Pickup Truck Demand Rides High

By Tom Berg, Truck Editor | April 25, 2016

The excitement continues as businesses and consumers keep buying pickup trucks at a fast pace. Sales have been bolstered by low fuel prices that followed the plunge in petroleum fortunes, pent-up demand from those who held off during the recession and the slow recovery, and by continued improvements that make the products more desirable. Anyone needing or wanting a truck for hauling or transportation has a wide choice of vehicles and equipment. Of course the American Big Three brands are leading the way.

“Sales have been really strong the last couple of years, really strong for commercial,” said John Schwegman, director of commercial products for General Motors Fleet. It’s due to “the strength of the market and performance of some of our great products, the launch of our full-size trucks. And the new mid-size pickups have been an absolute home run. We’ve been able to outpace the market and have been able to grow market share in commercial.” Half the sales are due to economic conditions and GM’s “incremental performance,” and half from pent-up demand.

“The average age for trucks used to be seven, eight years, and that age is running 11 years now,” he said. “They’re long-lasting and dependable, sure, but they were also hung onto during the recession. Fuel prices are helping: $1.30 to $1.75 per gallon for gasoline” in some locales influences people’s decisions on what to buy. Prices are now moving upward in some areas, but whether that’s short term or a long-term trend remains to be seen.

“Larger fleets track total cost of ownership,” Schwegman said. “Smaller fleets focus on acquisition. Used prices will influence trade cycles, and [we’ve] had some customers that have shortened their cycles because of that. Others stay with two to five years.”

Dave Sowers, head of marketing for Ram Truck, likewise sees economic prosperity as the underlying reason for healthy sales. But he credits his trucks’ features as being responsible for a steady rise in market share, as well.

“Although the phrase ‘right-sizing’ is used a lot in the fleet world, it could be modified as ‘purchasing to capability,’” Sowers said. “Many of our capabilities are allowing customers to do more with their trucks or to right-size their purchases and be more efficient in their work. Also, the upfitter has a stronger voice since they often make suggestions on the base truck. Less initial modification to fit means greater durability for Ram and the upfitter.”

As many as three-quarters of Ram Heavy Duty pickups use diesel power “due to the strength of the Cummins power train,” he said. But the 6.4-liter Hemi gasoline V-8 has been well accepted in applications such as snow plowing. Ram remains the only maker to offer a diesel in half-ton pickups, and although the EcoDiesel option is chosen by 15 to 18 percent of buyers, demand is still difficult to keep up with. On heavier chassis-cab models, a new option for a power take-off mount, on the left side as well as the right side of transmissions, makes installing some bodies and equipment more convenient and efficient. 

“For pickups of all series, sales are going great,” said Mike Levine, spokesman for Ford Truck. “It’s been the best March since 2007, and it’s up 9 percent over last year. [How long it will last] will depend on how much fuel prices would rise, but if you need a truck, you need a truck.”

Mark Niemuth, senior manager for commercial vehicle sales at Nissan North America, said van sales, for which he’s primarily responsible, are exceptionally strong.

“Pickups are on fire as well, and have been on fire,” he said. “How much is cheap gas and how much is the market, the strong economy, low unemployment, and how much is product, is a good question. But if you’re in business and you’re not making money at this point, you’re not going to.”

Nissan’s Cummins-powered Titan XD pickup is taking off as planned, according to spokesman Phil Lienert.

“Nissan is slowly ramping up sales of Titan XD. All 1,075 dealers have received at least one vehicle, and we are in the process of expanding their allotments,” he said. “We don’t have a clear picture of what sorts of customers are buying XD beyond the fact that they are predominantly male and opting for the higher trim levels.”

The XD, for eXtra Duty, includes a 5/8-ton chassis, between traditional 1/2- and 3/4-ton models, and Cummins’ 5-liter ISV5.0 diesel V-8, mated to an Aisin 6-speed automatic transmission. Both components are built in Indiana, and the truck itself is assembled in Mississippi, which makes the truck rather American. (Cummins had hoped to sell the ISV5.0 to other truck manufacturers, but that hasn’t happened. It took a substantial write down against the unanticipated lower volume and the expensive facilities where it’s built.)

In March, Nissan showed the gasoline-powered version of the XD at the New York Auto Show. It uses an advanced Endurance 5.6-liter V-8 (which will be standard in the revised half-ton Titan that is due out this summer). The gas-powered XD will be priced about $10,000 less than the diesel, but will deliver 30 percent less fuel economy. That shouldn’t be a problem unless gasoline prices soar.

