NAIAS 2008: Pick-Up Trucks Debut Amid Green Technologies
Global Insight Perspective
Ford has taken the wraps off the heavily revised 2009 F-150 pick-up, while Chrysler has unveiled the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 as the battle for a piece of the shrinking full-size pick-up segment begins to heat up.
Both pick-ups are refinements of the previous generation, but of the two, the Ram represents a much greater improvement on the outgoing model. Better materials, assembly quality, and powertrain refinements will allow both models to remain competitive in a hotly contested albeit shrinking segment.
The full-size pick-up segment has fallen 11.1% in the past two years, a decline of over 250,000 units. Early 2008 will continue to be difficult and even more competitive, as newcomer Toyota tries to go toe-to-toe with the popular new offerings from Detroit.
The 2008 North American International Auto Show kicked off in Detroit yesterday, and taking centre stage for the morning unveilings were two of the bread-and-butter offerings for the Detroit Three automakers: the 2009 Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram 1500 pick-up trucks. Ford led the morning with the unveiling of the newest design of its best-selling pick-up, the Ford F-150. Three engines will now be offered in the new truck, a base 4.6-litre 2-valve V8, a higher output 4.6-litre 3-valve V8, and a top-line 5.4-litre 3-valve "Triton" FlexFuel V8, which can operate on E85 ethanol blend. The previous model's base V6 engine has been dropped, with Ford citing minimal sales for the V6-equipped models. The top two engines are mated to a standard six-speed automatic transmission, which will allow for an increase in fuel economy by one mile per gallon.
The new F-150 receives a host of exterior and interior upgrades, with new sheet metal and a new interior, featuring higher quality materials and a design aesthetic reminiscent of the Land Rover brand. New features will include wide availability of Ford's Sync telematics system, as well as a new compatibility with Sirius Travel Link, a subscription satellite radio service that lets customers receive real-time traffic data through their navigation system, as well as coast-to-coast live weather maps, and instant fuel price information for over 120,000 filling stations throughout the United States. A new 700-watt Sony audio system will be available, standard in higher trim levels, of which there are now seven. A new range-topping "Platinum" trim level has been added with special materials, colours, and styling to more closely resemble a luxury car. No prices have been set for any of the trucks, but the Platinum level slotting in above the previous range-topping King Ranch version is sure to be expensive.
Dodge followed along Ford's mode of thinking and chose to evolve the design of the Ram pick-up instead of reinvent it. Styling for the new Ram, always one of the truck's more polarising elements, has been smoothed out for a more streamlined look. A dramatic forward-swept grille mimics the successful styling of the Dodge Charger sedan, while more pronounced wheel arches, bumper cut-outs for the dual exhaust, and a tailgate-integrated spoiler improve the overall look. Inside, an all-new interior with vastly upgraded materials and tactile quality dramatically improves the cabin, and for the first time, a true Crew Cab model is now available. Powertrains remain similar to current offerings: unlike Ford's F-150, the base versions retain a 210-hp 3.7-litre V6 mated to a six-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic. A mid-grade 310-hp 4.7-litre V8 is offered, optional is a 5.7-litre Hemi V8 engine featuring variable valve timing and "MDS", a selective cylinder deactivation feature. The Hemi V8 is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission; no six-speed is offered. The new Hemi is 10% more powerful than the outgoing model, making 380-hp and 404 lb./ft. of torque, but is also 4% more fuel efficient thanks to the VVT and MDS. Dodge also officially announced that a light-duty Cummins-built turbodiesel would be offered in the Ram line-up "after 2009."
Inside, the new Ram features a host of revisions to keep it competitive with the new F-Series, GM's Silverado and Sierra, and Toyota's Tundra. The new interior features Dodge's new corporate steering wheel, which now comes heated. A floor-mounted automatic transmission lever is available for the first time as well, instead of the column shifter on the previous generation. The Ram will also feature first-in-segment heated and cooled seats, but the Ram's innovations are more mechanical than tactile—a new rear coil-over suspension replaces the traditional pick-up truck leaf-spring suspension found on all other competitors. "Our multi-link coil-spring setup provides advantages in ride quality and handling characteristics, but doesn't give up anything in terms of payload or trailer-towing capability," said Scott Kunselman, Chrysler vice-president of body-on-frame product team. "After all, coil-spring setups are commonly used in heavy-duty applications including semi-trailers and railroad cars."
Outlook and Implications
Full-size pick-up trucks have taken a beating in the last two years. Sales in the segment have fallen from 2.478 million units in 2005 to 2.202 million in 2007, a quarter-million unit or 11.1% decline for the big pick-ups. But despite coming out of a difficult year in 2007 which saw the segment drop by 3.1%, it still remains one of the largest segments in the world, as 2.202 million units is certainly not volume to be ignored. As such, competition is fierce, customer loyalty is astonishingly high, and only a constant stream of new features, updated product, and continuous improvement will sell trucks in a difficult market. With the introduction of the new 2009 Ram and F-150, all of the players in the segment have now been refreshed in the last two years. Last year saw the introduction of the all-new Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, and Toyota Tundra; the first true Japanese full-size V8 pick-up, the Nissan Titan, also received a modest freshening. With the increasing economic headwinds seen throughout 2007 and expected for at least the first half of 2008, competition in the market is likely to be even more fierce for the coming months. In 2006, high fuel prices pushed buyers who purchased pick-up trucks as "lifestyle" transportation choices out of the market for such vehicles. In 2007, the addition of the mortgage market meltdown, even higher fuel prices, and a construction market that nose-dived in the United States caused even true pick-up buyers (those that use their vehicles primarily for work) to delay purchases.
Automakers are fighting back with increasing refinement, better fuel economy, and more features that appeal to heavy-use buyers. General Motors (GM), Ford, and Chrysler now offer ultra-deluxe luxury models, with features and materials found in luxury cars, and with prices to match. But with GM selling Sierra Denali models and Ford routinely selling Super Duty King Ranch diesel pick-ups costing upwards of US$60,000, it would seem that the upper end of the pick-up market has not yet been discovered. Capitalising on this with Ford's new Platinum trim level F-150 and Dodge's Laramie Ram will allow the companies to target buyers who use their trucks for both work and recreation.Style sells pick-ups as much as function, and the two new offerings are both high on style. Media on-hand were divided as to which model had the advantage, but all agreed that the new Ram represents a much bigger improvement upon the old model than the new F-150 does. The lack of a V6 base model (at least for now) in the F-150 raised some eyebrows, but the model is less than 5% of Ford's total vehicle volume, according to Global Insight powertrain analyst Paul Lacy. Chrysler's decision to keep the V6 in the line-up could help with a price and fuel economy advantage, but Chrysler's total lack of a six-speed transmission, even in higher trim levels, puts it at a decided disadvantage with regards to the competition, all of which now offer a six-speed (Toyota's is standard). Incentives have been selling trucks in recent months as automakers try to jockey for sales in a tight market; Dodge and Ford will be hoping to sell their new trucks on the merits of being new, but with Toyota and GM also jockeying for sales in a shrinking market, the outlook remains tough for the new players in the market.