Monday, February 4, 2008

Ford, Dodge foolishly pin hopes on pickups

Slowly but surely, the U.S. market is turning back to cars

John K. Teahen Jr.

is senior editor of Automotive News.

Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC still don't get it. And that's a shame. I think both companies have made bad decisions that will have an impact on their future.

At Chrysler, the most important new vehicle in the fleet is the 2009 Dodge Ram pickup. And Ford's major new product this year is the 2009 F-150 pickup. Both go on sale next fall.

All that emphasis is wrong, wrong, wrong.

For years, the Ram and the F-150 have been the best sellers for Dodge and Ford. That probably will continue, but the numbers will be considerably lower. The green crusade, the home construction downturn and the high price of gasoline are getting through to the people who really don't need a pickup. The days of 900,000 sales of the Ford F series are gone.

I am not a truck fan, but I freely acknowledge that the pickup is the most useful and most versatile vehicle on the market. By golly, it can do anything and everything. Today, it even has a rear seat so it can haul people.

It can carry heavy loads and light loads, big loads and little loads, clumsy loads and compact loads. If you have to carry something, you need a pickup.

Ford and Dodge have pulled out all the stops on the 2009 F-150 and Ram pickups, the writer says. Ford is even going after the luxury truck market with the F-150 Platinum, shown, expected to be priced in the $50,000 range.

A vehicle gone astray

But in recent years, the pickup has strayed from its beast-of-burden role on the ranch, on the farm or in business. Macho types, or would-be macho types, have adopted it for personal/family use. Heaven only knows why. Now, many of those buyers are returning to family sedans, where they belong, all the while muttering "$3 a gallon, $3 a gallon."

Shouldn't Ford and Dodge be returning to the car business?

Shouldn't they become automakers again instead of truckmakers? Last year, 71.9 percent of Ford division's U.S. sales and 68.2 percent of Dodge's U.S. sales were light trucks (of all kinds).

In the auto business, the numbers tell the story, and last year's full-sized pickup numbers were not good. Sales of Ford's F series dropped 13.2 percent, or 105,450 units. An estimated 63,000 of those lost sales were F-150s. The Dodge Ram was off just 1.6 percent (5,882 units) after a drop of 9.1 percent in 2006. Is that the kind of performance you want to pin your hopes on?

Sales of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra were down slightly last year even though they had been redesigned. Nissan's Titan gave up 8.9 percent of its 2006 sales.

The Toyota Tundra graduated to the full-sized class, and sales rose 72,047. But the overall U.S. market for big pickups was down, so where do you suppose those 72,047 sales came from?

A $50,000 pickup

Big pickup sales dipped 3.0 percent in 2007 after a decline of 9.9 percent in 2006.

Small pickups? Forget 'em. Sales were down 95,664 (15.6 percent) for the year, and some makers are wondering whether they are really necessary. Last year's plunge followed a falloff of 11.2 percent in 2006.

Ford and Dodge have pulled out all the stops on their new F-150 and Ram pickups; they have added plenty of first-time features to make the workhorses more useful and more appealing. Ford is even going after what it calls the luxury truck market with an F-150 Platinum model that is expected to be priced in the $50,000 range.

Huh? $50,000 for a pickup? Remember, the F-150 sticker prices start at $18,445. Strangely, the current ultraexpensive pickups are selling well, especially for Ford. Maybe Platinum is the new norm for pickups, although the people who buy work trucks won't agree.

With straight faces, the makers will talk about styling. Good grief! I'm certainly no artist, but I could design a pickup. You have a grille, a hood, a cabin and a box. Period.

I saw a picture of a 1936 Ford pickup the other day. It had a grille, a hood, a cabin and a box.

The overall light-truck market — pickups, vans, crossovers and SUVs — was down 1.9 percent last year. Certainly not worth all my screaming. But wait a minute. Crossovers, which are really cars, were up 22.8 percent. So sales of true trucks declined 9.1 percent in 2007 after a 9.4 percent dip in 2006. Now, that is worth screaming about.

The reason for the Detroit 3's accent on trucks is simple: They make more money on pickups and SUVs than they do on cars. But, hey, the imports like money, too, and they are still primarily carmakers.

Slowly but surely, the U.S. market is turning back to cars. It's hard to spot in the sales stats because Detroit 3 car sales continue to fall while import-badged cars are riding high. Ford Motor and Chrysler LLC still haven't gotten the word.

I wish they would get it.

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