Phil Floraday: A Tale of Two Trucks

It’s interesting to watch the automotive industry right now and listen to pundits harp on Detroit-based automakers for building products nobody wants to buy. Historically, the Ford F-series and Chevrolet Silverado have been among the best-selling vehicles in America, with the F-series perennially in the top slot. I’ve recently sampled two of the best trucks Ford and GM have to offer for 2009, although they couldn’t be any more different.

The 2009 GMC Sierra Hybrid is the most technologically advanced pickup on the road today. I had a chance to sample one last summer and walked away very impressed. Not only does the hybrid Sierra basically do everything a regular Sierra does (with the exception of matching towing and payload capacities pound-for-pound), the hybrid is actually an all-around better truck. If you can live with a 5900 lb towing capacity and a 1418 lb payload capacity-and most people certainly can-the hybrid truck is smoother, quieter, and uses less fuel. My initial fear was the demand for GM’s half-ton diesel trucks would make the half-ton hybrids irrelevant, but that engine program has been put on hold.

Last night I drove the Sierra Hybrid around my neighborhood in virtual silence. If it weren’t for the clicking of stones trapped in the tire treads against pavement, this 5882 lb crew cab monster could have snuck up on anyone. I really wanted to play the theme song from Jaws and creep up on pedestrians, just to see how people would react. Perhaps a silent-running nuclear submarine is the ultimate stealth vehicle with utility, but the GMC Sierra Hybrid is clearly the best choice for those afraid of water.

To be clear, my impression of the Ford F-150 Raptor is only from the passenger seat. I managed to sneak on to a final development drive of Ford’s off-road superstar last week in the Southern California desert and experienced this beast flat-out for a few hours. There is no production vehicle that can even begin compare to the Raptor. The ride over desert washes and down trails seems to defy physics. You forget there are leaf springs connecting the axle to the frame, as the truck feels very nimble and stable at speeds approaching triple-digits.

Everyone from Baja race teams to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents wants to get behind the wheel of the Raptor, and after a demonstration of the truck’s capabilities; they also want to buy the truck. Much like the hybrid Sierra is the ultimate GMC truck, the Raptor is the ultimate F-150. If you can live with 6000 pounds of towing capacity and 1000 pounds of payload, the Raptor is the most comfortable and capable F-150 that you could buy this year.

It’s fascinating to reflect on these two diverse pickups as the entire automotive universe is being turned upside down. Perhaps Toyota could have beaten GM to market with a hybrid pickup, but no foreign automaker could have built a truck like the Raptor. Raptor captures the uniquely American idea of a high-performance pickup and pushes the envelope for factory performance vehicles in general. On the other hand, it seems unlikely the Raptor will be around for more than a generation or two before the emissions and fuel economy laws force it to join its reptilian namesake on the extinct species list.