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2012 Ford F-150 (Ford Ford)
2012 Ford F-150 (Ford Ford)

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Canada's pickup truck wars Add to ...

It towered before me, a $59,869.60 bruiser of a pickup, a 2012 F-150 FX4 EcoBoost with gleaming bumpers, 20-inch six-spoke wheels, a chrome exhaust tip, black-finished grille and blacked-out head lamps and tail lamps.

Bad-ass? You bet.

The interior, too: black leather upholstery with red piping and perforations, black dashboard accents, brushed-metal surfaces and satin finishings on the shifter knob, door handles and even the air conditioning vent bezels. This is luxury with plenty of looks.

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But a work truck? Really? A “useful tool,” as F-150 chief engineer Jackie DiMarco describes her baby? Well, yes.

Here are some numbers that matter in a working rig: A six-cylinder F-Series (302 horsepower/278 lb-ft of torque) has a best-in-class 6,100-lb maximum trailer tow rating versus V-6 rivals, and the 5.0-litre V-8 version (360 hp/380 lb-ft torque) has a 10,000-pound tow rating, also best in class, argues Ford.

Luxury, styling and muscle. All three are commonplace in the pickup world today. These trucks have come far since they were strictly staples of blue-collar job sites, ranches, farms, fishing holes and hunting lodges. And they're big business, the crucial piece in the business plans of all three Detroit-based car companies – and a hoped-for place to find growth for Toyota (Tundra) and Nissan (Titan).

Consider: The F-Series is Canada's best-selling vehicle and has been for decades. It is the core of Ford's business here and in the United States: the F accounted for more than one-third of Ford of Canada's sales last year.

The Ram was the No. 2 seller in Canada last year and remains so in 2012. Ram sales represented more than one-quarter of Chrysler Canada sales in 2011. At General Motors, the combined sales of the twin rigs, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, represented more than one-third of that company's sales.

Toyota and Nissan each would love to sell even a tenth of the full-size pickups the Detroit makers move, but that's not going to happen any time soon, if ever. Why? Neither builds a comprehensive pickup lineup comparable to the array of engines, transmissions, bed sizes and styles and so on offered by the Detroit companies. That's one issue. Another is owner loyalty. A Ford pickup buyer is generally a Ford owner for life, and the same is true for Ram, Silverado and Sierra loyalists.

Dennis DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, points out that pickups were particularly popular last year in Canada, along with large commercial vans. He wonders if this will continue.

“The growth in sales was related to two factors that are unlikely to continue. First, these segments declined the most during the financial crisis so there was a lot of pent-up demand when the economy turned. This is now pretty well satiated,” he says in a note to clients.

“And second, GM and Chrysler had massive incentives on their pickup trucks as they had to keep their factories humming to show their political masters they were doing well. This is less necessary in the future.”

Exactly when that future arrives has yet to be determined. For now, the rich sales sweeteners are alive and well. For instance, that ritzy FX4 Ford SuperCrew has an $8,000 incentive to buck up potential buyers if you go with the V-6 EcoBoost engine, while the V-8 is in play with an $8,500 factory-to-dealer rebate. GM? At least $8,250 is in play on both the Silverado and Sierra. And at least $8,000 is out there for bargaining on the Titan, $9,750 on the Ram, and $4,000 or more on the Tundra.

The fact is, about one of every six vehicles sold in Canada is a large pickup – 261,538 in all sold last year and the marketplace is on track to do even better this year – though the year remains young and the marketplace is unpredictable. If pickup sales slow, that “would be bad news for Detroit OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] … At some point, this segment has to run out of steam and come back to earth and when they do, Detroit is going to take the brunt of the downside,” DesRosiers said.

Perhaps. But perhaps not quite yet. Perhaps not for some time. The Detroit makers certainly understand their strengths and weaknesses here and are anxious to maintain the sales momentum that has driven profits in Detroit for years, but most especially now in the post-Great Recession era.

To that end, Chrysler plans to launch an all-new version of the Ram 1500 later this year. We had our first look at this truck at the New York International Auto Show in the spring. While the 2013 will have lots of convenience features, as well as the requisite technology, towing capability and payload capacity to be competitive, company officials want most to talk the powertrain story.

Chrysler plans to introduce a V-8 Hemi-powered Ram with better fuel economy than Ford's EcoBoost V-6. Reid Bigland, Chrysler Canada CEO, says the Ram V-6 will best Ford's most fuel-efficient offering, too.

“A lot of people doubted that anyone would want a V-6 in their full-size pickup. Ford has proven that they do,” said Bigland at the New York show. “It's pretty tough to put a jack hammer in a small car. People need pickup trucks for their work, but they don't want to go broke at the pump just to drive one.”

Bigland said the new Ram 1500 will be available with a 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6 that will deliver 13 per cent more torque and 20 per cent better fuel-economy than its current 3.7-litre V-6 offering. A 5.7-litre V-8 Hemi will offer a 10 per cent improvement. Fuel-saving features: eight-speed automatic transmission, thermal management and stop-start system and active aerodynamics. Active aerodynamics? That would be the computer-controlled grille shutters and an air suspension designed to lower the truck at freeway speeds, making it less thirsty.

As for looks, the new Ram has been given a major makeover, rather than the modest refresh originally planned. The pickup market is simply too competitive and too important for half-measures.

“Instead, we decided to go crazy,” said Ram brand chief Fred Diaz. “We virtually redesigned the truck from the ground up,” he added, while also suggesting the Ram V-8 would be just as efficient or more so than Ford's EcoBoost six with its twin turbos.

“Turbos are very expensive to replace,” he said, taking a shot at the Ram's rival.

Ford, of course, replaced the F-150's entire engine lineup for the 2011 model year. A V-6 became standard. Ford also moved to offering to two V-8s and that EcoBoost V-6 with its twin turbos.

To boost fuel economy overall by some 20 per cent, Ford gambled with the V-6 move, while also keeping V-8s. Interestingly, demand for the EcoBoost V-6 has been exceeding Ford's wildest expectations. Ford's high-tech, six-cylinder engine has given its best-selling vehicle – the F-Series – an advantage in the cut-throat pickup marketplace.

Auto analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics LLP noted in New York that Ford's most powerful motor will still outclass the Ram. “They [Ram]don't have the horsepower that Ford has,” he said.

Hall added that GM has yet to introduce a modern V-6 in the same class as the EcoBoost-equipped Fords or the new Rams. As it turns out, V-6 engines are key to attracting and holding today's truck customer.

“If you're ever going to really load the truck up, the six is going to be pretty bad,” he said. “But most people never come close to loading their trucks all the way up. For them, one of these new V-6s is going to be fine” and less costly at the pump.

GM, naturally, is well aware of the pickup race and its importance to corporate health and customer satisfaction. Company insiders have said they will do more to differentiate the Sierra from the Chevrolet Silverado when the planned redesigned versions of the pickups go on sale in 2013. The next Sierra may have more standard equipment and cost more than the Silverado and their designs may be more fully differentiated.

“I think you will see equipment and models attacked very differently. If we are going to carry two brands, we are going to make them pay their way,” GM president of North America Mark Reuss said in an interview earlier this year.

As a group, the big rigs have been have paying Detroit's way for years and years, and will surely do so for years and years to come. There will be no peace in the pickup wars. Not now, perhaps not ever.

Read what Jeremy Cato has to say about Canada's top-selling trucks here: In pictures: Canada's top five pickup trucks

jcato@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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