By Soyoung Kim
AUBURN HILLS, Michigan (Reuters) - Chrysler LLC
The 2009 model, which will compete against Ford Motor Co's
Still, the Dodge Ram remains Chrysler's single best-selling vehicle, and analysts see its success as key to the automaker's turnaround under private equity owner Cerberus Capital Management LP.
"We're confident we're going to pick up some market share (in the truck segment) with this vehicle," Mike Accavitti, director of the Dodge brand, said at a media briefing.
"Whenever gasoline prices spike, there's a freefall in the truck segment," he said. "But the market is still sizable."
A slumping U.S. economy and runaway gas prices have prompted consumers to shift toward more fuel-efficient smaller cars and crossovers and away from large trucks and SUVs.
Sales of pickup trucks dropped about 18 percent in the first four months of the year, outpacing the 9 percent decline in the overall vehicle market, according to Autodata Corp.
"If life were perfect, we would launch (the new Dodge Ram) in an upmarket," Accavitti said, "but the market is still substantial."
Dodge has about 16.6 percent of the truck market, behind Ford and General Motors Corp
Chrysler, the No. 3 U.S. automaker, has yet to disclose prices for the new Ram. Base prices for current models range from $21,485 to $40,000.
Buyers will be able to choose between six-cylinder or eight-cylinder engines.
The company said the new model got 10 percent to 20 percent better fuel economy than the current version because of various technological advancements.
The current Dodge Ram gets about 13 miles per gallon in the city and 17 on the highway, the company said.
Chrysler plans to offer light-duty diesel and two-mode hybrid versions of the Ram in early 2010, officials said.
Dodge's share of the truck market has been steady through the downturn, but the Ram has been one of the most heavily subsidized trucks.
Officials acknowledged that there were more than $6,000 incentives on some Dodge Ram models, but declined to comment on whether the redesigned model would be launched with incentives.
Dodge, Ford and other truck makers face a particularly tough market in the United States, where gasoline has reached more than $4 per gallon.
Even drivers who consider themselves "truck people" have shown signs of defecting to lower-cost vehicles, according to market research company Acxiom Corp
The survey, conducted earlier in May, showed almost half of pickup owners were at least considering buying a car as their next vehicle, and 17 percent expressed interest in shifting to a lighter and more fuel-efficient crossover.
"The casual truck buyer is a thing of the past," said Tim Longnecker, who head's Acxiom's automotive practice.
Detroit carmakers must be prepared to place truck owners in other vehicles in their lineup -- a break from the usual practice of trying to sell them the next version of the truck they now own, Longnecker said. "None of these companies are set up to do that."