A Truck Tailgate Party: Fire Up the Grilles

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The look of its pickup trucks is so important that General Motors put its best man on the job: the guy who does the Corvettes. Fresh from the task of designing the 2014 Stingray, Tom Peters took on the task of freshening up -- and toughening up -- the Chevrolet Silverado and its fraternal twin, the GMC Sierra.

"A fist in the wind" is how Mr. Peters describes the pickups' design.

The new G.M. trucks are not alone in looking as if they can deliver a punch. The latest full-size pickups from G.M.'s crosstown rivals, Ford and Ram, step into the ring with flattened noses, their huge, blunt grilles often slathered in bright trim. A special edition of the latest Toyota Tundra seems to have as many bars as Milwaukee, capped with a flat, wide nostril.

"There is a trend toward a bigger, bolder look," said Mr. Peters, the director of exterior design for Chevrolet trucks, full-size crossovers and performance cars.

 Automobile grilles have long been carefully created to reflect the image of their brands and a particular model's place in the hierarchy, while truck grilles were comparatively bare and basic. But with trucks locked in ever-fiercer sales battles, their grilles have grown larger and more eye-catching, a modern, motorized riff on the battle shields of medieval crusaders.

After taking a hit when the economy slumped, pickup sales are on the rise again on the strength of a rebounding construction industry: Ram (previously known as Dodge Trucks) gained 49 percent in April from a year earlier, and the full-size truck sales of G.M. and Ford each rose around 24 percent.

Manufacturers are scrambling to grab larger shares of this highly profitable market with tougher, more distinctive designs.

Rugged exteriors help to hide the fact that many of today's macho-looking trucks are softies on the inside, with interiors wrapped in soft leather, decked with wood trim and buzzing with electronic gadgets.

Luxury trucks are especially hot. Ford says that about a third of its pickup sales come from the higher-end versions priced at $35,000 or more. Not long ago, a $50,000 pickup seemed unimaginable. Now the price tags on fancy trucks can rise well above $60,000.

In addition, a tough grille can obscure the fact that the power plant behind it is shrinking -- with more fuel-efficient V-6 engines replacing thirsty V-8s in many pickup trucks.

In Texas, where one-sixth of the nation's pickups are sold, and where Mr. Peters showed off his new truck to the press recently, pickups are like the standard uniform of boots and cowboy hats: they are everywhere, but they come in many styles and shapes. Greater personalization, with a variety of available faces, is the latest truck trend.

 The image of the pickup truck is firmly wrapped in American mythology. Model names read like the listings for John Wayne Week on the Turner Classic Movies channel: High Country, King Ranch, Laramie Longhorn.

Manufacturers present trucks primarily as work tools, but despite the ads featuring cowboys, farmers and construction workers, more and more trucks are being used partly -- or mostly -- as family vehicles.

"There's a lot of diversity in the customer range," said Joe Dehner, chief exterior designer for Ram and Dodge. In addition to working trucks, he said, "we also get the 'air haulers,' which means they don't necessarily carry something."

For decades, trucks looked like basic metal boxes. Then Dodge offered up a bold new look for its Ram for the 1994 model year. Under Tom Gale, then the design chief for Chrysler, the pickup added a touch of fantasy to the utilitarian box. With its arched grille and raised hood, the Ram resembled the cab of a mighty 18-wheeler.

Today's Ram designers call it "the big-rig look," said Mr. Dehner. "We own that."

But pickups from other manufacturers began to show the Ram's influence as their designers visually separated the hood and fenders and raised the grille above the headlights.

For the 2014 Chevy Silverado, which will arrive in showrooms soon, Mr. Peters has revised a familiar look. Bolder elements surround its traditional so-called dual port grille. Mr. Peters said, "It looks tougher because it is taller and wider and sports a new single-piece bumper that emphasizes its horizontality." He said that drivers want trucks "to be purposeful, capable, durable, with an aggressive appearance saying that they can take the punches of everyday life on the farm or job."

The perennial best-selling pickup, the Ford F-150, was last redesigned for 2009. But today's F-150 wears many faces: depending on the model or trim level, the grille has multiple small bars or large planks of chrome along with different shapes and colors of meshlike patterns.

The Atlas concept truck, unveiled in January at the Detroit auto show, appears to borrow the muscular look of Ford's Super Duty line of larger, more powerful pickups. The Atlas is believed to foreshadow the design of the next-generation F-150, expected next year.

The face of the Atlas adds vertical elements to the horizontal bars of the current F-150. The grille's frame forms a shape that suggests the nostrils of a bull.

Toyota's new design for its big Tundra truck, first displayed at the Chicago auto show in February, was devised at the Calty design studio in California. The Tundra's grille frame has also been enlarged and its designers, too, use words like bold, chiseled and tough.

In one sign of how much truck grilles have grown, the Nissan Titan's, which seemed notably aggressive when the truck made its debut as a 2004 model, looks relatively undersized in comparison with the newer designs of its rivals.

Grilles play a critical role in differentiating the many submodels and trim levels of today's trucks. "It is almost mind-boggling how complex the choices have become," Mr. Peters said.

Ford offers a huge choice of variants with its F-150, visually distinguishing a range from base models to King Ranch and Harley-Davidson editions, Special and Platinum luxury versions and the high-performance SVT Raptor, with huge letters molded into a black front end that Ford calls a "brick wall grille."

Mr. Dehner, the Ram designer, said: "There has been an explosion of different textures and finishes, not just in the grilles but with colors, wheels and trim packages. People want their vehicle to be customizable. It goes from the country to the urban cowboy and, if you will, the city slicker type. We want to be specific to their needs."

The Ram 1500 comes in nine trim levels and offers four basic types of grille mesh. There is a "hex-link" design on the Tradesman, Express and SLT models, with six-sided cells that provide "the metaphor of the bolt head," Mr. Dehner said. The upscale Laramie has a similar "hex-perf" grille, in chrome.

Then there are two versions of "billet-perf" on the Big Horn and Sport. "It goes with a monochromatic look, big wheels, a hot-rod look," he said.

The top-of-the-line Laramie Longhorn offers "wave-mesh" texture, a diamond wire pattern that dates to sports cars of the 1920s. "It is an adaptation of the wire mesh grilles on upscale sport utilities," Mr. Dehner said.

Aerodynamics, surprisingly, may be behind some of the rugged, angular faces of trucks. As boxy as they look, all the trucks are carefully tested in wind tunnels. The fist in the wind must be streamlined: Chevrolet says it has cut aerodynamic drag by 5 percent from the previous Silverado.

"Sometimes the design goes against what you assume is good for aero," said Gordon Platto of Ford, who directed the design of the Atlas concept truck. Crisp, clean lines on the sides and rear of a truck reduce drag. But in front, the Atlas has adjustable grille shutters, which close at higher speeds to reduce drag. The Ram trucks already have such a system, as do some passenger cars.

Ford engineers and designers have also devised a lower air dam for the Atlas as well as wheel-well shutters to direct air under the truck to reduce drag.

For all their work, designers can be frustrated. The Ram designers are proud that they have increased their share of the market, but they also admit that they keep running up against the limits of design to entice new customers.

Truck buyers are famously loyal to their brands. Many Ford owners would no sooner jump to Chevy or Ram than change their political parties or shift their football allegiance from the Oklahoma Sooners to the Texas Longhorns.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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