Forget about all the hype regarding crossovers. Show us the money — and we'll listen. Until then, the large pickup and sport/utility vehicle (SUV) segment is still where it's at. Ford Motor Co. will sell more than 500,000 F-Series trucks in 2001, and General Motors Corp. is cruising to 440,000 Silverado deliveries. We haven't seen any automaker projecting a crossover selling close to half that.
Yes, the raging growth of the 1990s has subsided; the segment is expected to contract 1.9% in 2001 vs. 2000, to 1.4 million units, according to forecasts by Ward's. But automakers are far from losing interest. In fact, judging by the new products several automakers have hitting the segment, the fight for market share isn't any less intense.
Despite currently being the hottest player in the big truck/SUV category, GM also presents the most interesting entry in recent memory: the Chevy Avalanche. It easily is the best execution to date of merging a pickup truck with an SUV. Apart from the excessive slather of ugly cladding, a high pricetag and strange name — would you name a vehicle after a natural disaster? — Avalanche still wins accolades because of its versatility, ride and handling and engine performance. During a recent test drive, Avalanche answered every weekend duty call: a trip to Home Depot to haul home sheets of drywall and a sliding glass door; a night out on the town for four adults, and a small measure of off-road work rumbling across farmland with a pile of lumber in back to build a hunting blind.
This is made possible by GM's ingenious Convert-A-Cab system, which allows an owner to collapse the bulkhead and rear seats and haul a 4×8-ft. (1.22 m × 2.44 m) sheet of plywood or several passengers. The 5.3L V-8, with 285 hp, is a brute that moves the 5,678 lbs. (2,576 kg) beast and its cargo without any hesitation. And the huge trunk created by the sturdy bed cover and the storage compartments along the bed's sidewalls are a big plus.
The other crucial new entry comes from DaimlerChrysler Corp., the automaker that dramatically altered the segment in 1994 when it unveiled its boldly designed Ram and tripled its market share of big pickup sales by attracting consumers from other market sectors and former GM and Ford showrooms. Building on that success, the all-new '02 Ram features an even bigger grille and shoulders that surely will continue to appeal to the fullsize pickup segment's primary consumer — men. It also includes an excellent interior design, a quiet ride, and handling that approaches nimble — traits seldom associated with other DCC truck models. The engine offerings, however, come up short. It's not that the 4.7L SOHC V-8 (expected to account for 60% of Ram fitment) doesn't try its best — this engine did win a Ward's 10 Best Engines award when it was launched for the Jeep Grand Cherokee in 1999, after all — it's just that its modest 235 horses are overmatched by the '02 Ram's not-insubstantial bulk.
Moreover, the new Ram obviously nods toward the “personal-use” customer, so there's enough truckiness there to reassure the traditional buyer, but it's now combined with enough refinement and NVH optimization to satisfy folks who buy trucks just for drivin' around. The 260,000 Rams DC thinks it will sell in model year 2002 should go a long way toward reversing DCC's calamitous '01 revenue slide.
The new entries aren't good news for Ford's F-Series, which remains the segment's top-selling vehicle. But it is showing signs of age. F-Series sales are projected to be down 4.6% in 2001 — the biggest drop among the big pickups that aren't going through a model changeover. GM's Chevy Silverado may be benefiting most from an aging F-Series. Silverado currently is the benchmark for big pickups, and sales will reflect that in 2001, climbing 1.9% from year-ago to 440,090 units in 2001. Combine sales of the Silverado with GMC's variant, the Sierra, and the duo will top F-Series in 2001 and likely for years to come.
While Toyota Tundra generally has been well-received, it hasn't garnered much more interest from the public than its predecessor, the T100. With sales expected to rise only 2.2% in 2001 to 68,981, Toyota is discovering that the domestics are defending their large pickup position much more jealously than in other market segments.