When my friend Dale, a rancher in Saskatchewan, went to replace his GMC Sierra – a dually with the Duramax diesel and the towing power to haul a massive horse trailer – he spent a year studying the order guide. That was a year spent making sure he got just the right combination of features and capabilities in a rig he'd live with for the next decade.
Leonard, a friend from Edmonton, couldn't wait to show me his Ram Crew Cab. When the snow flies, he stuffs his "sleds" – snowmobiles – in the bed and his gear in the back seat, then heads to the back country for a little hunting. No, a lot of hunting. Days of it camped in the snow. Those are his passions: the Ram and hunting with his pals and his boys.
Rob uses his Ford F-Series to tug around his ski boat, back and forth from Vancouver to Canada's only real desert, Osoyoos. Like Dale and Leonard, he can recite every spec, from horsepower to tow rating. He also keeps on top of any service bulletins, alive to any chance of getting some "goodwill" work done for free. And he'd never own any pickup other than a Ford.
My point? Scrap the common wisdom that says we are a nation in love with runabouts. At best, that's only a half-truth. Yes, we buy small cars in big numbers, but only because we must; it's what we can afford, and it's what makes sense for urban dwellers living in big, traffic-clogged cities like Toronto.
Not all of Canada lives in Toronto, though. The truth is, when Canadians sink major coin into a vehicle, most of the time, their affection isn't aimed at a sports car, a luxurious sedan, or an economical hatchback. No, if Canadians are in love with one particular type of vehicle more than any other, it is the full-size pickup. Dale, Leonard and Rob represent hundreds of thousands of Canadians who every year sink tens of thousands into a big pickup with commitment and, yes, affection.
These guys and their ilk are the object of the abiding affection of car companies, too – particularly the Detroit Three, who despite the best efforts of Toyota and Nissan, and a half-hearted whiff from Honda, own the Dales, Leonards and Robs of the world. Together, the Detroit Three control about 93 per cent of the full-size pickup market, a segment that accounted for about 16 per cent of all the new passenger vehicles sold in Canada last year. Yes, Toyota Motor has revealed a redesigned Tundra and Nissan Motor also is updating its Titan truck, but they are blips on the landscape.
And it's not just the size of the market here that matters. It's the richness. When Dale specs out a pickup, the final price reaches $60,000. Leonard's last Ram topped $40,000. And Rob sank $30,000-something into his F-Series. That's real money and it explains why Ford, General Motors and Chrysler so fiendishly defend their pickup turf. This is where the profits are.
This spring, the pickup wars we've seen over the past few years – wars marked by some generous discounting – are about to become heated up the likes of which we've never seen. By fall, when General Motors launches all-new versions of the Sierra and the Chevrolet Silverado for 2014, the Detroit Three will have already been firing broadsides at one another for months.
The most recent came from GM days ago: the all-new Sierra 1500 full-size pickup will have the best V-8 pickup fuel economy in the industry, thanks to direct injection, cylinder deactivation and variable valve timing. GM, in fact, is saying its pickups with the 5.3-lire EcoTec3 V-8 get better fuel economy than a "comparable" 2013 Ford V-8 pickup and a Ram V-8, as well as Ford's 2013 F-150 EcoBoost V-6. That and the GM rigs are rated at 355 hp/383 lb-ft of torque and have "class-leading towing capacity of up to 11,500 pounds."
It is unusual for car companies to dig in with direct assaults like this, but the stakes are too high to play nice. GM has been losing market share to its rivals and that's devastating to a company desperate to goose its profits and share price, thereby speeding up efforts to shed the tag of Government Motors.
Ford has been remarkably successful at pushing fuel economy into the pickup conversation, what with its EcoBoost V-6. In Canada alone last year, Ford sold nearly 107,000 F-Series trucks, an all-time record for any make or model or type of vehicle. The Ram, meanwhile, was reinvented for 2013 with an eight-speed transmission that allowed it to claim outsized fuel economy numbers, too. GM will have the oldest design in the segment only for a few more months. Then the broadsides will fly in ways you cannot imagine.
"There are some things that are endemic to the American car makers; this is one of them," Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne recently told Bloomberg. "All three of us will defend the area tooth-and-nail. It's our business, period."
You're already seeing the early stages of this back-and-forth, confusing and even startling as it is. As Automotive News points out, there is a stunning variety of vehicles within the segment – from stripped-down, two-wheel drive, regular cab pickups that sticker in the low-$20,000s to diesel-powered dually 4x4s at three or perhaps four times that price. That range means "there is plenty of room for auto makers to make competing claims."
Large pickups, says Sliverado chief engineer Jeff Luke, are the "backbone" of the American economy. What he doesn't say is that large pickups are the backbone of GM's economy, too. GM needs them to spin up outsized profits. And so do Ford and Chrysler. According to Morgan Stanley, 90 per cent of Ford's global profits come from pickups. For GM, it's two-thirds.
That's why you're going to see Ford bring out the heavy artillery as it faces an assault from the new 2014 Chevy and GMC picks that arrive this fall, about a year after a major Ram 1500 refresh. Some time later next year, Ford has a remake of the F-Series planned, as well. We saw hints of it in a brawny new F-150 concept at January's Detroit auto show. The production version is set to arrive in the middle of next year, or thereabouts. Which means the fighting will carry on savagely for months to come. Pickups are that important to Detroit.
"It's like an annuity stream that helps underwrite their less-profitable ventures," Adam Jonas, analyst for Morgan Stanley, recently told Bloomberg. "It's the product where they know the customers best because they have generations of experience. There's tremendous brand loyalty and it's a relatively protected market."
In short, the Detroit Three know all too well the importance of this pickup truck love affair. It's wide and its deep and it's rich in more ways than one. And it means war.