The dawn of self-driving cars might have been the focus of last week's CES tech extravaganza in Las Vegas, but this week in Detroit it's all about the trucks that Americans are buying today and which generate the profits that fund tomorrow's innovations.
Americans love their pickups, and the truck leaders are giving them plenty to salivate over at this year's North American International Auto Show, opening to the public on Jan. 20. Chevrolet has a new Silverado pickup, Fiat Chrysler has a new Ram 1500, and Ford is bringing its mid-sized Ranger pickup back to North America.
It's rare that Detroit's auto giants all have important truck launches at the same time, which means there's plenty of bravado and bluster going on during this week's press preview.
With the new Silverado, on sale in the second half of this year, General Motors is launching the pickup truck it probably wanted to build a decade ago. But after emerging from bankruptcy in 2009, GM couldn't afford big investments so it decided to forego a complete re-engineering of its bread-and-butter vehicles and instead slapped a new front end on its existing trucks. GM paid a price, however, losing market share to rivals like Ford, which in 2015 overhauled its top-selling F-series pickups with all-new aluminum bodies.
Now GM is back with a vengeance. The new Silverado, available in eight trim levels, features a bolder design and will be more efficient, thanks to the clever use of lighter weight materials (not all-aluminum) and upgraded powertrains with features like dynamic skip-fire that can shut off up to seven cylinders on a V8 engine. GM executives are keen to point out that the Silverado's cargo bed is still made of steel, unlike Ford's aluminum bed, which GM literally poked holes in with a series of controversial ads.
“The working end of every pickup is the bed. It’s like the head of a good hammer, it’s the end that does all the work,” Mark Reuss, GM’s executive vice president of global product development, told reporters. “I don’t think we’d get much work done with an aluminum hammer,” Reuss said, unable to resist taking another dig at the competition. It's worth noting that while Silverado’s frame-rail chassis also remains steel, the truck’s hood, doors, and tailgate are made of aluminum.
A new 3.0-liter V-6 diesel option is among six powertrain choices in the new Silverado, and Reuss, without getting specific, boasted that it would outperform Ford's recently announced 30-mpg diesel in the F-150.
2019 Ram 1500
Chevy and Ford aren't the only full-size trucks in town, though. FCA's Ram also gets a major makeover, with a sleeker, more modern exterior design and improved performance, including 12,750 pounds of towing capability and 2,300 pounds of payload.
As Forbes contributor Sam Abuelsamid notes, the really big news lies under the hood with the addition of a 48-volt mild-hybrid system as standard equipment on its 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 and 5.7-liter HEMI V8 engines. Ram also added features that boost aerodynamics and improve efficiency like active grille shutters, air dam, and air suspension.
Other stand-out features include its huge 12-inch touchscreen and massive center console with 12 different storage configurations. FCA says the Ram also comes with "the most powerful audio system ever available in a pickup" -- a Harman Kardon audio system with 19 premium speakers, 900-watt surround sound amplifier, 10-inch subwoofer and active noise cancellation.
Pickup owners are a loyal bunch, with 29 percent saying they wouldn't switch brands due to a significant price increase, according to a recent survey by CarGurus. But some owners are more price sensitive than others. The same survey found that 42 percent of truck owners would switch brands if the price increased by $5,000.
As full-size pickup prices have climbed higher, the market for more affordable, mid-sized trucks has grown. GM proved there was untapped demand for smaller trucks with its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups, which sold a combined 145,102 units in 2017. The Toyota Tacoma remains the market leader with 198,125 units sold.
Ford initially dismissed GM's strategy but is now trying to catch up by bringing the Ranger back to North America, pitching it as the right truck for young urban dwellers with an adventurous side.
2019 Ford Ranger
"Ranger has always held a special place in the hearts of truck fans,” said Hau Thai-Tang, Ford executive vice president, Product Development and Purchasing. “The all-new Ranger is designed for today’s midsize truck buyer, delivering even more utility, capability and technology for those who blend city living with more off-the-grid adventures on weekends.”
The FX4 Off-Road Package even includes a new technology called Trail Control which operates like cruise control for the highway but is designed for low-speed, rugged terrain. It takes over acceleration and braking on off-road courses so the driver only has to focus on steering.
The emphasis on new trucks at the show is a reminder that bread-and-butter models like pickups still rule the industry, generating the profits that enable companies to invest in far-off technologies like self-driving cars.