Who has the right pickup strategy?

The Detroit Three's pickup trucks have traditionally differed from each other about as much as Sprint Cup cars do. They have evolved in lockstep to the point that even relatively minor innovations -- the "man step" in the Ford F-150 or coil rear springs in the Dodge Ram -- have drawn attention.

That's now changing, as the Detroit automakers pursue dramatically different strategies. Ram is introducing a diesel V-6. General Motors is re-entering the midsize pickup segment with the Chevrolet Colorado and the GMC Canyon. And Ford, as has been reported, well, everywhere, is building the next F-150 out of aluminum.

The biggest reason for this flurry of changes are the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy and greenhouse gas regulations for both 2012 to 2016 and 2017 to 2025. It's not just that the standards get tougher, which they do. It's that they're devilishly complicated. Whereas the old (1978 to 2011) CAFE standards had two major categories -- cars and light trucks -- the new standards also factor in size. Bigger vehicles face lower standards, smaller ones tougher standards. The difference is substantial: A truck the size of the old Ford Ranger, for instance, would need to achieve 50 mpg in 2025, versus about 32 mpg for something as big as an F-150 SuperCrew with a 6.5-foot bed. (Note these are CAFE numbers, which are higher than EPA fuel estimates).

Every single vehicle faces its own standard, calculated from its wheelbase and track. All these results are then combined in a sales- and footprint weighted average for an automaker's entire fleet. Simple, right? (If you're still confused, here's a helpful 406-page explanation from the Federal Register.)

The variability of the new standards means there's no single, prescribed way to meet them. "It's a dance, really," says Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst at IHS. The only constants for the Detroit automakers are that they want to continue selling trucks and meet the new requirements. "None of them have the option of saying, 'No, we'll just skip a year or two," Brinley says.


2015 Chevrolet Colorado (and GMC Canyon)

The thinking: The midsize trucks are much lighter (less than 4000 pounds for a rear-wheel-drive model) and feature four- and six-cylinder power. Although General Motors hasn't yet released fuel economy estimates, we can expect them to be significantly better than those of the full-size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. A diesel V-6 will arrive next year and extend that advantage. All this likely costs General Motors less than Ford is spending on the aluminum F-150—the Colorado was already being sold in other parts of the world and shares a lot of parts with the Silverado.

The caveats: Midsize trucks traditionally don't get much better fuel mileage than their full-size brethren. The 2012 GMC Canyon with rear-wheel-drive, 3.7-liter I-5 and four-speed automatic was rated 17/23 mpg, compared with 16/23 for the '14 Sierra with RWD, a 5.3-liter V-8 and six-speed automatic, for example. What's more, smaller trucks, as indicated, will face higher standards because the new requirements adjust inversely according to a vehicle's size. Of course, the new Colorado is not all that small—the extended-cab Colorado and Canyon are slightly longer than the regular cab Silverado and Sierra. What about the shorter, regular cab Colorado and Canyon, you ask? There won't be any. GM will instead offer to remove the rear-seats. That ensures a bigger footprint/lower fuel economy target.

The bigger question is whether enough people will buy the new trucks to make a difference in GM's fleet fuel economy or to its bottom line. Midsize trucks totaled fewer than 250,000 sales in 2013 -- a mere speck on the map compared with the nearly two million large pickups sold in the same period.


2014 Ram 1500

The thinking: Whereas diesels have been a tough sell in cars in the United States, neither Ram nor anyone else has had trouble convincing heavy-duty pickup truck buyers of the benefits of an oil-burner. The first light-truck diesel, the Ram 1500 Ecodiesel, carries many of those heavy-duty benefits. Its 3.0-liter V-6 has 420 lb-ft of torque and yet achieves better fuel economy than the Ram powered by a gas V-6, which gets 20 mpg combined.

The Caveats: Under the new rules, the federal government regulates not only fuel economy, but greenhouse gas emissions. Diesel fuel emits some 15 percent more C02 per gallon than gasoline. "The higher CO2 per gallon figure offsets some of the mile-per-gallon benefits," says John Kasab, chief engineer at Ricardo.


2015 Ford F-150

The thinking: A no-brainer from a CAFE perspective. The F-150 is, by far, Ford's best-selling vehicle and one of its biggest, so any fuel economy improvements to the vehicle count heavily toward the automaker's overall number. And the beauty of the aluminum body is that unlike a special model or powertrain, every F-150 Ford sells will pack the fuel economy benefits. The cascading effect of the new body -- such as the ability to use smaller engines that are themselves lighter -- should yield even more improvements.

The caveats: The cost. My colleague Todd Lassa addresses this topic thoroughly in his column for our April issue but basically: aluminum is expensive, assembling vehicles out aluminum is expensive, and repairing vehicles made out of aluminum is expensive. And although it's true that trucks enjoy a healthy profit margin, "That margin is not something anyone wants to give away," Brinley says. That's particularly true for Ford, which, lacking a thriving luxury brand, doesn't have many other cash cow vehicles.


Everyone else:

It's worth noting that although the new standards present challenges for large pickups, they may make things even more challenging for automakers who don't sell large pickups in large quantities. The big pickups dramatically increase the fleet footprint for the Detroit automakers, which, in turn, lowers their respective fuel economy targets. For comparison, the largest truck Volkswagen sells, the Touareg, has a footprint four feet smaller than that of GM's new midsize trucks. We can thus be assured we'll see more attempts from import manufacturers to crack the large-truck segment.

Eric Clark
A very interesting article. I applaud Ford for taking a pretty big gamble on the aluminum F-150. Time will tell if it was a bold masterstroke, or not.

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