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Ford F-150 pickup trucks sit on a dealership lot. (File photo) (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)
Ford F-150 pickup trucks sit on a dealership lot. (File photo) (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)

Driving It Home

Detroit owns the pickup market. Cars... not so much Add to ...

Detroit’s car companies own the pickup truck world and it’s pretty impressive. The car business? A work in progress.

First, pickups. Chrysler Canada’s Ram sales surged 22 per cent in May, to an all-time monthly record of 8,045 units. The Ram remains the second-best selling vehicle in Canada.

Ah, but the best-selling vehicle is the Ford F-Series pickup. Ford of Canada moved 12,740 in May, a year-on-year jump of 20 per cent.

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And let me just add that General Motors of Canada sold 24,268 full-size pickups through the first quarter of 2013. The Chevrolet Silverado was up 7.7 per cent and the GMC Sierra up 8.9 per cent. With the arrival this summer of all-new versions of the Silverado and Sierra, look for the upward trend in pickup sales at GM to march onward.

We tend to take Detroit’s pickup story for granted and we shouldn’t. Detroit owns this segment despite very serious challenges by Nissan (with the Titan) and Toyota (with the Tundra).

Try as they will, Nissan and Toyota are not serious players here. To me that’s truly shocking. Nissan and Toyota are both very capable companies, yet they cannot figure out the pickup game.

Frankly, I don’t see Detroit losing ground in pickups, not this decade anyway. That’s the good news.

The bad news for Detroit is that important passenger car segments remain a challenge. Not all segments and not for all three Detroit companies in all instances, mind you. But Detroit struggles in surprising places, at least from time to time.

Take the Dodge Dart. Here is a compact car with nice looks, plenty of features and a competitive price (starting at $15,995). Yet this year Chrysler Canada is selling an average of 843 Darts a month. In April alone, Hyundai sold 5,535 Elantras.

The Elantra is Canada’s top-selling car and is for now the measure of success here. Thus, the 4,213 Darts Chrysler Canada has sold to date represent something of a disappointment. The numbers tell you how far Chrysler has to go to pose a challenge to the best in the segment. A big job.

Then there’s General Motors. Through April this year, GM Canada had sold 2,778 Malibu mid-size sedans, for a year-on-year increase of 69.8 per cent. While the percentage improvement looks good, Ford of Canada sold 6,734 Fusion mid-sizers during the same period.

The Fusion right now is Canada’s top-selling mid-size car, by the way. We can conclude, then, that Detroit is capable of building competitive cars, which suggests something very positive. But I would argue Detroit is building too many so-so passenger cars and not enough Fusions.

I am talking about cars like the Dart and the Malibu. Neither is setting the market on fire and for different reasons.

When it comes to the Dart, the problem seems two-fold. First, Dodge doesn’t offer a hatchback version of the Dart, so the car is competing in only half the compact market. That said, half of the top six compact cars in Canada aren’t offered in hatchback form (the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and the Volkswagen Jetta).

The second Dart problem is marketing. To fix that, Chrysler Canada is rolling out three new made-in-Canada television spots for the Dart, each of them 30 seconds long. This is good. Far, far too much of the automotive marketing in Canada is borrowed from whatever happens to be running in the United States and it often doesn’t work here.

Contrary to what many U.S. parent companies think, Canada is NOT the U.S. Lite – we are not a northerly version of Wisconsin. We’re different and to reach us requires Canadian-specific marketing.

The Dart does have a story, though. The version with the best fuel economy is solid at the pump (4.9 litres/100 km on the highway), the car has a five-star crash test rating and it has a best-in-class 8.4-inch touchscreen, to name three important features. It’s time for Dodge to get some attention for the Dart and the new marketing will surely help.

Meantime, GM is rushing an updated version of the Chevy Malibu into showrooms. Remember, the Malibu was reinvented for the 2013 model year, so this is an unusual step, one aimed at blunting critics who wondered why the “new” Malibu had a smaller back seat than the old one and was less a car in other important ways.

Well, the new new 2014 Malibu is, according to GM, a “roomier, more refined and more efficient execution of its mid-size sedan. It has “updated styling, a revised interior, a new 2.5-litre standard engine and suspension enhancements.” Look for it this fall.

Give credit to Chevy for racing to fix a budding disaster. The old GM would not move with such speed and alacrity. While GM’s North American president, Mark Reuss, would never admit that the 2013 car has flaws, he does say this: “The mid-size sedan segment is the most contested in the industry and we’re not sitting still with the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu.”

To my way of thinking, that comment is tacit admission of the flaws that threatened to sink the Malibu in the longer term. The old GM would never have done this. Instead, it would have offered deep, profit-sapping discounts for the next three or four years, hoping the next Malibu remake would fix the ailments.

Detroit’s auto companies, then, are working form a position of strength – pickups. Their challenge is to evolve into not just pickup and SUV builders, but true car companies, top to bottom. This might just be happening, though it can be at times painful to watch.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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