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Commercial Pickup Trucks Remain Strong

By Tom Berg, Truck Editor | April 22, 2019
Pickup truck builders report that commercial pickup truck sales are still growing.

Call it leapfrogging, one-upmanship, outdoing, or just plain competitiveness. The Big Three builders of commercially oriented pickups—FiatChrysler, Ford, and General Motors—continuously improve their products to try to make them better than the other guys’ versions. Meanwhile, the fourth player, Nissan, soldiers on with milder betterments to its vehicles while trying to attract customers’ attention. All this in a market that’s softening on the consumer side but still strong and growing among commercial customers.

“Fleet business is still growing,” says Kevin Koester, Ford’s medium-duty truck and SuperDuty fleet marketing manager. “Last year, our total SuperDuty fleet volume was record-setting for us. We’re still seeing those types of numbers in the first part of this year. It’s very strong for SuperDuty pickups and chassis-cabs. Construction and segments of industry that support infrastructure are really strong.”

John Schwegman, GM’s director, product marketing, for commercial and medium duty vehicles and mid-size pickups, says: “GM fleet sales were up 9 percent in 2018, but this has not been an overnight success. Our commercial business has grown consistently for six years. Our full-size pickups continue to be our best-selling segment for fleet.”

Dave Sowers, head of Ram commercial vehicle marketing, says: “Our sales were up 7 percent in 2018 compared to 2017, and they’re up again in January. It’s the result of investment in product,” the latest being new 1500 and Heavy Duty series.

Innovation is the norm. A small but important part of any pickup is its tailgate, and several years ago Ford gave tailgates a built-in step-and-handle system. Ram introduced a Multifunction barn-door type that folds down, as tail gates have for a century, but also opens barn-door style, in two pieces. This allows a driver to more readily reach into the bed to grab stuff, and for forklifts to move right up to the bed to load and unload palletized cargo. GMC Sierras have a MultiPro tailgate that powers up and down, then folds apart in sections, to a “load stop” that keeps cargo from sliding backwards; an “inner gate” that flips down, lets a driver stand closer to the bed, and can act as a desk; and a fold-down step that supports up to 375 pounds. For now it’s exclusive to GMC, but Chevy will probably add it later.

Safety has become more important to manufacturers and customers, and collision-mitigation systems have spread from autos to trucks. These protect people and trucks themselves, which are valuable business assets, notes Sowers at Ram. For example, adaptive cruise control helps a driver maintain a safe following distance with traffic ahead, and now with automatic braking the system will slow and stop the truck if the driver fails to apply the brakes fast enough. Forward-looking radar and cameras see what’s happening up ahead and electronically tell the system, which reacts appropriately. Side-facing cameras show a driver what’s around the vehicle, and can include a trailer.

Collisions can still occur, but impacts can be reduced. For several years, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has been crash-testing many half-ton pickups. The results show improvements in performance among Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Ram, Toyota, and Honda models. Many received Superior ratings for crashworthiness, though exact ratings varied among the types of frontal and side-impact tests. Ford announced that its F-150 won a Five Star rating overall, the only pickup to do so well. Most customers would rather not think about banging up their pickups or cars, but it’s comforting to know that most manufacturers have been improving their vehicles’ structural integrity to make crashes more survivable.

‘Torque war’ continues

With new vehicles come new engines, and these have been the subject of builders’ leapfrogging since 2000. That’s when the torque war among the Big Three’s diesels, which were continually re-engineered and tweaked to produce more output, began. Whoever offered the most torque in its diesel-powered pickups could attract buyers who wanted the means to carry and tow serious loads, or maybe just brag about their awesome engines. Torque rose to 500 and 600 lb.-ft., which in those days was pretty strong. In this period, Ford and GM introduced entirely new compression-ignition engines: the Ford-built Power Stroke V-8, which replaced the Navistar-sourced product; and the Duramax 6600 V-8, replacing a slightly smaller and much older design. Ram (then still part of the Dodge division) continued to use its Cummins Turbo Diesel, an inline 6 first introduced in 1988 that has climbed in displacement as well as output.

