When you think of luxury vehicles, there aren’t many people who think of pickup trucks. But the fact is that the rising prices of these ultimately practical vehicles has created a new American status symbol that fewer people can afford. Still, there’s a kind of cool to driving to Lowe’s, Home Depot, or even Nordstrom’s with a big, shiny crew cab pickup, aggressive all-terrain tires, and jazzed up alloy wheels.
You see women in hip-hugging jeans stepping out of them in Malibu and lugging paintings in and out of art galleries in Manhattan. You see soccer moms and dads everywhere carrying both team members and equipment together on the same trip. Military people often buy pickups because, with the mobility required of service people, they can throw much of what they own into the back and get rolling. While the pickup truck market yet has room to grow as more and more people realize the inherent value in owning one, drivers who rely on them for making a living are driven to carry housing mortgage sized finance contracts or go to the used car market.
My own luxury pickup is a 2004 Ford F-150 4 x 4 in the basic package. It has no carpeting, just rubber mats, and I crank the windows up and down by hand. If there’s anything annoying about it, it’s that the large side-view mirrors are also operated by hand. This is not such a hot idea in a severe northeastern winter but cost was a consideration when I found it on a used car lot five years ago. I paid $13,000 for it, and that seemed to me a huge sum, but a far better price than any other full-size pickups I’d looked at. In the post 2008 economic crash, vehicles weren’t selling at all, cash-for-clunkers was in operation, and bigger gas-hungry vehicles were suddenly orphaned.
The old Ford turned out to be a good deal. I’d owned two smaller sized pickups, a Mazda and and Toyota, both of which seemed to chew up tie rods and ball joints. I also found that what little I saved on gas was wasted on multiple trips for garden mulch, lumber, recycling center, used furniture, new appliances, and the myriad things that come with home ownership. Another factor appealing to me regarding the F-150 was the durability of the steel frame and other parts. Considering the minefields of ruts and potholes that make even city streets seem like off-roading, did I want to drive my Porsche over those? (Hint: I wish I had a Porsche) Nor were the small sized pickups up to the type of activities I routinely engaged in.
I’m not thinking of buying a new pickup but I’m fascinated by the competition in full-size pickup trucks. I know only a few people who can afford to pay cash for them.
A quick trip to auto ad or company websites will tell you why. The base MSRP for America’s top-selling Ford F-150 pickup is $24,445 for the XL base model work truck. The starting price tag for the high end Lariat model is $37,060. If that sticker price hasn’t caused nosebleed, consider that neither price tag includes the lifestyle necessities which make pickup trucks some of the most versatile and expensive vehicles on the road — family sized crew cabs, a bigger payload, and four-wheel drive. Off-roaders with free cash flow might consider the factory tricked out F-150 SVT Raptor with a base price that begins at $44, 415. Add in some additional features and we’re nearly in exotic car country.
In terms of sales volume, the new General Motors is second in command of the American pickup truck business with its two basic lines of Chevrolet and GMC full-size pickups. GM sold 665,000 full sized Silverado and Sierra trucks compared to 763,000 sold of the Ford F-150 Series trucks, according to today’s Wall Street Journal.
The popularity of big pickups is ironic in an environment in which the Obama administration has pushed for smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. However much regulation flows from government bureaucrat wishful thinking, people in the building trades are not much inclined to hit the job site, the quarry, the lumber yard, the recycling center, or the city dump in a Smart Car.
It’s just the way it really is. People can pretend otherwise, but the full-size pickup is here to stay. The challenge for auto makers is to continue to assure profitability by manufacturing them at a price where people can afford to pay for them. The car companies are right now poised at the edge of a cliff, each one dealing in a different way in weighing the regulatory challenges against the desire to stay in business.
The Italian automaker Fiat Chrysler has responded to the pickup fuel efficiency challenge with a conventional platform of steel body construction augmented with 8-speed transmissions, special axles, and diesel engines. GM initially responded by putting more effort in smaller trucks like its Colorado and Canyon lines, a move that hasn’t helped its bottom line.
GM is looking at Ford with a mix of exasperation and admiration as Ford gambles on an aluminum body F-150 (due out in 2015) which may or may not have appeal with current customers. The competition may be good for manufacturers of aluminum sheet metal like Alcoa, who suffered during the economic collapse of 2008. According to the Wall Street Journal, the demand for aluminum sheet metal is now so strong that it must be ordered years in advance.
While criticizing Ford’s aluminum body Ford F-150, GM has hedged such criticism with heavy investments in aluminum supply contracts. GM executives are pushing hard to come out with an aluminum body pickup by the year 2018.