Uncertain economic times caused by the Recession of 2008 put the full-size-pickup market’s future in doubt, but truck sales have made a strong comeback. A decade of building more-sophisticated pickups has resulted in wider customer appeal and the emergence of luxury models as the hottest sellers.
Contributing to high-end-pickup demand is a trend in which owners of premium sedans and crossovers are trading their vehicles for luxury trucks. Edmunds reports a General Motors’ trade-in rate of 15 percent for GMC Sierra and 9 percent for Chevrolet Silverado. Its research has the Ford F-150 at 13 percent and Ram 1500 at 9 percent.
Jim Morrison, head of Ram Brand, says top-line Ram Limited and Longhorn models are “two of our fastest-selling trucks.” Morrison credits a surge in pickup technology and increased passenger comfort for the rise in premium truck sales. In the past, pickup owners used trucks for towing and hauling, and then parked them and drove sedans for everyday use.
“They didn’t want to live with the harsh ride, no space, no technology and no luxury,” he says, but that has changed because pickups have grown more sophisticated over the years. “Now they can drive them every day. They’ve gone from having two vehicles, a car and truck, to just a truck. You don’t have to worry about crawling in anymore, it has power steps. You can use the air suspension, you can lower the truck, and get in and out of it with a skirt or long dress on. You can put the Limited’s interior toe to toe with anything in the marketplace.”
Consumers aren’t compromising anything with a pickup, and it offers the pluses of towing and hauling, says Shad Balch, a spokesman for Chevrolet.
“They choose more features and creature comforts than the basic work truck. We are finding that our higher-volume trucks are the higher-end marques, whether it be the LTZ or the High Country, those are doing really well. The High Country is selling as fast as we can build them.”
Luxury truck buyers demand high-tech
All technologies that consumers demand in luxury cars and crossover vehicles are put into Chevrolet’s top-end pickups, Balch says. “All of the trucks have a Wi-Fi hotspot. They have the ability to run Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. They have all of the safety features, and the ride and handling. You ride in a truck these days and it’s like driving a stick of butter – it’s very comfortable.”
Another factor bringing modern truck character more in line with passenger cars is the shrinking disparity in fuel economy, he says. A catalyst for manufacturers to build fuel-efficient engines was the Obama administration’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that called for automakers to “increase fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks by model-year 2025.”
Chevy’s contribution to the new era of fuel-miserly trucks are capable small-displacement engines such as the new-for-2019 2.7-liter four-cylinder. Standard on the new RST model, it delivers added quickness and 22 percent more torque than the 4.3-liter V-6 it replaces. Its fuel economy is a car-like 21 mpg city/highway combined.
In 2008, a four-cylinder engine powering a full-size pickup wasn’t feasible, and potent, fuel-efficient V-6s such as Ford’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost weren’t quite ripe for the market. Traditional fuel-guzzling V-8s were the dominant choice for a serious work vehicle. Today, V-6s in full-size pickups providing 20-plus mpg city/highway combined are commonplace. Ford’s 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6 has a 22-mpg combined rating and Ram’s 3.6-liter V-6 boosted with eTorque mild-hybrid technology posts 22-mpg combined.
Fuel economy, drivability pumps up demand
Adding extra gears in automatic transmissions contribute to fuel economy, smooth operation and increased drivability. Ford leads the pack with a 10-speed transmission, Ram and GM pickups have eight speeds, Nissan pairs its Titan and Titan XD engines with a seven-speed, and Toyota’s Tundra is fitted with a six-speed transmission.
Clattering heavy-duty-truck diesels of the past were another factor preventing pickups from being regarded as civilized transportation. Today’s diesels produce minimal noise and are available in midsize, half-ton and five-eighths-ton pickups. The “five-eighths-ton” designation is given to Nissan’s premium Titan XD models with the Cummins 5.0-liter turbo-diesel engine. Great strides in engineering, including dual overhead camshafts and use of high-grade materials contribute to the engine’s low noise, vibration and harshness characteristics.
Ford contends it was preparing for a future with a demand for luxury pickups back in 2001 with the offering of its King Ranch model. Early on, Ford reports, it identified changing consumer preferences among truck customers who were increasingly using their vehicle to do more than towing and hauling; customers also were using their trucks for their family and lifestyle needs.
Another key ingredient in the success of luxury pickups, once reserved for luxury sedans and sports cars, is prestige. Buyers of Ford’s top-end F-150 Limited “create their own success,” says Todd Eckert, Ford truck group marketing manager. “The truck is their reward.”
Morrison doesn’t foresee a time when the demand for luxury pickups declines. “I don’t see that ending,” he says. “With the confidence in America, and the people really using their trucks to show that they’ve succeeded a little bit, too. From that perspective it’s a really good way to spend your money.”