Big trucks are best-sellers

Big trucks are best-sellers

Ed Henry

Chevrolet’s new Silverado aims to give Ford’s F-series pickups a run for their money.

Why are pickups so popular?

We once posed that question to a friend of ours, a former chief engineer for the American Automobile Association. “It’s the American way,” he replied. “Everyone has to have a truck at one time or another.”

Looking at the numbers, he may be right. The two best-selling vehicles for 1998 are both full-size pickups, one from Ford and the other from General Motors. Not far behind is Dodge’s Ram, which ranks sixth. American truck manufacturers sold or leased about two million full-size pickup trucks this year, cornering the market, at least for now.

We say for now because Toyota, having withdrawn its T-100 pickup from the market, is reportedly ramping up to be the first Japanese manufacturer to sell a full-size pickup truck in America.

Ever since Ford built the first pickups in 1925, the vehicles have taken on a dual role as a virtual beast of burden and the American family’s second car– personal transportation for people who put a lot of stock in their rugged image.

Despite its seemingly ordinary looks, the full-size pickup is a vehicle of many configurations. Generally three- or six-passenger vehicles, they can be purchased with two, three or four doors. You can buy a regular-cab, two-door model or choose a three- or four-door extended or crew cab model.

There are smooth-riding pickups for city and country duty, and heavy-duty pickups for hauling big loads–all of which are equipped with two-wheel drive. If you need to take your truck off-road, the manufacturers offer light and heavy-duty pickups with four-wheel drive capability.

With Toyota trying to crack the market, 1999 could be a watershed year for pickups. A lot is riding on Ford’s F-series truck. It’s the best-selling vehicle in the country, and Ford intends to keep it that way. GM, on the other hand, hopes its all-new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups will gain on Ford and cut its lead in sales. And Dodge, which seems to have cornered the market for styling with its Ram trucks, would like to see its sales numbers climb too.

Lots of choices

Most pickups come in four body styles–a two-door regular cab; a two-door extended cab; an extended cab with a third door; and a four-door crew cab. You can mix and match those cabs with several engines and six- or eight-foot beds to increase the payload–the maximum weight of cargo and passengers the vehicle can carry.

A pickup’s payload is typically half-ton, three-quarter ton or one ton. Ford’s signatures for the corresponding payload tonnage are 150, 250 and 350. General Motors and Dodge label their trucks 1500-, 2500- and 3500-series.

Half-ton trucks are the most popular. Each step up in hauling capability will add a few thousand dollars to the cost of the truck, depending on how it is equipped.

Towing capability is important for pulling a camper or boat. A truck’s towing capability is mainly a function of engine size, suspension and axle ratio. And that varies-as the table below shows–from 4,000 pounds to more than 10,000 pounds. The numbers in our table reflect the manufacturer’s maximum trallering loads. Consult a dealer for the exact towing capability of any vehicle you’re considering.

If you want a little more flair with your truck, you can bypass the regular side styling and go for a sportier look with flared rear-wheel wells. “Flareside” styling can add about $700 to $1,000 to the cost of a truck–and it usually results in a slightly narrower truck bed.

While moving up in trim level typically adds big bucks to the cost of a truck, it also adds the kinds of refinements you’d expect to see in a car. You can spend $2,000 to $3,000 each time you move to a higher trim level, adding more chrome trim, side moldings, fold-away mirrors, air-conditioning, speed control, power door locks and keyless entry.

With all those variations to choose from, you need to think carefully about what you need in a truck. Here’s what’s available this year from the Big Three American automakers.

Ford

For 1999, Ford trucks have restyled bumpers, grilles and side molding. The company claims the payload ratings of its pickups outclass those of its competitors. In other words, thanks to an improved suspension, its base two-wheel-drive pickups can carry heavier loads better.

The base engine for the F-150 is the 4.2liter V6 with 205 horsepower. Moving up to the Triton engine adds $750 for the 4.6liter, 240 horsepower V8 and $1,415 for the 5.4-liter, 260 horsepower V8. This year, Ford tweaked the 5.4-liter engine and increased its horsepower 11% and its torque another 5% to provide more getup-and-go in its half-ton vehicles.

Triton engines are part of a new family of modular engines capable of going 100,000 miles without a tune-up. Advanced sealing technology provides the Triton with durability and protection from potential damage caused by dirt and dust. If coolant is lost, the engines have a limp-home feature, which allows the driver to continue driving a short distance to obtain service.

Also new for 1999, Ford offers a tonneau cover for its trucks. The soft cover lists for about $200.

General Motors

GM touts its new pickups as bigger, stronger and faster versions of the legendary Chevy truck, with very few carryover parts. Exterior and interior changes make the vehicles more “friendly.”

The suspension, frame, engines, transmissions and brakes were all redesigned in the new models. Much attention was paid to increasing the comfort of rear-seat passengers in the large cab versions of Chevrolet’s new Silverado and GMC’s new Sierra trucks. For example, GM now routes heat to the passengers in the back, and seat belts have been redesigned so they don’t ride up on children’s necks. The trucks’ rear seats now have standard anchoring points for infant seats.

GM’s new V8 engines are reputed to be smoother, more efficient and more powerful than comparable Ford and Dodge V8s. The stronger, stiffer, yet lighter frames in the new pickups offer a quieter ride. And there is very little significant wind noise in the Silverado and Sierra models.

Dodge

The company that boasts being first off the block with extended-cab full-size pickups with four doors offers them throughout its entire 1999 lineup. “A pickup must be as stylish and passenger-friendly and comfortable as it is capable,” says Jim Julow, general manager of the Dodge division.

Dodge spiffed up the front-end design of its regular-line Ram pickup for a more athletic appearance. The 1999 Rams are also equipped with an express-down driver’s-side window, radio controls mounted on the steering column, and two types of overhead consoles (with and without trip computers). Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard on all 3500 models.

Transmission improvements to Dodge’s big Cummings Turbo Diesel have increased the horsepower for manual powertrains by almost 10% (almost 20% for automatics). Torque has been increased by about 5%. And the company raised its fuel economy by about as much.

COPYRIGHT 1999 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group