NYTimes.com Article: Big and Fancy, More Pickups Displace Cars
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Big and Fancy, More Pickups Displace Cars
July 31, 2003
By DANNY HAKIM
Jason Lawson had a big pickup, but like a growing number of
Americans he recently traded up to an even bigger one.
"It's an S.U.V. with an open back," Mr. Lawson, 33, said of
his metallic gray Ford F-250 Crew Cab. The pickup weighs
about three tons, empty, and has enough room in the cab for
him, his wife, their two children in car seats and even the
family's chocolate lab.
"You can use it for work, go home, put the family in it and
take off," said Mr. Lawson, who lives in a Chicago suburb
and owns a flooring company.
Sales of the largest pickups have been soaring for several
years. But in coming months the competition for customers
will grow sharply. Japanese automakers are rushing into the
market, now one of the most profitable and always dominated
by America's Big Three. Ford is introducing a lavishly
redesigned version of its best-selling large pickup. Even
Hyundai, the Korean company known for low-cost cars, may
enter the large-pickup market.
The trend toward bigger-than-ever pickups has broad
implications for the safety of American drivers, the
environment, oil consumption and the financial health of
the auto industry.
Big pickups, which can cost $40,000 and up, are the most
dangerous vehicles on the road for people riding in other
vehicles - much more dangerous than large sport utility
vehicles, according to federal crash statistics. The
average pickup uses more gasoline than the average S.U.V.
and therefore produces more gases that contribute to global
warming. Pickups, along with sport utilities, are also the
industry's most profitable vehicles, and they get more
profitable as they get larger and more luxurious.
Once utilitarian vehicles used exclusively for work, pickup
trucks are getting bigger, roomier, more powerful and
showier in almost every way. Passenger cabs with two rows
of seats, once a minority, are the norm.
The biggest pickups, which were just 8.6 percent of the
nation's new vehicles in 1990, now account for 13.2 percent
- about one in every eight vehicles sold.
The allure of the pickup market for the auto industry is
clear. The industry sold two to two and a half times as
many full-size pickups as it did full-size S.U.V.'s last
Last year, the Ford F-Series, the best-selling vehicle of
any kind in the nation, contributed $2.4 billion of net
income to the Ford Motor Company, according to John Casesa,
an analyst at Merrill Lynch. Without the truck, the
company's $980 million net loss would have been much worse.
This fall, Ford will start selling redesigned versions of
its F-Series including several that seem fancier than its
Lincoln luxury sedans. "It could easily account for all of
the company's earnings in 2004," Mr. Casesa said.
Toyota is the only foreign carmaker that sells a full-size
pickup, the Tundra. When sales were booming in 2001, it
sold more than 100,000 Tundras, compared with Ford's sales
of more than 900,000 F-Series trucks. General Motors sold
more than 700,000 Chevrolet Silverados, the
second-best-selling vehicle in the country, and more than
200,000 GMC Sierras, while Dodge, a unit of
Daimler-Chrysler, sold close to 350,000 Ram pickups.
G.M.'s offerings range from the very large, like its
Silverado, to the very fancy, like its Cadillac Escalade
EXP pickup. This year, the company will even start selling
a luxury pickup with a convertible top, the Chevrolet SSR,
that starts above $40,000.
With luxury pickups increasing in popularity and
profitability, however, Japan wants a bigger slice. Nissan
is introducing its first full-size pickup, the voluminous
Titan, this year. Tellingly, the company will not even
offer a regular cab version of the truck - the basic
two-seater that dominated the market a decade ago.
Toyota will start selling a version of its Tundra in
November that has a crew cab - the largest cab style, much
like a big S.U.V. inside. Toyota also recently announced
that it would build a new pickup plant in San Antonio, in
the heart of pickup country.
Like their American rivals, Japanese companies are focusing
on the many people who only get their hands dirty during
the occasional visit to the gardening center - those who
want a pickup with two rows of seats (leather, heated
seats) as well as power windows and doors and wood-grained
interiors. The biggest pickups are particularly popular in
the Southwest and Rocky Mountain states.
Mike Cruz-Montes, 31, a supervisor at an electric utility
who lives in Katy, Tex., about 30 miles west of downtown
Houston, has a Ford F-150 extended-cab pickup with a second
row of seats, but he is preparing to trade up to a roomier
crew cab, which can better accommodate his wife and two
"Before, trucks were mainly thought of as for a working man
or woman," he said. "I love the power it has when you need
it. I do a lot of landscaping around the house and I love
to be able to throw things in the back of the truck, mulch
or dirt, bring it home, then wash it down and take the kids
to dinner. It's very versatile."
To environmental and safety advocates, the extension of the
auto arms race from sport utilities to pickup trucks is a
When the average large pickup truck collides with a second
vehicle, people in the second vehicle die at a rate of 293
for every 100,000 crashes, according to federal crash
statistics. By comparison, large sport utility vehicles
kill people in the second vehicle at a rate of 205 per
100,000 crashes; minivans kill at a rate of 104 deaths; and
large cars at a rate of 85 deaths.
