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Detroit's auto show features battle of pickup trucks

11:00 AM, Jan 14, 2013   |    comments
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Anyone cruising the North American International Auto Show floor at Cobo Center here this week will see the evidence: the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, the Ram 3500 heavy duty, and an as-yet-undisclosed surprise from Ford on Tuesday.

A segment known for intense buyer loyalty, robust profits and bragging over towing capacity has gotten its mojo back.

"We are calling this year the year of the pickup," said Michele Krebs, senior analyst for Edmunds.com.

The segment is fiercely competitive and predominantly domestic, said Rebecca Lindland, director of auto industry research for IHS Automotive.

"It is the one vehicle in the global industry that is uniquely and forever American so bragging rights for pickups has a whole different meaning," Lindland said. "It's not just profits. It's rock 'n roll, apple pie American."

While General Motors gave reporters a peak in December of the all-new 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, today at the show is their first public exposure.

"From hood to hitch, these are the most refined, best engineered pickups ever," said GM North America President Mark Reuss. "GM has been a truck engineering leader for more than a century. I think we engineer our trucks better than the others guys do."

The new Ram 1500 pickup has been on sale since October. The upgraded Ram 2500 and 3500 heavy duties go on sale this spring with more muscular towing capacity. They'll be on display here.

And Ford is expected to show Tuesday a concept of the design direction of the next-generation F-Series which could arrive in the fall of 2014 as a 2015 model.

In addition to the design cues, Ford may showcase future technologies and engineered solutions to shed weight in a truck with more liberal use of aluminum. It is unclear if there will be an update of progress on co-development with Toyota of a hybrid system for rear-drive trucks.

"It is a good move by Ford to show a concept to stay top of mind," said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst with Edmunds.com. "Otherwise, they are out of the conversation because their redesign is not until next year."

Ford has the most to lose, being the segment leader.

F-Series ended 2012 with sales of 645,316, up 10%, according to Autodata. Chevrolet sold 418,312 Silverados, similar to the prior year, while the Sierra sales rose 5% to 157,185, giving GM a total of 575,497 full-size pickup sales.

Ram sales were up almost 20% to 293,363. Smaller players in the segment include the Toyota Tundra (101,621, up 23%) and Nissan Titan (21,576, down 2%).

Ford's 39% of the market is the best since 2001 and the size of its lead is the largest since 2004 for a truck that has been the industry's top-seller for 36 years, said Doug Scott, Ford truck group marketing manager.

"I dream of selling as many pickups as Ford," Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said recently. "I like the pickup business a lot. I drool over it actually."

Reuss said GM wants combined sales of the Silverado and Sierra to eventually top the F-Series, but he wouldn't specify a date for that goal.

Ford expects to remain competitive, Scott said. "Our perspective is the other guys are catching up. Our product cadence is the most aggressive in the industry," he said of major product actions every two years including four new powertrains and adding models such as the 2013 Limited luxury pickup.

In 2012 53% of F-150s were sold with a V6 and all but 10% of those had turbocharged EcoBoost engines.

Reuss, an engineer, said turbochargers weren't the right solution for GM's new pickups because "where people normally use it ... you'll run that turbocharger high into that duty cycle a lot."

GM offers a V6 and choice of two V8s, all small block engines based on the one in the new Corvette, with cylinder deactivation that shuts some cylinders down when not needed for better fuel economy.

Both Ford and GM engines come with direct fuel injection.

Reuss hinted GM won't wait long to offer upgrades. "I would say we'll have very compelling powertrain choices that continue to evolve early in the life cycle of this truck," he said.

Ram's 3.6-liter V6 Pentastar engine is mated to an 8-speed transmission and has stop-start technology to turn the truck off when idled. That new technology helps the Ram 1500 get 25 miles per gallon on the highway, which Chrysler says leads among all trucks in the segment.

Beyond bragging rights, new trucks tend to make investors more optimistic about auto stocks because they are among the biggest profit generators.

Average transaction prices for GM pickups through November were up more than $1,700 from 2011, said Don Johnson, head of Chevrolet sales and service.

And the segment continues to rebound.

Pickup sales peaked at 2.5 million in 2004 and 2005, representing 15% of the market, Scott said. They fell to 1.1 million in 2009, but rebounded to almost 1.7 million last year, or 11.2% of the market. The improving economy and housing market almost guarantee that pickup sales will continue to grow in 2013.

"It doesn't matter how far back you go, when housing starts are good, the truck market follows right behind it," said Fred Diaz, president of Ram brand.

The average age of pickups on the road today is about 11 years, Diaz said, which is at least one year older than the industry average. That creates tremendous pent-up-demand.

Within the segment, buyers are brand loyal. Last year, 36% of F-150 buyers traded in an F-Series, Edmunds.com data shows. By comparison, the Toyota Camry is considered to have an inordinately high loyalty rate, but had only 33% of its sales to previous Camry owners, Caldwell said.

And 38% of Silverado buyers traded in a Silverado. "The Silverado buyer is two times as loyal as a Malibu buyer," Caldwell said of Malibu's 15% repeat rate last year.

It is extremely difficult for any automaker to take market share away from a competitor, but that won't stop them from trying.

"We are just starting to see the benefits of what the new truck is going to do for us," Diaz said. "And we have more surprises that I can't even talk about yet."

(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)

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