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GM Looks to Make Inroads in Competitive HD-Pickup Segment

Winning over buyers in the heavy-duty pickup segment is close to impossible because of the segment’s fierce brand loyalty.

CUMBERLAND, MD – The heavy-duty pickup market is about to heat up with the upcoming arrival of the new ’11 GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado heavy-duty offerings.

The trucks, currently rolling into dealerships, face strong competition from Ford Motor Co.’s new line of ’11 Super-Duty pickups.

General Motors Co. marketers say when it comes to selling heavy-duties, it’s all about the numbers.

“Fullsize-truck guys really want to know the data, so you put that out there and let them make the decision. That’s all we can do,” Tony Truelove, Silverado marketing manager, tells Ward’s at a recent media event here.

Both trucks come with the choice of a 6.6L V-8 Duramax diesel engine producing 397 hp and 765 lb.-ft. (1,037 Nm) of torque or a Vortec 6.0L gasoline V-8 making 360-hp and 380 lb.-ft. (515 Nm) of torque.

By comparison, Ford’s revamped ’11 F-Series Super Duty is available with either a 6.2L V-8 gasoline engine making 385 hp and 405 lb.-ft. (549 Nm) of torque or a 6.7L Power Stroke diesel, rated at 390 hp and 735 lb.-ft. (997 Nm) of torque.

GM claims its heavy-duties also have greater towing and payload capability than Ford’s trucks, but admits there is no standard to determine the numbers. So there can be no true “apples-to-apples” comparison.

But that doesn’t stop either auto maker from publishing its numbers. Ford says its recently launched 1-ton F-350 F-Series Super-Duty has “class-leading” towing capability of 21,600 lbs. (9,798 kg) and “best-in-class” payload capability of 6,520 lbs. (2,957 kg).

GM, which follows Ford’s Super-Duty debut by several months, one-ups its Blue Oval competitor, claiming the 1-ton ’11 Sierra 3500 HD and Silverado 3500 HD max ratings are 21,700 lbs. (9,843 kg) towing and 6,635-lb. (3,010 kg) payload.

Ford makes an F-450 that outmuscles GM’s most-powerful offering, but that’s not a fair comparison, as GM last year stopped building trucks beyond the 1-ton category.

Although Dodge makes a Ram HD, GM officials says its lower payload and tow ratings don’t make it a true competitor, noting only Ford can come close to Sierra HD and Silverado HD in capability.

“Ford is definitely the prime competitor,” Truelove says. “We look at things as GM vs. Ford.”

Having superior payload and towing capability can sway some consumers, but Truelove says pickup buyers, particular those shopping heavy-duties, are fiercely loyal to their brands.

“Conquest is virtually non-existent in the fullsize pickup space,” he says. “It really is a very loyal segment. There’s only about 20% of fullsize-pickup owners I would call ‘free agents.’ They have had a bad experience with one, and they’re shopping another. But it’s difficult.”

GM says it runs neck and neck with Ford in market share in the three-quarter ton category, but trails it slightly in the 1-ton segment.

If there’s a chink in Ford’s armor, it’s the Blue Oval’s new diesel engine. Ford for ’11 brought development of its diesel in-house, having sourced it from Navistar International Corp. for years. The auto maker severed its relationship with Navistar due to quality issues, which led to a litany of recalls.

That episode in Ford’s history potentially could help GM persuade longtime Series buyers to give its trucks a try, says Kenn Bakowski, GMC Sierra marketing manager.

“Ford has had some problems come up with Navistar,” he says. “No matter how ingrained that loyalty is, the No.1 reason you’re buying these trucks is dependability.

“Ford has a new engine, but it’s new,” he adds. “We’ve got 1.2 million powertrains running around since we started production. Ford’s doing their own thing now and have a great engine, but it has to be proven.”

While both the Sierra and Silverado have similar attributes, they will be marketed differently.

Typically, GMC products attract a younger, more-affluent buyer, while Chevy is considered a more mainstream brand, marketers say.

GMC currently is running TV spots during the ongoing National Basketball Assn. finals, while Chevy will focus its attention on NASCAR. Both brands also will delve into the online world, using the growing social-media arena to tout their products.

“We have over 15,000 Facebook fans on Silverado, and they’re the most active among all Chevy fan pages, more active than (the) Volt or Camaro,” Truelove says.

“On our new Silverado HD site, we have Facebook integrated into the site, itself. So all of the activity going on with our Silverado Facebook page shows up on our Silverado HD site.”

Social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are quickly becoming another “tool in GMC’s toolbox,” says Lisa Hutchinson, director-GMC product marketing.

“Our (public-relations) team (posts to Twitter) now just as naturally as they issue press releases,” she says. “It’s just another communications method; another way of spreading the word.”

Both GMC and Chevrolet officials decline to provide volume predictions for the new HD pickups, saying only they expect the segment, which has been hit hard by the ongoing U.S. recession, to rebound somewhat.

Ward’s data shows HD truck sales through May rose 18.4% to 123,979 units, compared with like-2009. Ford deliveries in the period climbed 25.1%, GMC (up 2.8%), Chevrolet (up 1.7%) and Ram (up 38.6%)

“I think a lot of people are sitting on the sidelines, not only because of the downturn in the economy, but they know new stuff is coming,” Bakowski says. “But I don’t know what the strength of that rebound is going to be. There’s no way to get a feel for it.”

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TAGS: Vehicles
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