Whale Watching: November/ December 2005 Issue
The next big thing
A colleague recently verified that diesel is going to be the next big thing. Yawn. When I was 30 years younger, we built turbocharged diesels in VW Rabbits. Sure, 70 horsepower sounds wimpy, but they'd go at a decent clip and get over 45 mpg--on bad days.
Hybrids were the next big thing. So big that now performance is as much a part of their selling equation as economy. Just in time for $3/gallon fuel. Of course, railroads have been using diesel-electric "hybrids" for a long time.
Now it seems the next big thing is precisely that--big. Twenty years ago, crew- cab pickups, called 'utes, were popular elsewhere in the world. Fifteen years ago, Ford claimed that an F-350 Crew Cab 4WD wasn't a personal-use vehicle. Now crew cabs are the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. and are growing in size, too.
The Ram Mega Cab picks up where others left off. Silly me, I thought the Super Duty was big enough. A Mega Cab reminds one of the old "rancher special" crew cabs that were stretched by limo coach builders. Even though the Mega Cab has reclining rear seats instead of a bar and TV, the space and volume are similar.
Yet one of the most common questions at the Mega Cab introduction was, "When will you make a longbed?" To quote Charlie Brown, "Good grief!" We're driving a pickup almost 21 feet long that weighs four tons, at a price of nearly $55,000, that needs a four-lane highway to execute a U-turn, and you want it bigger? Seriously, if it doesn't fit in the 76-inch-long bed, put it in the 111-inch cab.
Think about it: The country's navigable geography is being polarized. Urban areas get tighter all the time, with more compact parking spots and claustrophobic strip malls. Away from the coasts and big cities, though, anything goes and bigger seems better. Maybe this is all a charade to make things so big Toyota and Nissan will never catch up--until they launch a pickup with a steerable tag axle.
One-upmanship and pickups go together. Then-new Vortec 4.8-, 5.3-, and 6.0-liter engines were all 0.1-liter larger than Chrysler's lineup. Ford brought a 5.4, then Nissan a 5.6, then back to Dodge with 5.7 and 6.1, and marine GM 6.2s are already out. The diesel pickups have started a power war (up to 360 horsepower and 650 pound-feet) no one will win, and there's a growing backlash with longtime diesel owners wondering where the fuel economy went.
A Mega Cab longbed likely would go 22-plus feet, have a minimum 180-inch wheelbase, and need a tugboat for docking. Quadrasteer, anyone? Three-row pickups could be next--Dodge's obviously badged "Six-Pac." Maybe ultralong-cab pickups with no more than a gooseneck deck and a matching trailer if you need to carry something. Or will Freightliner and Peterbilt follow International with a small Class-4 with a bed?
Ford's Super Duty plus-one is the F-450/550 line; same cab and engines as the pickups, with bigger chassis, weights, and turning circle. GM's TopKick/Kodiak 4500/5500 has similar engines to pickups, but a higher, larger cab to go with the extra weights, and a tighter turning circle. Dodge has no such thing, but its sister company has 6.4-liter Mercedes-Benz-powered Freightliners that'll pull as much as any pickup and deliver double-digit mileage. Then upgrade to a 7.1-liter Benz to be first on your block with a four-digit torque rating. And carry a Mini for ventures past city-limit signs.
When and where will the expansion end? Will it be fuel prices that stop it? Government intervention? Licensing requirements? Common sense? The questions are endless, but more critically, is anyone listening for answers?
In 1995, a Big Three manufacturer said (truck-based) SUV sales would peak by 2003. Now some of their most eagerly awaited 2006/2007 redesigns are--SUVs.