As trucks square off, this time mpg comes into play
Coming this fall: The pickup wars resume, with a twist.
Expect boastful claims of horsepower, torque, towing capacity and durability. But this year the Ford and Ram brands also plan to duke it out over fuel economy.
Over the past year, amid $4 a gallon gasoline, Ford Motor Co. has won pickup buyers with fuel-efficient F-series pickups powered by V-6 engines.
Now Chrysler Group plans a direct assault on Ford's claim to the high ground in fuel economy. When the re-engineered 2013 Ram 1500 arrives in showrooms this fall it will challenge Ford's F series, which got a new engine lineup in 2011, for the title of most fuel-efficient full-sized pickup.
The mpg fixation by two of the Detroit 3 is a stark departure from past strategies for attacking the pickup market. For decades, automakers squabbled over whose truck could haul more or last longer.
General Motors, whose redesigned Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra are expected to arrive in showrooms next spring, plans a more traditional line of attack. GM wants to "keep that Silverado and Sierra as workhorses," says GM North America President Mark Reuss. Unlike Ford or Chrysler, it will offer a mid-sized pickup for buyers concerned more about fuel economy than about size and muscle.
The Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan big pickups aren't due for redesigns until 2014.
New engine options are a likely bet for Nissan Motor Co.'s big truck. That has been the primary criticism of the modest-selling Titan since it first appeared in 2004. It has been available with only one engine, a 5.6-liter V-8, and Nissan has been touting higher fuel-economy ratings on its recent model redesigns.
The Toyota Tundra currently offers two V-8s and a modestly selling V-6 that falls shy of the mpg numbers for Ford's V-6.
Ram executives won't reveal the re-engineered 1500 pickup's mpg numbers. But they insist the truck, offered with a Pentastar V-6 engine teamed with an eight-speed automatic transmission, will produce best-in-class fuel economy. That would mean topping the 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway of the two-wheel-drive Ford F1-50 powered by a normally aspirated 3.7-liter, 302 hp V-6 engine. Ford's biggest selling V-6 truck engine is the more powerful 3.5-liter EcoBoost, which cranks out 365 hp and gets an EPA rating of 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway.
"We're going to be best-in-class fuel economy in both the V-6 and V-8 segments," Ram brand CEO Fred Diaz told Bloomberg when the Ram 1500 was revealed this spring.
Diaz also took a shot at Ford's EcoBoost, telling The Detroit News that "turbos are very expensive to replace."
If Chrysler's talking trash, Ford executives are ready for a fight.
"We've heard what they've said. We'll see what they deliver when the EPA numbers are available," said Doug Scott, Ford's head of truck marketing. "The beauty of that is it will drive more interest and attention to the segment. We're generally on the shopping list as the segment leader."
While Ford and Chrysler gear up to fight it out for pickup mpg leadership, GM's battle strategy diverges.
"We're looking at this a little bit differently," GM's Reuss told Automotive News in May. "I don't think the No. 1 reason people buy a pickup truck is fuel economy."
Many of the urban cowboys who bought full-sized pickups five years ago have been flushed out of the market amid the tough economy and higher gasoline prices. Reuss figures the customers that remain are serious truck users -- farmers and contractors who value attributes such as towing capacity over fuel economy.
For those mpg-conscious buyers who remain, Reuss says GM will have a solution that its Detroit rivals don't have: a mid-sized pickup.
A next-generation Chevy Colorado mid-sized pickup is expected in U.S. showrooms by late 2013 or early 2014. GM is expected to badge the pickup as a GMC Canyon, too, although it hasn't confirmed those plans.
In contrast, Ford has ditched its Ranger. The mid-sized Dodge Dakota died in 2011.
Raffi Festekjian, director of automotive research for J.D. Power and Associates in Westlake Village, Calif., says surveys support GM's position.
"Reliability and durability remain" the top reasons customers buy large pickups, he says. "Gas mileage is toward the bottom in terms of reasons" people buy large pickups, even though it has increased since 2006.
But Ford's Scott says fuel economy matters to buyers who use their trucks as a work tool.
Ten years ago, fuel economy "wasn't among the top 10 purchase motivations," Scott admits. The priorities were payload, durability and price. Now, though, "fuel economy is definitely firmly in that top 10 purchase reasons."
Even Ford was surprised at how quickly sales of V-6 equipped F-150 pickups took off. Until 2010, Ford offered only V-8s in its F-150 lineup. When Ford offered the EcoBoost V-6 in February 2011, it was an immediate hit.
"We've had 13 months consecutively where the V-6 mix has outstripped the V-8," says Ford's Scott. The 3.5-liter V-6 has accounted for 42 percent of the F-150 engine mix so far this year, while the entry-level 3.7-liter V-6 accounts for an additional 12 or13 percent, he says.
Ram, in turn, has looked beyond a V-6 for ways to boost the Ram 1500's fuel efficiency.
The 2013 Ram will be the first pickup to get a stop-start system. It will have an air suspension system that lowers the vehicle at highway speeds to improve aerodynamics, and active grille shutters on its nose to improve air flow when cooling is not required. Even the Ram's sidestep rails were extended between the front and rear wheels after engineers determined in wind-tunnel testing that doing so improved the pickup's aerodynamics.
Bob Hegbloom, director of the Ram brand, said pickup manufacturers no longer can afford to bypass technology that promises to improve fuel economy: "Anything that we can look at, I have to do."
Larry P. Vellequette contributed to this report
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