Regular-cab base-model trucks are still preferred by fleet buyers

Today, torque from each of those three diesels is at 800 lb.-ft. and more. In pickups, the top rating at this writing is 1,000 lb.-ft., from Ram’s Cummins Turbo Diesel. Who in the pickup truck world needs that much torque? The guys who want to keep up with fast cars while towing their boats, horse trailers, and campers, probably. They might also haul machinery and construction materials during their work weeks, and boast about their engines to buddies at job sites. Truck manufacturers’ reps like to boast, too, and it probably won’t be long before a competitor announces an even stronger diesel, and then, sooner or later, the third will leapfrog over the other two—or stand pat, reasoning that things have gone far enough—which has happened at least once before in the torque wars.

The more serious the hauling job and the business, the more likely a buyer will choose a diesel in his ¾- and 1-ton pickup. The diesel-to-gasoline split in these trucks varies with the builder, but it’s roughly 50-50. That’s lower than it was a few years ago, and several factors are responsible: the high initial cost for a diesel over a gasoline engine—$8,000 to $10,000 or so—and diesel fuel priced 50 cents to a dollar per gallon more than gasoline. Diesels’ complex anti-pollution equipment, including exhaust gas recirculation and exhaust aftertreatment apparatus, have been expensive to develop and build, and can be costly to maintain. And the durability advantage that diesels had has shrunk as gasoline engines have become stronger and longer lived, the manufacturers say. Also, gasoline engines are inherently cleaner-burning and can more easily meet stringent exhaust emissions standards, particularly in California and especially if they’ve been equipped to use propane or natural gas.

Because they watch their customers, truck builders have responded to this trend by introducing larger gasoline engines that can ably substitute for diesels. Ford has announced a new 7.3-liter V-8 that will become the standard engine in many of its 2020 SuperDuty pickups. It delivers high performance in a compact package, said Mike Pruit, chief engineer for powertrains. It uses overhead valve architecture with a cast iron block, forged steel crankshaft, and port injection with variable valve and cam timing to match performance with workloads. Ratings will be announced later, but Ford expects it to be the most powerful gas V-8 in its class. It will replace the 6.8-liter V-10 in SuperDuty pickups and heavier cab-chassis models, and will join the standard 6.2-liter gasoline V-8 in the lineup. Like other Ford gasoline engines, the new large V-8 can be ordered with a gaseous prep package that, when fitted with appropriate fuel systems, allows it to burn propane or natural gas. The 7.3 will be mated to a beefed-up 10-speed automatic transmission adapted from the F-150.

General Motors’ Chevrolet division—the designated commercial arm, with GMC as the upscale brand—will use a new 6.6-liter gasoline V-8 as the standard engine on its 2020 HD pickups. With direct injection and other advances, it will produce up to 401 horsepower and 464 lb.-ft., and run through a 6-speed Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. The new 6.6’s torque is 22 percent more than the current 6-liter gasoline engine, allowing Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra HD pickups to tow trailers weighing up to 18 percent more, the division said. Like Ford, GM also offers propane and natural gas conversions through outside partners. Meanwhile, the Duramax 6.6-liter diesel V-8, with 445 horsepower and 950 lb.-ft., pairs with a new Allison 10-speed automatic, replacing the current 6-speed. Chevy says every component between the transmission and the wheels has been upgraded to enable a 52 percent increase in maximum towing capability on certain models.

