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Can pickups get out of their rut?

But the question isn't whether the new F-Series is great or not-the bigger issue is whether or not there is still a market for it, or any other pickup.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

ROMEO, Mich. – There is no doubt the new Ford F-150 is a terrific truck, as proved by a recent same-day back-to-back comparison with its major competitors at the company’s testing grounds.

But the question isn’t whether the new F-Series is great or not-the bigger issue is whether or not there is still a market for it, or any other pickup.

For most of the past several decades, the F-Series has been the bestselling nameplate, both in the U.S. and Canada.

True, if General Motors sold Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra under a single label, they’d earn these bragging rights most years. And there have been years when, in Canada, Chrysler minivans have taken top overall spot. (This year it will be the Honda Civic.)

But the recent cratering of the car industry has been led by steep declines in sales of full-size trucks and SUVs, which, for most of the past two decades, have been the cash cows of the domestic industry.

Is this a structural shift, or a temporary phenomenon? Now that gasoline prices have fallen to their lowest levels in five years, are we going to see a resurgence in sales of bigger vehicles?

It’s obviously too early to tell, but Ford is certain that pickups, if not necessarily big SUVs, will eventually return to their normal place in the market.

In fact, they may already have.

Typically in the U.S., “normal” has been defined as around 14 per cent of the total market (12.5 per cent in Canada). But starting late last year, that share of the market dipped to as low as 8 per cent, battered by the perfect storm of huge and rapid fuel price increases, and massive declines in house construction and related industries (e.g., landscaping), which are critical to pickup truck sales.

Doug Scott, marketing manager for full-size pickups and SUVs for Ford in the U.S., says that market share has now returned to normal – around 14 per cent last month, although the size of the industry is smaller, so absolute numbers of trucks sold have declined.

“The peak year was 2004 with 2.5 million sold,” he said. “This year, that number will be around 1.5 million, with projections for 2011 of about 2 million, assuming a resurgence in the house construction business.”

That’s still a lot of trucks.

Scott notes that the U.S. pickup market is really five different markets.

“We identify the segments as Image, Personal Tow/Haul, 24/7, Work, and Commercial,” he said, “with the last three what we consider `core’ truck buyers.

“In the peak pickup year of 2004, the Image and Personal Tow/Haul segments accounted for some 63 per cent of the market.

“So far in 2008, they’re 51 per cent. Still a lot, but that’s where the biggest drop-off has occurred.”

Clearly, the urban cowboy pickup driver is no longer considered as cool as he once was.

“The core segments have declined less sharply,” continued Scott. “In fact, in absolute numbers, we project we’ll sell more core trucks in 2008 than we did in 2007.”

And that’s why the new F-Series is aimed where it is aimed, and why functionality was so critical to its design intent.

Things like payload capacity and trailer towing, where the new Ford has a decided advantage, still count for these buyers.

In Canada, there has been less volatility in this segment. Denis Schofield, marketing plans manager for trucks for Ford of Canada, said the segment dropped to maybe 10 per cent of the market earlier this year, but has rebounded to almost 12 per cent last month.

Schofield notes that in Canada, the pickup market is different.

“Canadians have always needed the functionality of a pickup,” he noted. “Things like trailer towing capacity have long been, relatively speaking, more important here.

“Fuel economy has taken a big jump in purchase consideration in the U.S., but not so much here. Our fuel has always been more expensive, so we have become more used to it. The Canadian consumer understands the price he has to pay for the functionality he needs.”

In other words, the U.S. market appears to be becoming more like what the Canadian market always has been.

Schofield also notes that the so-called “under” pickup segment – less than 3,588 kg Gross Vehicle Weight – will be up slightly in Canada for 2008.

“Overall, pickups will be flat. But we are seeing some migration from Super Duty pick-ups – (over 3,588 kg ) GVW – because of the increased capability of our new `under’ F-Series.”

As usual, we will have to wait to see how the market actually responds to the changes.

I’m betting on the Ford.

Travel was provided to free-lance auto writer Jim Kenzie by the auto manufacturer.jim@jimkenzie.com

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