Saturday, November 04, 2006

Texas-sized war Texas-sized war

Friday, September 29, 2006
Texas-sized war
It's Ford vs. GM as big truck battle shifts into high gear
Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

DALLAS -- A Texas-size battle of big trucks broke out Thursday at the State Fair here, as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. each staked claim to leadership of the profitable sector.

Knowing that Ford planned to launch its new F-Series Super Duty lineup at the fair Thursday, GM hastily organized a pre-emptive strike, accelerating by three months the public introduction of its heavy-duty versions of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups.

GM executives Ed Peper and John Larson claimed Texas for GM by branding a huge map of the state with the Chevy and GMC logos.

"If you're going to come to the Texas State Fair," said Larson, GMC general manager, "you better come strong or you better not come at all."

Ford, undaunted by GM's last-minute gambit, claimed big pickup supremacy by showing off the all-new 2008 F-450 and the rest of its Super Duty lineup on a stage that filled a parking lot.

Ford's truck pitchman, country music star Toby Keith, entertained and Mark Fields, president of Ford's Americas Group, dropped by -- literally -- in an F-450 lowered to the stage by a huge construction crane.

"Our competition is still trying to play catch-up," Fields said. "We've been working on the future while our competitors have been benchmarking our existing products."

The F-450 Super Duty is the biggest production pickup ever. All new Super Duties offer a more refined interior, a new diesel engine and a host of options such as telescoping mirrors and a folding tailgate step.

GM had planned to launch its new heavy-duties in a few months, most likely at the Detroit auto show, but North American Vice President Gary White said the entire company -- from manufacturing to marketing -- came together to deliver a surprise at Texas.

The Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra heavy duty trucks will hit showrooms early next year with a redesigned exterior, new interiors and more powerful engines.

So how can both Ford and GM claim to be king of the full-size pickup segment?

Ford's F-Series sold more than 911,737 units last year, making it the best selling pickup -- and the best selling vehicle -- in the United States. But combined Chevrolet and GMC pickup sales totaled 935,469, making GM the leading pickup manufacturer.

Pickup sales sputter

Texas theatrics aside, the pickup truck market is suffering under the weight of high gas prices and a weakened housing market, which historically has accounted for a big chunk of pickup sales. When construction workers aren't building, pickups aren't selling.

Overall pickup sales are down 14 percent through August. Ford expects the full-size segment to end the year at about 2.3 million units with few, if any, gains next year.

"The whole pickup segment is very much tied to the construction industry," said George Pipas, Ford's sales analyst. "It will weigh on our industry and it will weigh on this segment. If it was not for all the new products from GM, Ford and Toyota, I think it would decline."

Texas market is big

The Texas State Fair has long been an important stage for truck launches. More than 300,000 pickups are sold each year in the state -- one in four drivers has one.

"It's like Super Bowl Sunday for truck guys," said Peper, Chevrolet general manager. "You make your bones on trucks here in Texas," Ford's Fields said.

Toyota Motor Corp. is using the Texas State Fair to showcase its new full-size Tundra pickup, with a bevy of cowgirls doing the honors.

The pickup will be built at Toyota's new plant in San Antonio, a fact the Japanese automaker capitalized on with signs declaring it "Born in Texas. Made by Texans."

"All of us understand that winning over full-size truck buyers won't be easy, because they have strong brand preferences," said Ernest Bastien, president of vehicle operations for Toyota Motor Sales USA. "We need to reach truck buyers who have never considered a Toyota product."

That's why Toyota is planning the biggest launch in its history for the new Tundra, Bastien said.

Also at the fair, DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group announced it is upping its engine offerings for the 2007 Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 models. Beginning in January, the heavy duty trucks will offer a 6.7-liter Cummins turbo diesel engine, which replaces the 5.9-liter turbo diesel.

As for Ford and GM, their heavy --duty truck battle won't be decided until sometime next summer, when both sides have them on sale, said Jim Hall, an auto industry analyst with AutoPacific Inc.

"It's a draw right now."

You can reach Bryce G. Hoffman at (313) 222-2443 or

© Copyright 2006 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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