Over the past several years, new challenges have been placed squarely on the shoulders of truck manufacturers. Safety, emissions, and fuel economy regulations are getting tougher. Buyers are demanding more from their trucks in capability and comfort. Because of these pressures, we are enjoying an era where none of the brands is bad—each is trying to earn favor with buyers by responding to their demands in different ways.
Take a look at the ½-ton market to get a feel for how each of the Big Three does this. Ford enjoys being cutting edge, taking a chance on turbocharged V-6 engines as an alternative to traditional V-8 power, without abandoning the V-8. It continues to look ahead, announcing the 2015 F-150's body will be made almost entirely of aluminum. This will be the biggest use of aluminum in a non-military pickup truck. In addition, the F-150 offers the best handling and the most responsive steering.
Ram Truck is also innovative, and took its own chances, also successfully. Its ½-ton uses active grille shutters, a rear coil-spring suspension instead of traditional leaf springs, plus air suspension—and the eight-speed automatic is controlled with a dial. These trucks even use stop/start. But the biggest chance Ram is taking, the one that could pay big dividends? A diesel engine in its ½-ton, the first time in decades one will be available in this segment. Ram 1500s have the best ride you can get in a ½-ton, and while its coil-spring rearend keeps the 1500 from having best-in-class towing capacity, it doesn't keep the Ram from being a highly capable truck.
Chevrolet and GMC have brought modern technology to traditional powertrains, making overhead-valve V-8s efficient and adding to the mix cylinder shutoff -- even on the V-6 -- and variable valve timing. Smart, careful engineering allowed the Silverado and Sierra to sprint into the 21st century. In addition to winning the battle of towing capacity supremacy in the ½-ton market (for now), the Silverado and Sierra have the quietest interiors in the segment. GM is taking another chance by injecting new life into what had been a stagnant segment -- midsize trucks -- by introducing a new truck there. Adding to the risk-taking: A diesel will be available, too.
Think back to when you first heard about these innovations. Some of you might have thought the people in charge of one brand or another were out of their minds. Yet new ideas and technologies are coming to our trucks every year, and coming so quickly that we are getting used to the idea that these huge leaps forward will occur practically annually. It used to be that trucks wouldn't change much over a seven-year life cycle.
Why have changes cranked up so quickly? Part of it is the increasing demand from buyers, but the bigger motivator is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations. While these regulations get tougher every year, we are definitely impressed with what the Big Three have been doing to improve fuel economy. What impresses us even more is that the strides they have made haven't been at the expense of capability. All three have fuel economy as high as the mid-to-upper 20s, and those numbers could easily hit 30 mpg in the next year or two. Yet these trucks can tow up to 12,000 pounds. The manufacturers can't sacrifice capability for fuel economy, because if they do, they risk losing sales.
Increasing mileage while improving capability is no easy feat. When it comes to ½-tons, buyers want it all: Their ½-ton has to handle payload and be able to tow, be roomy and carry the family in comfort, and have a suspension that's comfortable when the truck is anything from empty to fully loaded. Oh, and the truck has to do all this while being fast and getting good fuel economy. We know the downsides of such technology: Prices go up (at the dealer lot and in the cost of ownership over the lifetime of the vehicle); the increasing complexity increases the chance that reliability will suffer; and fixing problems isn't as easy as it used to be.
There might be some growing pains over the next few years, but considering the challenges these companies are facing and that were placed upon them, they are doing quite a good job under pressure.
While this is my last issue as editor of Truck Trend, it has been a blast to watch the world of pickups and sport/utilities change and improve, and I will continue to enjoy seeing how the OEs innovate in the future. It has been a true pleasure. Thanks for making being a part of this magazine for the last 10 years so much fun.