Winning The Truck Battle Isn't Just About Smack Talk. It's Everything

Jan 13, 2015
Originally published on January 14, 2015 4:25 am

For the Detroit automakers, there's likely no bigger prize than being the No. 1 truck. Pickups represent the lion's share of profits and the industry's recent growth.

And for more than three decades, Ford has been the king of trucks. But there are some new contenders for the throne. The North American International Auto Show kicked off in Detroit this week and crowned its 2015 North American Truck of the Year. The nominees were the Chevrolet Colorado, the Ford F-150 and the Lincoln MKC. And the winner? The Ford F-150.

For the most part, the Detroit car companies — General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler — are essentially truck companies that also sell cars.

That wasn't always the case.

"We started to see that in the '80s and '90s when the big pickups started to become lifestyle vehicles, when they replaced the sports car in terms of the ultimate expression of masculinity," says Aaron Bragman with Cars.com and PickupTrucks.com.

Bragman says American car companies turned to pickups in part because they were really good at making them. "That's really where the profit centers were, that's where their strengths were, where their engineering know-how was and that's what they focused on," he says.

Even though cars have become more important to each of the Detroit automakers, trucks are a big deal. As central as they are to profits, they pose a problem: fuel economy.

Right now each truck company is taking a gamble so it can meet the government's strict new fuel standards.

Ford

Pete Reyes is chief engineer of the Ford F-150. At Ford, that's a really important job.

"We've been the No. 1-selling full-size pickup for 37 years in a row. And we're not going to give that crown up to anybody," Reyes says.

Morgan Stanley estimates the company gets 90 percent of its profits from its F-series trucks. Ford's gamble is making the trucks' body out of aluminum.

"If you take weight out of the base rig, it can carry more and it's more productive," Reyes says. "We're thrilled that we're able to make what may appear to be a big bet but what is in reality a very proven plan or a traditional move, now in a high-volume vehicle."

General Motors

Depending on how you count, GM often beats Ford in a given month. GM's strategy in the war is to open a new front. Back when trucks were getting bigger and more butch, the Detroit car companies abandoned smaller trucks.

GM's Sandor Piszar says smaller trucks will help with fuel economy targets and winning new customers.

"The introduction of this truck I think shows our serious commitment to the truck space, because ... a lot of people have written off this segment," Piszar says. "But if you dig deeper the customers are there; they just don't have a product that's satisfying their needs."

Fiat Chrysler

Fiat Chrysler's Ram brand is pushing to make diesel available on a wide scale, and that's a big gamble.

"We all like to win," says the brand's Bob Hegbloom about the coming truck war. "We're all very competitive, so to say that we're not all out there battling and want to be the biggest and the best out there, I think anyone would be lying to you."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week, the North American International Auto Show kicks off in Detroit. It's like the auto industry's prom, Super Bowl and quinceanera rolled into one. And for Detroit automakers, there's likely no bigger prize than being the number one truck.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That's because the car companies make most of their profits on pickup trucks. For more than three decades, Ford has been the king of trucks. But there are some new contenders for the throne, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports from the Detroit Auto Show.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: It's the award season in Hollywood and Detroit. But picture of the year ain't got nothing on who wins at the truck stakes. And the nominees are...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Chevrolet Colorado.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Ford F-150.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the Lincoln MKC.

GLINTON: And the winner is...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The 2015 North American Truck of the Year is the Ford F-150.

(APPLAUSE)

GLINTON: Awards are nice. But that's not the real prize. You see, the Detroit car companies - General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler - they're essentially truck companies that also sell cars. That wasn't always the case.

AARON BRAGMAN: You started to see that in the '80s and '90s when the big pickups started to become lifestyle vehicles, when they replaced the sports car in terms of the ultimate expression of masculinity.

GLINTON: Aaron Bragman is with cars.com and more importantly for this story, pickuptrucks.com. He says the American car companies turned to pickup trucks in part because they were really good at making them.

BRAGMAN: That's really where the profit centers were. That's where their strengths were. That's where their engineering know-how was. And that's what they focused on.

GLINTON: Even though cars have become more important to each of the Detroit automakers, trucks are a big deal. As central as they are to profits, they pose a problem - fuel economy. Right now, each truck company is taking a gamble so they can meet the government's strict new fuel standards. To talk about those gambles, we're going to head over to each of the Detroit Three.

PETE REYES: We've been the number one selling full-size pickup for 37 years in a row. And we're not going to give that crown up to anybody.

GLINTON: Pete Reyes is the Ford F-150 chief engineer. At Ford, that's a really important job. Morgan Stanley estimates the company gets 90 percent of its profits from its F-series trucks. Ford's gamble is making its truck body out of aluminum.

REYES: You know, if you take weight out of the base rig, it can carry more. And it's more productive. We're thrilled that we're able to make what may appear to be a big bed, but what is, in reality, a very proven plan or a traditional move, now in a high-volume vehicle.

SANDOR PISZAR: Every month is truck month. It's game on.

GLINTON: Next step is GM. Depending on how you count, the company often beats Ford in a given month. Their strategy in the war, open a new front. Back when trucks were getting bigger and more butch, the Detroit car companies abandoned smaller trucks. GM's Sandor Piszar says smaller trucks will help with fuel economy targets and winning new customers.

PISZAR: You know, the introduction of this truck I think shows our serious commitment to the truck space - because you're right. A lot of people have written off this segment - eh, what's the point? But if you dig deeper, the customers are there. They just don't have a product that's satisfying their needs.

GLINTON: Last on the list is Ram from Fiat Chrysler. Ram's big gamble is diesel. Ram's pushing to make diesel available on a wide scale. But Ram's Bob Hegbloom had this bit of wisdom about the upcoming truck war.

BOB HEGBLOOM: We all like to win. We're all very competitive. So to say that we're not all out there battling and want to be the biggest and the best out there - you know, I think anyone would be lying to you.

GLINTON: What they earn and learn from this new breed of truck will go into your next sedan. Winning the truck battle isn't about smack talk. In Detroit, it's the whole Megillah. It's the future. From the Detroit Auto Show, Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.