The mighty have finally fallen. Full-size pickup trucks, for many years the best-selling vehicles in the U.S., have tumbled in popularity since the steep run-up in gasoline prices. As consumers switch to fuel-saving automobiles, the sales decline since last year is 23 percent for personal-use pickups, according to one estimate.

Those who can trade them are taking a financial bath, and there are reports of dealers refusing to take them in on trade because their lots are full of unsold new and used trucks.

This, plus the slump in even thirstier truck-based sport-utility vehicles, is causing fundamental changes in production and product planning by auto and truck builders - developments that have been widely reported in the general media. The price of crude oil on commodities markets fell considerably in late summer and so did gasoline prices, but not enough to reverse those sales trends. And gasoline prices of $4 to $5 per gallon probably won't soon fade from people's memories.

Or will they? Dodge Truck marketers report that pickup sales rose in July and climbed even more in August. "Contrary to some reports, the truck segment is still alive," and accounts for 11 percent of total car and truck sales in North America, says Mark Seguin, launch manager for the redesigned 2009 Ram pickups. Previous busts in the automotive business have been followed by booms, and if the next upswing isn't as great, he and others remain optimistic.

In the meantime, fleets and individual tradesmen still need work-truck versions of light-duty pickups, and here sales are not off so much. That same industrywide estimate, from Toyota Motor Sales USA, says retail sales of work-type pickups are down by 11 percent and fleet sales are down only 2 percent. Fleets tend to buy two-door regular cab pickups, but most other customers select four-door extended or crew-cab models that expand their trucks' ability to haul people as well as cargo.

And several builders have made their light trucks more usable for work. "Cargo management" options with bed extenders, rails, bulkheads and tie-down cleats allow more extensive securement of loads. Storage compartments built into bed sides allow stowage of tools and materials that previously had to be thrown in the bed or the cab, or placed in aftermarket boxes. Rear seats that fold up or down offer flat floors for carrying tools and supplies inside the cab and out of the weather, and without having to put some kind of shell or cover on the bed.

Fuel economy has become more important. Most manufacturers with operations in the U.S. say they have modified their powertrain products so they use less fuel, and more work is being done. They're developing small-displacement diesels for Class 1 light trucks, and the first of these are about a year away. Ford is readying a turbocharged gasoline engine as well as a diesel; Dodge, General Motors and Toyota also have smaller diesels coming. The first "strong" gasoline-electric hybrids in pickups from GM are due out in early calendar 2009, and from Dodge sometime in the 2010 model year.

Cummins is developing the small diesels for Chrysler, Toyota and others. Enthusiasts think the upcoming direct-injection diesels will make them as popular as those in European cars and light trucks. But they tend to forget that while diesels burn less fuel, the fuel itself has long been subsidized in Europe and costs less than gasoline. Here, for the past three years diesel has cost considerably more, and that's not likely to change. And meeting 2010 exhaust emissions limits will be costly. One exception is Dodge, with its Cummins Turbo Diesel that's already 2010-legal.

Early this year General Motors began advertising its class-leading EPA economy ratings, which are as high as 20 mpg highway for some V-8-powered 1500-series half-ton pickups. Hybrid-drive systems now available in GM's SUVs claim 21 to 22 mpg in the city. And recently, GM engineers and planners have cobbled together a package of features they call XFE, for extra fuel economy.

XFE includes the Vortec 5300 aluminum-block V-8, a 6-speed Hydra-matic transmission, a "fast" 3.08 axle ratio, a lower stance, aluminum wheels, low-rolling-resistance tires, and a soft tonneau cover on the bed. XFE production begins in October. The package will first be available in two-wheel-drive Crew Cab 1500s, but might be extended later to other cab styles and perhaps 4x4 models. EPA ratings for XFE pickups is 15 mpg city, 22 highway.

"This was a quick-to-market program," says Carl Hillenbrand, product manager for the Chevrolet Silverado, who notes that GMC's Sierra will also be available with the XFE option. "The fuel economy crunch hit everybody hard, including us. So we asked ourselves, what can we do quickly to ease the pocketbook pain for fuel prices? We put this together fast, starting in late March or early April - so it was about a half a year."

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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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Like most of its competitors, Toyota works with supplier-members of the National Truck Equipment Association to be sure work-related equipment is available for the Tundra. Boxes, racks and other items that bolt into a Tundra's bed can be arranged through dealers. Ford, GM and Dodge have had these NTEA arrangements far longer, so Toyota has had to work hard to catch up, Bame says. That's also true of special treatment at dealers.

Nissan North America has no special business programs or any relationship with NTEA, but it does do fleet sales of cars and pickups, says Randy Dale, national product manager for Titan. And some of its dealers seek business sales. Titan's entry level, competitively priced XE model - a King Cab, because there's no regular cab in the lineup - is the most likely to see rough service, and can be ordered with a factory-applied spray-in bed liner, Dale says. The next-up SE model can be ordered with Utili-Track cargo securement equipment, but the bars, racks and tie-downs are not available as dealer accessories.

