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2018 Detroit Auto Show Marks the Start of the Year of the Truck

A look at FCA, Ford, and GMs new heavy artillery

DETROIT, Michigan—This is war. All-out vehicular Armageddon, the Chevrolet Silverado going toe-to-toe with the Ram 1500 going toe-to-toe with just about everything Ford has got, including a new diesel F-150 and Ranger midsize pickup.

As automakers downplay Monday and Tuesday press conferences in favor of pre-show unveilings, like the 2019 Chevy Silverado Saturday night, the importance of these money makers can't be overemphasized.

After General Motors' and Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcies, truck market share sank to 11 percent of U.S. industry sales, which itself was down about one-third from its peak a few years earlier. Analysts, journalists, and even the automakers themselves spoke of how the Detroit Three could no longer count on these trucks, with their relatively cheap body-on-frame construction, to fund the rest of the industry. The new reality was that automakers must learn to make profits on small cars without relying on pickups. As trucks began to regain their market mojo, compact and midsize sport/utilities became the relatively efficient replacement for the midsize sedan for most consumers.

Still, these old-fashioned large pickup trucks are the real story. As the U.S. auto industry quickly began to recover in the early '10s, pickup truck market share regained its historical market share of about 14 percent. Last year though, pickup truck sales, including Honda Ridgeline, totaled 2,822,883 by my count, which is roughly 16 percent of the calendar '17 market.

Toyota figures trucks and SUVs now account for a full two-thirds of the U.S. market, and Ford crowed about selling a lot more sport/utilities last year, though its SUV sales including Lincoln models totaled 867,909. Meanwhile, Ford F-Series outsold everything from Escape to Navigator by 28,855 units.

Pickup trucks, clearly, cannot be ignored.

And yet they hardly fulfill Automobile Magazine's No Boring Cars credo. Even if you throw in the Ford Raptor, Chevy Colorado ZR2, and Ram Rebel, and maybe, the Honda Ridgeline, these hardly mean anything in the big, trucking scheme of things. So it's best to think of these modern marvels of the wide, open road (try to avoid parking one downtown) as the type of thing you might buy to haul your SCCA racer, and its parts. Or as the kind of money maker that make the business cases for cars like the mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette (no, it's not going to premiere at NAIAS '18), Ford Mustang GT, Dodge Challenger Demon, etc.

Here's a closer look at what's premiering at NAIAS '18, and why you should care.

2019 Ford Ranger
Probably the most Automobile pickup truck in this year's crop, the new Ford Ranger nevertheless seems to take a cautious approach to the growing U.S. midsize truck market. While the chief competition—Toyota Tacoma, Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon, and Nissan Frontier—offers multiple engine choices with four- and six-cylinder and even diesel, the Ranger returns to our market only with the Mustang's 2.3-liter EcoBoost turbo four and 10-speed automatic.

It will be offered early next year, when it goes on sale, with the FX4 Off-Road Package, Terrain Management System and an available locking rear axle, for weekend warriors who escape the city for off-road pursuits. It's more of a lifestyle truck designed to contrast with the bigger F-Series trucks that serve consumers from work crews to well-heeled ranchers to suburban cowboys.

There are only three trim levels, though, with the Ford Ranger Lariat topping the range. If it makes a successful dent in the midsize truck market—the Ranger, Tacoma, and Colorado are now about the size of F-150s, Tundras, and Silverados a few generations ago—it would seem Ford would want to quickly expand the range, with engine options and more trim levels. Toyota Tacoma was the segment's bestseller last year with 198,124 sold, easily topping the 158,385 Ford Focuses built in the Wayne, Michigan assembly plant that's being retooled for the Ranger and 2020 Bronco.

2019 Chevrolet Silverado
This truck is such a big deal for GM that Chevy gave stingy details on just three of its six planned powertrains. The three revealed are the 6.2-liter V-8 with a 10-speed automatic, the 5.3-liter V-8 with no transmission specified and a new 3.0-liter inline turbodiesel-six with the 10-speed. The V-8s will have a new "dynamic fuel management" system that can shut down from one to seven cylinders, specific to the load needs.

