V-6s but continue to emphasize larger, more gutsy motors.

Changing market

Full-size pickup trucks comprise a little over 11% of all new vehicles now being sold, said Tom Wilkinson, a communications manager for Chevrolet Trucks. "There was a big boom in the late '90s, and again in '05, '06, '07. The overall market now is pretty modest."

In the first half of 2011, a total 680,000 full-size trucks in 1/2, 3/4- and 1-ton categories were sold, he said. The second half of the year usually sees a surge due to incentives offered to clear out leftover models, followed by enthusiasm for new models and last-minute purchases by corporate buyers. So sales this year will probably total 1.4 million to 1.5 million light trucks, "but that's not an official forecast," he cautioned.

For personal use, "the market's kind of settled back to people who really need pickups," he said. "For a while there a lot of people were buying the vehicle for performance, size, and because they just enjoyed driving them. We think a lot of people have migrated to sporty cars and such. Trucks are still good for towing a boat or something, and a lot of crew cabs are bought for family use."

General Motors has reduced the number of its full-size truck plants to four, and one builds SUVs. "So we think we've got the production we'll need to meet demand." GM continues to push sales of its compact- to mid-size Colorado and Canyon pickups and, with special commercial bodies mounted on chassis-cab versions, promotes them as alternatives to its now-gone Uplander van.

Overall, the market for compact and mid-size pickups began shrinking earlier in this decade as buyers swung toward full-size models. However, Nissan and Toyota continue to sell their Frontier and Tacoma.

Ford was reportedly ready to drop its Ranger compact pickup by the end of 2009, but it got a reprieve. Ranger production is now scheduled to cease late this year, and built-up inventory will take sales into mid-2012. A new, larger and restyled Ranger will be sold overseas, but not here.

Ram Truck

Meanwhile, Chrysler's Ram Truck division has given up on its Dodge Dakota mid-size model. The last Dakotas were produced in August, and Ram has no plans for a replacement, said Bob Hegbloom, a Ram marketing manager. Observers noted that blockier styling given to '05 and later Dakotas did not make customers happy. Many instead bought full-size Rams, which didn't cost much more. And Ram sales are again healthy.

"What a difference a couple years makes," Hegbloom said. "We bottomed out then [in 2008-2009], and now month over month we continue to see numbers increasing at a pretty decent rate." Ram's market share is up more than 2 points, he said. "So the brand is moving, and each segment is moving in the right direction."

Since splitting off from Dodge, the Ram organization is better able to manage and expand its marketing and product-development efforts, executives said at a press conference in March. They continue their emphasis on selling and servicing commercial trucks, which includes pickups, heavier chassis-cab models and light Caravan-based vans. Larger truck-based vans sourced from Fiat, Chrysler's corporate parent, should begin coming in next year. Though Ram is now the brand, vehicle titles still list them as "Dodge."

Among models catching on with Ram's working class customers is the recently introduced Tradesman pickup, he said. It's a no-frills Regular Cab work truck that comes standard with a vinyl floor and seat covers, hand-cranked windows and a sprayed-in liner for its 8-foot bed. But it has the 395-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with a 6-speed automatic transmission, so the truck can ably haul heavy payloads and tow heavy trailers.

Torque war continues

Ram fired another salvo in the ongoing diesel torque war early this year by announcing an 800-pound-foot version of its Cummins Turbo Diesel available in 2500 and 3500 series pickups. Ford followed not long after, but for now General Motors is holding still at 660 pounds-feet for its 6.6-liter Duramax V-8.

"Numbers don't always match up with performance," countered Chevrolet's Wilkinson, citing extensive testing by an online magazine,, that found the GM Duramax-powered GMC Sierra 3500 superior in a towing contest against its main diesel-powered competitors.

"We have a very good diesel and match it up with the 6-speed Allison automatic, which helps it get power to the ground in a useful matter," Wilkinson said. "The test also found that our exhaust brake is better than the brakes on the Ford and Ram. It's the overall performance of the whole package that's important."

Yet some numbers do matter to GM. In mid August it upped the fifth-wheel tow rating of its Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra 3500 dually pickups from 21,700 pounds to 23,000 - now the highest in the business, GM claimed. Higher numerical rear-end gearing was responsible, along with stronger rear springs and shackles and bed reinforcements. It's likely that Ford and Ram will match or beat these numbers sooner or later.

Diesels from India?

Pickup fans seeking something different have been e-buzzing about low-priced diesel-powered trucks from India. So far they've waited in vain for the $22,000 to $25,000 two- and four-door TR20 and TR40 Pik-Up models