At Ford, the F-150 and Super Duty pickups, both with aluminum cabs and beds, are selling well to fleets as well as individuals for dual-purpose, work and personal use, Mike Levine said. Fears over where to have aluminum panels and structures repaired evidently turned into a non-issue. Dual-use is the big reason for high sales of the F-150 SuperCrew cab style, as much as 75 percent of all light-duty purchases. The 5-liter V-8 engine now goes into 30 percent of F-150s, and 70 percent have various V-6s: 2.7- and 3.5-liter double-turbocharged EcoBoost models and a 3.5 non-turbo. For 2017, a start-stop function will be standard on both EcoBoost V-6s.

The single most popular Super Duty model is the F-250 Crew Cab, and two-thirds of those are diesel-powered. That’s because 90 percent of customers tow regularly, marketers estimate. The gasoline engine on the F-250 and 350 is the 6.2-liter V-8, which will have a more capable TorqShift-G transmission for 2017. All Ford trucks now have automatic transmissions, all the way up to the medium-duty F-650 and F-750. There is virtually no demand for a manual gearbox, and “an automatic today is more efficient than a manual,” Levine said.

All-automatic is also the rule for most competitors’ full-size pickups, including General Motors. Chevrolet and GMC Silverado and Sierra pickups now have 6-speed automatics and will soon move to 8-speeds at “a nominal cost increase,” said Schwegman. GM also sees high demand for crewcabs, which now comprise 65 percent of sales, “and it grows three or four points per year.”

For a while, GM actively promoted gasoline power against diesel, and cheap gas and lower purchase price still make it a sensible choice. Yet “diesel buyers tend to be very tried and true,” Schwegman said. “And resale value has been better because of its durability and long life.”

The 6.6-liter DuraMax diesel V-8 has earned a strong reputation, and GM extended the name to a 2.8-liter inline 4 (available with an automatic or 6-speed manual gearbox) that is going into Canyon and Colorado pickups, though at a 10 to 15 percent rate, with inline-4 and V-6 gasoline engines taking the big majority of sales. Those mid-size pickups themselves are fast sellers, and “customer demand is outpacing our ability to produce them.”

‘Best-in-class’

Big numbers equal bragging rights and, often, the ability to perform actual tasks. For several years, Ford and Ram have been skirmishing over “best-in-class” claims regarding horsepower and torque, fuel economy, payload, and towing capacity. And leap frogging with numbers has been going on for more than 15 years. An example: Last year Ford boosted output of one of its PowerStroke diesel versions to 860 lb.-ft., and Ram followed with a 900-lb.-ft. rating on its Cummins Turbo Diesel. A person would need a score card to accurately compare the numbers versus exactly what models and weight classes each set represents. Certainly some deals are done using the various published figures, but it is likely that most folks choose their trucks based on features usable every day, along with effective dealer support and factory backing for commercial users.

Shifts in market-share percentages indicate that many “conquest” sales are made, but brand loyalty still counts for a lot. Nissan and Toyota have found that to be painfully true, because as good and as American as their full-size Titan and Tundra pickups are, they have not made much progress against the Big Three. Their Frontier and Tacoma smaller pickups, however, have gained faithful followers due to the trucks’ handy size and proven reliability and longevity. Ford’s Ranger, General Motors’ Chevy S-10 and GMC S-15, and Dodge’s Dakota compact and mid-size pickups competed strongly for a long while, but the Big Three abandoned the market when it began shrinking. Now GM is back, and Ford reportedly has decided to reintroduce its Ranger to this market as a 2019 model. Will others follow?

Alternative fuels

Cheap gasoline and diesel have caused demand for natural gas and propane to plateau. But Ford and GM still offer gasoline engines with hardened valves and valve seats capable of burning the drier fuels, and have arrangements with upfitters to install conversion packages, including tanks and fuel systems. Ram offers a factory-installed natural-gas package on an expanded list of 2500 HD pickups, but no propane (aka liquefied petroleum gas) option. Of course, a slew of aftermarket propane and gas kits are available for many of the Big Three’s gasoline engines.

“We think there will always be a market for CNG and LPG,” said Schwegman. “Certain customers will always stay with it, and the infrastructure (of fueling stations) is growing slowly.”

High-tech options abound on most pickup models, from increasingly capable and complex infotainment systems to remote tracking and maintenance-management abilities. For instance, GM has expanded its long-running OnStar to monitor engine functions and tire pressure, and, of course, notify the authorities if a truck seriously collides with something. Ram’s base-model pickups include a comparatively simple AM-FM-CD radio that includes Blue Tooth connectivity. Some features help with driving:

Ford has a ProTrailer Back-up Assist option coming for the F-150 that claims to help a driver, well, back a trailer like a pro. If you can’t do that now, soon you will.

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