Big pickups rumble back, with wide appeal

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Forget fuel economy.

When new heavy-duty pickups from Chevrolet and Ford trundled into the State Fair of Texas, they flattened the grass and rattled Big Tex, the 55-foot icon of the fair.

Both bruisers represent the dramatically different worlds shaping the auto industry today.

On the car and crossover side, manufacturers spend billions of dollars to increase fuel economy, employing hybrid and diesel powertrains, shedding weight and downsizing their gas engines.

In that world, consumers expect a minimum of 30 miles per gallon and the government wants 50 or more.

Trucks, meanwhile, just get taller, wider and burlier, able to haul and tow loads that once required commercial licenses.

They also keep moving upscale beyond their blue-collar roots, appealing to affluent buyers who use them to tow their big toys.

"Downsizing, even today, is hard to imagine in that segment," said Alec Gutierrez, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

Seven-thousand-pound heavy-duty pickups -- some of which average only 10 or 12 miles per gallon in town -- don't even post fuel economy numbers because they're exempt from federal standards.

And their sales just keep growing, up at least 20 percent through August and strongly outpacing the industry as a whole. The Detroit Three are the only builders of heavy-duty pickups.

"We knew pickup truck sales would come back as the economy and the housing industry improved, but they have grown much more rapidly than we had anticipated," Mr. Gutierrez said.

Heavy-duty pickups are more profitable than any other vehicle and account for about 25 percent of total pickup sales.

"The average transaction price for a new car is $31,500," said Mr. Gutierrez. "The transaction price for a light-duty truck is about $40,000 and more than that on heavy-duty trucks."

Although advertising typically shows the beasts slewing through muddy construction sites while towing enormous trailers, at least half of heavy-duty pickups are bought by recreational and more casual users.

Heavy-duty pickups are slightly larger than regular light-duty trucks, with stiffer, beefier frames, stronger brakes and optional diesel engines. They can cost $50,000 or more and tow 15,000 pounds without breaking a sweat.

"The only reason you come into this [heavy-duty] segment is to tow," said Lloyd Biermann, marketing manager for Chevy trucks.

In consumer surveys, buyers say towing is their highest priority in a heavy-duty truck.

"Fuel economy did not show up in the top six [characteristics] that people want in a heavy-duty pickup," Mr. Biermann said.

"If 50 percent of our buyers use their trucks for recreation, why not provide them with better features and a more comfortable ride?" said Mr. Biermann.

Doug Scott, truck group marketing manager at Ford, thinks total pickup sales in the U.S. may approach 2 million this year, a milestone that many in the industry doubted pickups would ever see again.

At their peak prior to the recession, full-size pickups recorded 2.4 million sales, plummeting steeply to 1.1 million in 2009.

"We did not expect this rapid of a recovery," Mr. Scott said. "No one did. But it's a good problem to have."


First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM


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