Truck Yeah! Or How Pickup Trucks Became the Most Exciting Segment in the U.S.

The U.S. pickup truck market ain't what it used to be

By Jacob Brown | March 05, 2014
About the time when the 2014 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel found itself anointed as our sister publication Motor Trend's 2014 Truck of the Year, the internet alighted with furor. Those of us who've been lucky enough to drive the 2014 Ram EcoDiesel will tell you that it's a damn good truck; a progression of all of the wholesome engineering excellence that has thus far made us believers in coil springs, air suspension, eight-speed automatic transmissions, and small-displacement diesels. Oh, and RamBox is pretty nifty, too. But rather curiously, there was another truck in the form of the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra that was seemingly snubbed. All-new with direct-injected engines, stiffer frames, quieter interiors, and technology like variable engine displacement that could shut off half of the trucks' cylinders to preserve fuel, the GM twins saw an outpouring of support from critics and enthusiasts alike, after the Ram received its award. Not long after, the Chevrolet Silverado won out as the North American Truck of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. No sooner did that happen than the aluminum-intensive 2015 Ford F-150 was introduced on the very same day, forgoing much of what Ram and GM had introduced in favor of lightweight materials and small displacement, turbocharged engines. Back in the 1990s—the not-too-distant past—all of the trucks had leaf spring rear suspensions, pushrod V-8 engines that were lucky to get 15 mpg highway on a good day, steel bodies, four-speed automatics, and generally the same cab and bed options. Buying a truck was more about personal preference than product attributes. Yet now more than ever, trucks have become as diversified as anything. The Big Three are separating strategies. Talks of light-duty diesels, hybrids, and other new technologies in pickups have promulgated throughout the industry. Trucks are becoming as sophisticated as a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. And the truck-makers themselves are no longer playing follow the leader.

The Aluminum Revolution

All three of the American truck makers have used aluminum construction to some capacity in their pickups. But when Ford introduced the Atlas concept—simply a design study, we were told at the time—it became evident how different Ford's strategy was. It was a truck that stole GM's thunder at what should have been a coming out party for the GM twins and the Corvette Stingray. "When I saw everyone oohing and ahing, that was wonderful," 2015 Ford F-150 chief engineer Pete Reyes told us in retrospect. "Because now we are delivering that Atlas." Ford had long experimented with aluminum since the days of its AIV Mercury Sable concept of the 1990s. It acquired Aston Martin, Jaguar, and later Land Rover, further experimenting with the seemingly exotic material. Never did Ford sell an aluminum-intensive vehicle in that era below $65,000 or so. Starting in the third quarter of 2014, however, it's going to embark on a truck whose body is 95 percent composed of the stuff, and Reyes says its pricing should be similar to the 2014's. "It was just our time to say, 'Hey, we are going to go from bottom up on this truck,' so it was just our time to take a bold move," added Reyes. Reyes says many factors led to the clean-sheet design, from Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations to a platform that could complement its EcoBoost engines. The first of which, a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6, saw duty in the F-150 after an aborted plan to install a 4.4-liter diesel V-8 lost favor in the Great Recession. That diesel engine, complete with 340 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, eventually landed into the overseas Land Rover portfolio, where it's still sold. Thanks to some darn good marketing, class-leading fuel economy at the time, a healthy heap of torque for good measure, the 3.5-liter EcoBoost grew into Ford's volume-selling engine, now accounting for 40 percent of its F-150 product mix. And soon there will be a new 2.7-liter V-6 is joining the lineup, with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 now anchoring the F-150's engine portfolio, as the top-range 6.2-liter V-8 has been discontinued. It is believed that an SVT-developed V-8 will power the next Raptor, however. Says Reyes of the new 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine: "It really fills a white space. With the 3.5 EcoBoost and the 5.0-liter V-8, you're chasing 10,000-, 11,000-pound, and higher trailer tow numbers. A lot of our customers have said the real sweet spot is a fuel-efficient engine that does the job of a mid-range V-8—think a 5.0-liter V-8—does that job in terms of power—but delivers really fantastic fuel economy." It's anticipated that the engine will reach 30 mpg, especially when Ford pairs it to its upcoming 10-speed automatic transmission that's being codeveloped with GM. But the other automakers aren't standing still.