All the full-size pickup builders also offer smaller models. Two are midsize: Dodge sells the Dakota and GM has the Chevy Colorado and the GMC Canyon. The others are compacts: Ford with its Ranger, Nissan with its Frontier and Toyota with the Tacoma. Sales of smaller pickups have fallen in recent years as customers moved up to full-size models, but Toyota has noted some reversal of that in some regions as buyers seek more economical vehicles. There is limited use of small pickups by commercial enterprises, such as parts chasers by stores and dealers, as service trucks by pest exterminators, and specialty hauling trucks by public utilities.

Our product roundup covers the much more widely used full-size pickups. They undergo continuous improvements, and manufacturers extensively redesign them every few years to leapfrog past each others' models. Thus they represent great utility and value, especially now, when prices are heavily discounted. And though sales are down, pickup trucks are so useful that for the foreseeable future, they won't be out.

FORD

F-150 has been America’s best-selling single automotive model for three decades, but probably not this year, as sales of all pickups have dropped off. Yet the extensively redesigned 2009 version remains a desirable vehicle with edgier styling, a stronger, fully boxed frame, new interior amenities and electronic features, and towing capacity of more than 10,000 pounds. A lockable Midbox compartment on long-wheelbase Regular and Super Cab models is in the front of the bed behind the cab, and adds 26.3 cubic feet of secure storage. All F-150s have Advance Trac with RSC (roll stability control) that cuts power and selectively applies brakes when accelerometers sense an impending rollover or excessive swaying while towing a trailer. An Integrated Trailer Brake Controller and backup camera help in pulling, stopping and hooking up to trailers. As before, F-150 buyers can pick a Regular, Super or Super Crew, each with four doors. There are three Triton gasoline V-8s: two 4.6-liter versions and a 5.4-liter which can burn E85 (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline).

GENERAL MOTORS

Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 1500-series pickups claim best-in-class EPA-rated fuel economy, and 2009 models are available with an XFE (extra fuel economy) package that adds about 1 mpg to the EPA numbers (see main story). For more serious fuel savings, GM’s 2-Mode Hybrid system will be available on these pickups in early calendar 2009, and it should be a less costly stand-alone option (instead of being packaged with other features as in the Tahoe and Yukon). In straight-gasoline models, Regular, Extended and Crew Cabs are available in several trim levels, and the longer cabs get hydraulic rear mounts to filter out road vibration and harshness. In Work Truck form the 1500s can get Blue Tooth connectivity for phones and other electronics. WT trucks are available with three Vortec gasoline engines: a 4.3-liter V-6, a 4.8-liter V-8 and a 5.3-liter V-8. The 4.3 and 4.8 use a 4-speed Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, while 5.3s get a 6-speed Hydra-Matic. Some higher trim levels can be ordered with high-performance 6- and 6.2-liter V-8s, and many engines can now burn E85.

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DODGE

A “true” Crew Cab with four full-size doors is among many changes to 2009-model Ram 1500s. They also get bolder but more aerodynamic styling, plusher interiors, more storage cubbies and compartments, and a long list of electronic and audio-visual options. A Ram Bed option adds lighted, lockable and drainable storage compartments in each sidewall; for now it’s available only with the Crew Cab. The 2-door Regular and 4-door Quad Cab with shorter rear doors continue from last year. All Ram 1500s get a new rear suspension with two coil springs and five links, coupled to a live axle; the suspension is unique to this segment and provides a smoother ride when a truck is empty or lightly loaded. Two bed lengths are used with the various cabs and wheelbases. Three gasoline engines include a 3.7-liter V-6, with either a 6-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic, and two V-8s, a 4.7-liter and the 5.7-liter Hemi, both with a 5-speed automatics.

NISSAN

Full-size Titan enters its fifth year with one engine, two cab styles and four bed lengths. The 5.6-liter V-8 has an aluminum block and runs through a 5-speed autotranny; it can now be had with E85 capability as a no-cost option. The two-door King Cab’s rear doors open a full 180 degrees, and with a 98.8-inch long bed it’s a popular choice among work-truck buyers. The bed on the base XE can be factory sprayed with a protective coating. That lining is standard on the LE, which can be ordered with Utili-Track cargo-securement equipment, including dividers, sliding trays and modular storage units. The top-of-the-line SE comes with a bedside storage compartment behind the rear wheel on the driver’s side. The next-generation Titan, due in the 2011 model year, will be built by Chrysler on a Dodge Ram chassis, but other components will be “Nissan-specific.”

TOYOTA

Full-size Tundra includes a Regular Cab model popular with fleets, while Double and CrewMax cabs are chosen by personal and dual-use buyers. Short, Standard and Long beds are used, depending on cab and wheelbase. A 4-liter V-6 and 4.7-liter V-8 have four-valve heads and variable valve timing; they run through 5-speed automatic transmissions. The double-overhead-cam 5.7-liter V-8 also has variable valve timing and gets a 6-speed autotranny; 5.7s sold in some ethanol-producing Midwestern states will be able to burn E85 fuel. All engines have dual-stage intake runners to maximize efficiency and performance. Tundra has been well-received by enthusiast magazines and customers since it was upsized from its original 7/8-scale version several years ago. Toyota is actively courting business customers with available upfitted equipment and special cash incentives.

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