This is a helluva time to be in the truck business. Over the summer, speculators ramped gas through the $4-a-gallon barrier. Then came the Nightmare on Wall Street, the financial meltdown that froze credit and drove the vulnerable Detroit automakers to the very brink of bankruptcy. Trucks, once the engine-room of profits for the American auto industry, suddenly became toxic, and sales stalled. Here's how bad it got: Toyota shuttered the $1.3 billion plant it built in San Antonio, Texas, to manufacture the all-new Tundra, our 2008 Truck of the Year, for 90 days.
The relentless rise of the personal-use pickup truck in America was an entirely unexpected phenomenon that grew out of a market defined by cheap gas and CAFE. How? The first iteration of CAFE in the 1970s meant American cars, which had tougher mileage targets to meet, got worse as pickup trucks became more refined and carlike. As a result, pickups, which kept their lazy, torquey V-8s and rear drive, started being purchased as substitutes for what American cars had been, particularly with the introduction of extended-cab versions.
"The occasional imperative" is how Ford F-150 designer Pat Schiavone describes the key driver behind the decision to purchase a personal-use pickup: The capability is there if you need it. And no matter how tough the market gets, there will always be customers who really do need that capability: the construction business, ranchers, government agencies. Though the personal-use market is under stress, the pickup truck will remain the workhorse, the backbone of America.
Four trucks were eligible for evaluation this year: Dodge Ram, Ford F-150, Hummer H3T, and the Suzuki Equator. Both the Ram and F-150 need no introduction, and both trucks were careful evolutions of a tried-and-tested formula, with one notable exception-the new Ram is the first full-size pickup in history with rear coil springs. The Ram's coil rearend promised better ride and handling, but would its capability be compromised?
The chunky, off-road-biased H3T seemed a logical extension of the Hummer lineup, but the same couldn't be said of the Equator. Suzuki execs claimed a Suzuki pickup would give owners of Suzuki motorcycles, ATVs, and watercraft a reason to stay with the brand, but that seems a bit of a long shot, especially as the Equator is basically a recycled Nissan Frontier.