"This is terrible for people on the highway," said Joan
Claybrook, the former head of the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration and the president of Public Citizen,
a consumer advocacy group. "The growth of these larger
vehicles, in terms of market share, means the chances
you're going to be hit by a big pickup truck goes up, and
they are the most dangerous vehicles that can hit your
Because they roll over more easily than cars, pickup trucks
also have fatality rates for their own occupants that are
slightly higher than those of passenger cars, but below
those of sport utility vehicles, according to the most
recent data from the traffic safety agency.
"If you get super heavy and super large," said Brian
O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway
Safety, "you won't gain many benefits for yourself and
you'll inflict more damage on others."
Big pickups tend to be safer for their own occupants than
small pickups, but when used as family vehicles they are
less safe than minivans and station wagons.
Why are big pickups more dangerous to other drivers than
big sport utilities?
No one really knows; a comprehensive analysis has not been
conducted, Mr. O'Neill said. "Part of that is design and
part is where and how they're operated," he guessed.
The higher ground clearance of pickups means that in a
crash they can run over the bumper or floor of a car,
making them deadlier to passengers in the other vehicle.
Big pickups and sport utilities are both built on frame
rails that run under the vehicle almost like giant fork
tines. The stiff rails can puncture cars or small S.U.V.'s,
which are constructed more like steel egg cartons. But
pickups can also be carrying heavy loads in their beds, Mr.
O'Neill said, and thus they are often heavier in collisions
than are the S.U.V.'s that are based on the same frame.
Also, many pickups are driven in rural areas, where crash
speeds tend to be higher.
Automakers, under pressure from the traffic safety agency,
did agree this year to start working together to make
S.U.V.'s and pickups less dangerous to other vehicles;
consumer groups say the automakers have a poor history of
Pickup drivers as a group tend to be less careful than
people behind the wheels of cars, according to insurance
industry data. They tend to drink more and use their seat
belts less often, figures show.
Pickups also weigh more than sport utilities. The average
unloaded pickup now weighs about 4,700 pounds, up from
about 3,500 pounds in the mid-1980's, according to the
Environmental Protection Agency. That's almost 200 pounds
more than the average S.U.V. Many versions of the
best-selling pickups weigh in at more than three tons,
unloaded, putting them in Hummer territory.
Fuel efficiency of the average pickup has also declined
from as high as 19.2 miles a gallon in the 1987 model year
to 16.8 miles a gallon today. The average S.U.V. gets 17.8
miles a gallon now and the average car 24.8. And even those
averages do not count the very biggest vehicles - those
weighing more than 8,500 pounds fully loaded - which are
exempt under federal law. Like the Hummer and other giant
sport utilities, the biggest pickups average little more
than 10 miles a gallon.
And more gas burned means more gases spit out the exhaust
pipe. Over its projected life span, the average pickup
truck under 8,500 pounds emits 97.9 tons of global warming
gases, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an
environmental group. The average for S.U.V.'s is 93.4 tons
and for cars 66.5 tons.
At the beginning of the 1990's, people bought full-size and
compact pickups at about the same pace, and each kind of
truck had roughly 8 percent of the total market for
passenger vehicles. Today, full-size pickups have grown to
13 to 14 percent of total passenger vehicle sales, while
sales of compact pickups have shrunk to less than 5 percent
of the market. Large sport utilities account for 5.8
percent of all sales.
Full-size pickups themselves are also getting larger. Those
with regular cabs, which are the basic work trucks with
seating for two, now represent less than 17 percent of
full-size truck sales. Extended-cab pickups - and roomier
crew cabs, with seating for five - accounted for most of
A decade ago, regular cabs effectively were the market,
commanding roughly 80 percent of full-size sales, according
to AutoPacific, a market research group.
"The whole cab mix, industrywide, has flip-flopped," said
Doug Scott, Ford's marketing director.
Mark Hogan, G.M. group vice president for advanced vehicle
development, said, "It tells us clearly people aren't using
pickups the way they had in the past."
Ford has been changing its marketing accordingly. In a
recent TV ad, a suburbanite ordering coffee at a truck stop
is asked by a trucker if he has his "rig loaded down."
"We're loaded down all right," the suburbanite replies,
before returning to his F-150, where he hands his wife a
cup of coffee while his three daughters argue in the
spacious back seat.
Attracting the suburbanite trucker, of course, means
coupling the pickup's tough outside with a gentler inside.
The new Lariat version of the Ford F-150, which has a base
price of more than $35,000, has leather seats, chrome and
brushed steel flourishes, and color schemes with names like
"medium pebble." The gear shift is between the seats, like
Mr. Cruz-Montes said he had long been a truck guy. "My
father had an 85 F-150. It was great for working and
hauling things around," he said. "But using that foldout
bench they used to have" - instead of a second row of seats
- "for kids it was O.K., but even for a small adult, it was
very uncomfortable. They have metamorphosed tremendously
toward the family."
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