Playing the Fuel's Game

In February, Ram finally released its EPA-certified numbers—20 mpg city/28 mpg highway—for the EcoDiesel V-6. Developed by VM Motori, a subsidiary of Fiat, the engine was born out of a partnership when GM and Fiat were still in cahoots. It's widely known that the V-6 was intended to power the 2014 Cadillac CTS in Europe, and it still might. But it has garnered far more buzz for the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee and as the first light-duty diesel pickup truck engine sold in North America in eons. "We've chosen that path to go one because the efficiencies we've been able to gain have been tremendous," says Ram brand director Bob Hegbloom. "But we can't stand still, and everyone in this market is highly competitive. And we're going to continue to push every day." It's no secret that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne loves American trucks. Even Ferrari CEO Luca di Montezemolo specially exported a Ram 1500 to his Italian home for personal use. A source within Ram's engineering department indicated to us that when Marchionne took over Chrysler in 2009, he gave the truck engineers a carte blanche operative: Build a better truck than the Ford F-150. Since then, out-misering the EcoBoost Ford has been on the docket, among other goals like providing better ride and handling characteristics. But Ram hasn't remained stagnant with its gas engines, either, employing a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic that has allowed it to see 25 mpg when paired with the Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 and 23 mpg with the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. So far, neither GM nor Ford will talk specifics on their 10-speed automatic transmissions. Ford has been openly pushing a fuel-economy-focused agenda, which would make the new transmission all the more appealing. But GM is keeping its cards close to its chest and taking on the mission with two prongs. According to Chevrolet full-size pickup truck communication manager Tom Wilkinson, capability—not fuel economy—is what full-size pickup truck buyers crave. "A lot of this (fuel economy focus) is being driven not so much by customer need as it is by government regulation," says Wilkinson. "Customers are interested in better fuel economy, but if you look at the top five reasons for purchase, it very seldom breaks into the top five. Trucks are pretty good now. You look at our two-wheel-drive truck, and it gets 23 mpg. We talk to people, and that's not an unapproachable number. The fuel economy of a full-size pickup is comparable to a lot of larger crossovers now." However, Wilkinson says that if truck buyers are really the sort that care about fuel economy, GM has two new offerings that are garnering rave enthusiasm in the form of the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, which will provide plenty of capability but far more livability for active lifestyle shoppers who don't need the full-size behemoths. Wilkinson says buyers of midsize pickups have thirsted for proper midsize pickup trucks for years, with many holding on to their old trucks until such a time as newer, better trucks than the current crop come into play. He noted a huge uptick in Nissan Frontier sales, for instance, after the Ford Ranger had been discontinued for the U.S. "We clearly see it when we talk to midsize truck fans that they're clearly not interested in moving up," says Wilkinson. "And again, in a lot of cases, it's not because they can't afford a full-size truck. It's because they choose not to spend the money. The truck's too big. It won't fit in their driveway. It won't fit in their garage. They don't want to park it in the parking deck at work, so we think there's a lot of opportunity in the midsize truck segment, in addition to room for full-size." Both Ram's Hegbloom and Ford Trucks marketing manager Doug Scott have said in the past that a midsize truck will not succeed in the U.S. without a clear differentiation in size, price, and fuel economy. The 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon are within inches of GM's 1980s pickups and weigh about 900 pounds less than the Silverado, comparably equipped, which Wilkinson points out is still at least 650 pounds lighter than the 2015 F-150 based on current estimates. And industry sources persist that GM is expediting its own aluminum-intensive full-size pickup truck to see production by the end of this decade. Other sources have indicated that the midsize GM trucks will be approximately $5,000 cheaper than comparably equipped full-size pickup trucks across the board. And as for fuel economy, expect the numbers to exceed those of the big trucks', with the 2.8-liter Duramax diesel V-6 eclipsing 30 mpg. Ram prices its diesel engine as a $4,000 premium to its gas V-6. If the midsize trucks are priced similarly, that could seriously encroach on space occupied by the Silverado. Wilkinson says the diesel option will likely remain niche, however. And as for Ford? "This truck is CAFE-positive for the first time, and CAFE is important to us," says Reyes. "But I'd say the first thing that drove us was the success of the EcoBoost and seeing how much customers liked fuel economy and the idea of the EcoBoost engine being both powerful and efficient. And we said there's just a theme there that we're going to continue. And that theme is probably magnified in a pickup truck where utility is so important."

