GM’s new rigs start rolling into showrooms this June. (General Motors)

Brand Strategy

Why GM cares about pickup trucks more than any other vehicle

SAN ANTONIO, TEX. — Special to The Globe and Mail

Nothing matters more to the continued revival and future success of General Motors than the all-new, full-size pickups. Nothing.

Not the ongoing revival of Cadillac, which seems to have gathered some steam with the well-received ATS and the impending remake of the CTS.

Not the reinvented 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray coming this fall as the brand’s halo car.

Not Chevy’s 4.95 million sales last year (more than half of GM’s 9.2 million sales last year).

Not the Chevy Volt and GM’s vehicle electrification program, the latest example of which is the Chevy Spark EV.

Not the 700,000 Chinese drivers who bought Buicks last year (and the 180,000 or so who went Buick in North America, too).

Not the revival of GM’s Opel business, which over decades has cost the company billions in losses. Will Opel ever make money? Stay tuned.

Nothing matters like the pickups. The Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra are GM’s biggest money-makers and they serve GM’s most loyal customers. They also speak directly to GM’s ability to create complex products and engineer a complicated launch, one that has GM slowly phasing out the 2013 rigs, replacing them with the 2014 model – quad cab, crew cab and standard cab, in that order.

The mark of success will be simple: GM will sell 700,000-plus Silverados and Sierras in a full calendar year, every year for years to come. And GM will do so without tossing out the big discounts, the incentives worth many thousands of dollars on the outgoing trucks. If you want a great bargain on the old truck, you’ll find it in a 2013 Silverado or Sierra.

GM is coming at this whole launch with a mixture of fear and anticipation. Jeff Luke, the Canadian who’s the chief engineer on the project, is careful not to oversell us here at the first drive of the 2014 Silverado, but he seems confident enough and he does have some so-called “surprise and delight” pieces to feed us.

There are the basics, such as what GM is claiming is the “best V-8 fuel consumption” and “best available tow ratings of any light-duty pickup.” A pickup has to tow and haul and these days it needs to do so without sucking down obscene amounts of fuel.

Still, GM is being cautious on the powertrain front. That is, the company does not plan a light-duty diesel engine, even though this seems an obvious need. In fact, the rival Ram pickup from the Chrysler Group is going to get a diesel in the near future. Meanwhile, Ford’s solution is not diesel, but V-6 engines that get a boost from direct fuel injection and turbocharging.

Not GM. However, the three new aluminum engines for 2014 are all strong and thrifty. They are also direct-injection engines and they all are capable of shutting down cylinders to save fuel when the extra power isn’t needed. Luke says his team believes it has the torque and the power and the fuel economy for today’s truck buyers, without the complications of turbocharging, nor the emissions and cost issues of diesel.

So there you go. His trucks are also strong, quiet, comfortable, refined and pleasant to drive. The cabins are handsome and far more sensible than what’s come before, and little things like LED lights in the rails above the cargo bed will be appreciated by pickup buyers – especially those who use a tonneau cover and need to see in an otherwise darkened bed space.

He also thinks the pricing makes sense. GM’s new rigs start rolling into showrooms this June. The crew cabs come first and they are priced from $30,995. Next, the 2014 double cabs arrive ($29,435, followed in the fall by the regular cabs ($25,540). The double cab replaces the outgoing extended cab and has proper framed doors, unlike the swing-out design of the old extended cab.

The engines? The first we’ll see is the 5.3-litre V-8 (355 horsepower/383 lb-ft of torque). A new 4.3-litre V-6 is rated at 285 hp/305 lb-ft and, by the end of this year, a 6.2-litre V-8 will be the beast of the group. No rating for it, yet.

True to pickup form at GM, these are pushrod engines, but that doesn’t mean they’re old-fashioned. They have a compact design and are made of weight-saving aluminum (blocks and cylinder heads). GM says the 5.3 has an estimated fuel economy of up to 8.7 litres/100 km. That’s the two-wheel-drive model and GM is quick to add that this is the best fuel economy of any V-8 pickup – “better than Ford’s EcoBoost V-6.” The gamesmanship begins.

And then there’s the towing piece. Even the smallest engine, the V-6, has a tow rating up to 7,200 pounds. If you have a good-sized ski boat, you can tow it with this pickup because the 7,200 number is “the highest for any base V-6 in the segment.” And the 5.3-litre V-8 with the max towing package will do up to 11,500 pounds – “more than any light-duty pickup currently on the market.”

Most, best, biggest – yes, the pickup game is pretty macho.

I mean, GM insists that the new V-6 has the most torque and highest towing rating of any standard V-6. Luke and company are being careful not to talk numbers, but they suggest the 6.2-litre V-8 will out-perform comparable V-8s in rival pickups.

And then they start talking about the coming High Country model. It will be both rugged and luxurious like nothing we’ve seen. A high-end rig for Texans like, oh, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Jerry or his ilk would then be in a place where he can brag to his fellow pickup truck owners about how tough their trucks are, the ones stuffed with high-strength steel in the frames and cabs and the smart use of aluminum alloys to reduce weight wherever possible.

But what they’ll notice most are the new interiors. The designers worked hard to cluster controls and readouts in a sensible way, rather than toss them around wherever they could find space. The materials look good without being fluffy, the cabs have all sorts of storage space (you can store a laptop in the centre console) and there are as many power and USB connections as you’ll find in the average house.

What’s hasn’t changed dramatically is the exterior design. If you park the old truck side-by-side with the new one, the differences pop out. But, at a distance and with no obvious frame of reference, the new truck looks a heck of a lot like the old one. That’s by design, says Luke. Silverado buyers are a conservative, careful lot and they don’t like change much. So GM was careful with making big visual changes, instead focusing on the functionality.

We spent most of a day driving V-6 and 5.3-litre V-8 rigs, on highway stretches, over unpaved roads and towing and hauling. With a big trailer in tow, even the V-6 is capable and the V-8 can yank around a pretty heavy load. I still like the torque of a diesel in any truck, but the gas engines are completely solid.

All in all, it’s a good truck. GM needs it to be and will send that message in every way imaginable over the next few months, as the launch unfolds. Because nothing matters more to GM than these pickups.

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