Several years ago, Ram brought out a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 to supplement the 5.7-liter Hemi, and with as much as 410 horsepower and 429 lb.-ft., it has become a useful alternative to the more expensive Cummins diesel. But the stellar reputation and strong performance of the Cummins makes it far more popular. Fully 75 percent of Ram HD buyers take the Turbo Diesel, according to Sowers. To be sure, that includes the heavier chassis-cab models. The High Output version is the one making up to 1,000 lb.-ft., along with 400 horsepower, but a lesser rating is set at 850 lb.-ft. and 370 horsepower. Ram began using a 5.9-liter Turbo Diesel in model-year 1989 when its rating was a mere 170 horsepower and 400 lb.-ft.

Nissan, which joined the pickups fray in model-year 2005 with its Titan, has a comparatively limited product range dominated by ½-ton models. But it also has a unique 5/8-ton Titan XD (for eXtra Duty) more suited for heavier uses, and available with an updated 5.6-liter gasoline V-8 and a Cummins 5-liter diesel V-8. It’s the only automotive employment for that engine, which is rated for a modest 310 horsepower and 555 lb.-ft. The Cummins mystique isn’t working here, as the Turbo-Diesel goes into only about 10 percent of Titan XDs. Yet Nissan is serious about the working end of the business, insists Fred De Perez, VP for trucks and commercial vehicles. Every year it fields a large display of Titans and vans at the National Truck Equipment Association’s Work Truck Show.

But while the public sees a lot of Nissan automobile advertising, ads for trucks are rare, apparently reflecting a limited marketing budget. Consequently, “we’re fighting to be noticed,” he says. Recently, to grab some publicity, product managers have prepared a series of specially equipped vehicles, and the latest is an Ultimate Work Titan, an XD diesel outfitted with ladder and tools storage and communications gear. It’s going to the Dallas-area Habitat for Humanity, a branch of the national home-building charity to which Nissan says it has donated 150 trucks and $16.9 million since 2005. And there’s a new accessories program with Rocky Ridge, including chassis lifts and radical trim packages that seem aimed primarily at consumers. But De Perez says that “business owners buy these trucks to advertise their businesses. We’re concentrating on life style to get our trucks out there.”

As they’ve become more popular, pickups in general have become increasingly noticeable due to extensive chrome and bright-metal embellishments, and attractive and posh interiors. But not all of them are dazzling. “Our commercial customers tend to gravitate towards our Work Truck models as well as mid-level trims such as the Silverado LT,” says GM’s Schwegman. “They provide the needed functionality while helping fleet buyers stick to their budgets. We do commonly see management and owners purchasing Denali, High Country, or LTZ models within the commercial space.” At Ford, the base XL is the typical fleet truck and Ram has the Tradesman as its equivalent.

Yet on the retail side of HD pickups, people want more. It may seem counterintuitive for work trucks to possess limo-like comfort and quietness, but “in this segment they check the boxes,” says Dave Elshoff, who heads communications for the Ram brand. Few trucks leave the factory in plain vanilla form, whether painted white or some other color. Inside they have supportive seats, rich panels, and finely detailed instruments and controls, and large color screens that are portals to electronics that provide powertrain information, navigation, and connectivity that younger buyers covet and older folks are learning to appreciate. With the Big Three, much equipment and most styling details come from previously introduced ½-ton pickups, which receive next-generation treatments before they are applied to Heavy Duty models. Can these trucks really work? Yes, they can. More power and strengthened underpinnings are yielding greater towing and payload numbers, but these, too, have been subject to leapfrogging.

Fanciness in pickups is a symptom of an ever higher standard of living for Americans, who expect more and are willing to pay for it, especially in times of prosperity, as now. Sticker prices for pickups of all sizes and weight classes have escalated, making them hugely profitable for manufacturers. So toward the end of model and sales years, a fancy pickup can be heavily discounted by $10,000 and more and still provide a margin for a dealer and the factory. There are signs, however, that consumer demand for trucks and automobiles has become satiated. Trucks and cars sit on dealer lots and in rented fields, waiting for buyers that are slower to show up. Analysts say that manufacturers have kept pumping out cars and trucks when buyers have decided that enough is enough. Let’s see where this takes us.

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