The Curious Case of Competition

In the eyes of the EPA, a loophole has erupted out of necessity. Vehicles are graded for CAFE on fuel economy relative to their footprint, leaving automakers to constantly grow their inefficient vehicles to get a bigger break. Wonder why the current Jeep Wrangler got so big? That's part of the reason. 2015 Ford F 150 Front Side View In Snow It's also perhaps why the 2015 Ford F-150 has increased its width by two inches versus the truck it is replacing. Reyes insists that the growth will benefit on-road stability, towing capability, and interior comfort. But there's no denying that a bigger vehicle like the F-150 achieving 30 mpg is more beneficial to Ford than an EcoBoost Fiesta getting 45 mpg on the highway. The truck's increased size also opens up just enough room for the global Ford Ranger sold overseas to enter the U.S., as its construction will be far cheaper than the F-150's since it's made of steel instead of aluminum and it will finally have that clear size differentiation Ford's Scott has indicated to be key in being 8.4 inches narrower. Make no mistake that Ford has its eye on the GM midsize twins, despite its very public skepticism of the program. Ram, on the other hand, may truly be turning away from midsize trucks altogether. Says Hegbloom: "We've all looked at [the midsize truck market]. You look at when those vehicles sold, it was smaller, it was less capable, it was much more fuel-efficient, and had a great value in the price point. And that's what really drove that in the market place. And we all got bigger. "If you looked at our Dakota, dimensionally, in capability, and from a fuel economy standpoint, from where that exited the market and where it entered back in 1986, there was significant change in what the vehicle was and it just drove people to a full-size truck." Jeep's CEO Mike Manley said in 2013 that a Jeep Wrangler-based pickup truck would be popular with shoppers, but the company has thus far decided to keep production from happening, leaving Chrysler without a smaller pickup option. As for other competitors, Nissan's Cummins diesel-powered Frontier concept from the Chicago Auto Show and its commitment to a Cummins 5.0-liter diesel V-8 as a not-quite-heavy-duty alternative show you exactly where that brand stands. Having former Ram CEO and current Nissan senior VP Fred Diaz muscling through his dreams of truck grandeur help all the more. Nissan recently announced that the 2016 Titan would be making its debut at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show; the smaller Frontier would follow shortly thereafter. And with the Toyota Tacoma and Tundra TRD Pro off-road trucks having just debuted at the Chicago Auto Show, it's clear Toyota isn't going anywhere in the U.S. In fact, we've received indications from both Toyota and Ford that they're still independently working on hybrid pickup trucks, despite their partnership eroding due to lack of a business case. Toyota is also considering using the Cummins V-8 developed for the Titan, at least until it can roll-out an in-house design that will likely see use overseas in the Land Cruiser. If those players weren't enough, Honda has committed to an all-new Ridgeline within the next two years, with a company official telling us that its innovative in-bed trunk will remain in the next model. The truck market—from commercial vans to luxury trucks and everything in between—is burgeoning with an excitement and competitiveness never before seen in North America, now with vehicles as sophisticated as their passenger car counterparts. It's a good time to be in the business of innovating the next generation of heavy haulers, no longer adhering to an antiquated template that nearly everyone followed. It's an even better time to be in the market for one.

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