We hear the 4.3-liter V-6 is coming back, though it may be a short-termer in this truck if the DFM V-8s prove to be more efficient. There's also a mild-hybrid version of the 5.3 V-8 coming and, more importantly, a 2.7-liter twin-turbo inline-four—not a boxer engine, as once rumored.

The new Chevy Silverado's wheelbase grows by four inches, with overall length up just 1.5 inches thanks to a shorter front overhang, and ride height is up one inch. Weight has been reduced by 450 pounds, GM President Mark Reuss says, thanks to a combo of lighter powertrains, composite material springs and a "mixed material" strategy that uses the automaker's patented welding technology to attach aluminum body panels on to a steel structure, including a steel bed.

Description of that strategy came under some criticism on Twitter, where pundits called out Chevrolet's TV commercial showing the Ford F-150's aluminum bed being damaged in a demonstration where a tool box was dropped inside it, though the commercial actually made the case for this mixed-use strategy. Though Reuss declined to specify how the new Silverado's weight would compare with the all-aluminum F-150's, based on the '18 Chevy's spec sheet, the '19 Chevy would weigh in at a very competitive 4,250 to 4,850 pounds.

Of the eight trim levels described in the Chevy Silverado's unveiling, two standouts are the top-spec High Country and the new LT Trailboss, the chrome-free, blacked out truck revealed in Texas late last year. It's a Silverado Z71 performance off-road package with a two-inch lift.

While Chevy brass touted the new Silverado's interior upgrades, though, the interior of the High Country model on display was somewhat underwhelming. It's as well-appointed as you'd expect from a modern top-trim truck, but it wasn't a standout amongst the competition from Ford and Ram.

Chevrolet will dribble out more information, including the other three powertrains, over the next nine months or so leading to the 2019 Chevy Silverado's on-sale date, and a new GMC Sierra, which GM says will be more distinct than ever from its corporate sibling, will be revealed probably by late spring.

2019 Ram 1500
Fiat Chrysler's popular truck brand is the first to announce a 48-volt system. It will come standard with the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, which presumably will become a more dominant engine in the big rigs. It will be optional with the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8.

Up from under the hood, the 2019 Ram 1500 is a very appealing design. Like GM's designers, Fiat Chrysler's sought to recapture a sort of golden age for pickup design, which was the '50s, '60s and early '70s for Chevy and GMC, and 1994 with the breakout Dodge Ram.

Like Chevrolet, Ram expanded the use of aluminum, mostly in this case in the chassis and coil-sprung independent rear suspension, though it's not quite as extensive as GM's "mixed materials" philosophy.

The '19 Ram 1500 gains four inches in length, all added within the wheelbase, including one-inch longer rear doors. It's one inch taller, and half an inch wider. Weight is reduced by about 275 pounds.

Like the Chevy and Ford, the new Ram comes in every possible trim level, from conventional cab work truck to Montana rancher-style Limited crew cab. The new Ram 1500 has remote power to lower the tailgate with the key fob, though the new Chevy Silverado's tailgate can be raised or lowered with the key fob. I'm sure Ram (and Ford) are working on matching Chevy, as we speak.

And so…

With new entries from Chevrolet, Ram, and soon, GMC, the segment's market share is likely to get only stronger. Nissan has made an effort with its latest Titan, while an all-new Toyota Tundra isn't expected any earlier than the 2021 model year. Both Nissan and Toyota sell far more of their midsize trucks than the full-size trucks, anyway.

Chevrolet has a new entry strong enough to help the brand achieve its goal of clawing its way ahead of Toyota and even Ford, the latter of which is America's favorite brand mostly because of its F-Series sales.

The Ford Ranger is the truck to watch, however, and along with its rivals predicts a future in which American consumers buy a brand's monthly service rather than a specific car. The Ford Ranger (and Chevy Colorado or Toyota Tacoma) is the model you'll reserve on weekends instead of the Mustang or Camaro or 86 because you're moving into a new apartment, or you want to go fishing or mountain biking.

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