GM’s Real Truck Problem is Lack of Innovation, Not Excess Inventory

There’s been a lot of talk lately about GM’s abundance of 2012 and 2013 Silverados and Sierras. That’s by design as GM intentionally increased the supply of older trucks to compensate for the time factories must shut down to tool up for production of the 2014 model year pickups. GM’s real problem is the lack of innovation in those new 2014 trucks.

Pickup trucks have become increasingly complex and sophisticated since the crew cab entered the half-ton market in the early 2000s. Ram made huge strides in the name of comfort and convenience with the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500’s coil-spring rear suspension and RamBox bedside storage system. For 2011, Ford aggressively marketed the fuel economy benefits of the 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 engine. GM’s Silverado and Sierra are coming to market with all normally aspirated engines and virtually the same cab and bed configurations they have right now.

The V-6 and V-8 engines are revised for 2014 and they will certainly offer somewhat better power and fuel economy ratings (GM isn’t releasing any power or economy figures at this time), but it’s unlikely General Motors made enough improvements to these engines to dethrone the EcoBoost as the most technologically advanced engine available in a half-ton truck. We know there aren’t any radical suspension changes or cargo management changes that can steal the Ram’s thunder for the more lifestyle-oriented shopper. The upgrades to the 2014 half-tons would make for a decent mid-cycle refresh, but they fail to impress when the product is supposed to be all-new.

Combined market share for the Silverado and Sierra 1500 was an impressive 31% in 2008, according to IHS Automotive. By 2012, that combined market share slipped to 23.9%. Ford’s market share rose from 19.2 to 24.1% in the same period. Ram’s market share stood at 14.6% in 2008 and plummeted to 10.2% in 2010, but has been steadily climbing since and currently sits at 12.2% as the revised 2013 models arrive at dealerships. These pickups are the center of profit for each of the Detroit automakers and function as a barometer of each company’s respective financial strength. How can GM expect to gain any significant market share with these new trucks?

My father owns a 2007 GMC Sierra 1500. Quite honestly, there’s nothing in the highly-anticipated 2014 version that screams “significant upgrade” over my dad’s truck. He would prefer a six-speed automatic to his current four-speed, but there’s also an eight-speed Ram available with much more sophisticated suspension. Ford’s EcoBoost is a great compromise between the power half-ton owners want when towing and the fuel economy they want when not pulling a trailer. Perhaps GM’s V-4 mode will significantly improve fuel economy without the added complexity of a turbocharger, but I’ve never driven a truck with cylinder deactivation that showed a big benefit in the real world.

Earlier this year I bought a 2000 Chevy Silverado 2500 from a friend of the family who certainly had the means to upgrade to a newer truck years ago. He considered it a few times, but never saw enough improvement in newer pickups to justify the cost of upgrading. Based on the changes to the half-tons this year, I don’t expect the case to be any different for the heavy duties next year. The slow evolution of GM’s trucks makes it hard to justify how expensive they’ve become.

When I look at the 2014 Silverado and Sierra, I see a couple of nice trucks. What I don’t see is a breakthrough feature or risk being taken. Ford and Ram both gambled with the changes they brought to the half-ton truck game. Ram made the bigger gamble because it had the potential to gain a lot of market share. Ford, the perennial top truck seller, had to be more conservative because its formula had already proven to be a winner. GM has had years to react to both strategies and decided to stick with tradition instead of innovation. There’s nothing surprising about the 2014 GM trucks unless they turn out to be huge sales successes. I wouldn’t bet on that.

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