F-150, Ram, Silverado: ‘The best 3 trucks ever built’ go to war

CHICAGO, IL - Ford F-150 pickup trucks are offered for sale at a dealership on Sept. 6, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Ford loves to point out that an F-Series pickup rolls off the assembly line every 53 seconds or so. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - Ford F-150 pickup trucks are offered for sale at a dealership on Sept. 6, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Ford loves to point out that an F-Series pickup rolls off the assembly line every 53 seconds or so. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

An unprecedented truck war is raging in Detroit.

Is it possible for the all-new Ram 1500 or Chevy Silverado to cut into the dominating market share of the best-selling Ford F-150 and F-Series pickups?

Consumers are buying. Bean counters are watching, with billions of dollars on the line.

Fiat Chrysler’s five-year plan, outlined this spring, aspires for Ram to overtake Silverado as the nation’s No. 2 pickup. But truck buyers are a loyal bunch. History suggests shoppers don’t switch brands lightly.

The F-Series is not just the best-selling truck with Silverado and Ram second and third; these are the best-selling vehicles of any kind in the United States. They are crucial to domestic automakers’ profits and, along with SUVs, an increasing share of their production as consumers move away from sedans.

“Detroit may have been through hell and back in the last 10 years, but these are the best three trucks ever built,” said Eric Noble, a product development consultant and professor of vehicle technology at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “Their factories are running flat out, import competitors have faded into the rearview mirror, and transaction prices have never been higher.

“This isn’t war, it’s a Detroit block party.”

These aren’t your father’s full-size pickups. They’re deluxe. Average transaction prices for pickups are nearing $50,000, and large truck sales accounted for nearly $1 of every $5 spent in the car industry in 2017, said Ivan Drury, senior manager of industry analysis for Edmunds. Some versions can cost more than $100,000.

Sales are hot, with the full-size pickup segment up 2.6 percent in 2018 through August. In 2017, American shoppers bought nearly 2.4 million full-size pickups.

Ford is looking to shatter an F-150 sales record set 14 years ago.

The competitors are selling big, too.

“Full-size pickup trucks are a uniquely American vehicle — large, full of capability and the embodiment of hard work,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst, covering North and South America for IHS Markit. “For Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler, they are also among the most profitable vehicles in the portfolio, and their relatively high volume means they are also significant contributors to overall corporate revenue. Ford has been the segment leader … and the company is not going give that title up willingly.”

The 2019 F-150 is an update, going up against completely new Ram and Silverado models. It’s the first time in memory that two of the top three trucks have been all new in the same model year, intensifying competition to a new level.

GM’s GMC Sierra luxury truck sells in smaller numbers — No. 17 in overall U.S. vehicle sales last year — but it’s brand new, too.

In raw numbers, the F-Series has an unassailable lead. Ford sold more than 896,000 F-Series trucks last year, the 41st year it was the best-selling truck and the 36th year it was the top selling vehicle overall.

In 2017 through August, Ford sold 576,334 F-Series while GM sold 363,354 Silverados and Fiat Chrysler sold 327,759 Rams.

By the same time this year, Ford sold 603,926 full-size trucks; Silverado sold 378,731 and Ram sold 323,727.

Rare competition

“Everyone needs a truck,” said Jim Morrison, head of Ram brand for Fiat Chrysler North America. “New technology and features like we have added to the 2019 Ram make the pickup truck a no-compromise choice for any buyer or any family.”

Drury, the Edmunds analyst, explained the stakes:

“These trucks don’t just represent sales; they’ve essentially become halo vehicles for brands with their badges, having evolved from their utilitarian roots to become luxury barges that appeal to a vaster swath of drivers.

“This is going to be one of the biggest truck wars the industry has ever seen, with each major player entering the battlefield with a redesign or refresh,” Drury said. “And, since GM and FCA will continue production of their classic versions, truck buyers will have even more variety on hand now than ever.

Mark LaNeve, Ford vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, is confident about his company’s lock on the segment.

“F-Series pickups will always be targeted by the competition,” he said. “This year, F-Series market share is up almost a full point, while expanding transaction pricing by more than $1,000 per truck, due to strong retail demand for high-end pickups,” he said.

GM sees F-150-Ram fight

Meanwhile, GM officials hope a battle between Ford and Fiat Chrysler moves GM to the front of the pack.

“Our truck launch for the next generation of Silverado and Sierra is very cadenced,” said Jim Cain, U.S. sales analyst for GM. “We can watch Ford and Chrysler beat each other’s brains and play our own game. You don’t see a lot of movement between brands in the pickup market historically. But in today’s market, you have a lot of innovation with brands like Chevrolet, GMC and even Ram on some models and create an opportunity for you to conquest in ways you never have before.”

Truck customers work with their trucks, help their neighbors with their trucks, haul their toys with their trucks, commute in their trucks. Companies emphasize that trucks’ appeal continues to grow more broadly than in years past.

Andrew Frick, Ford director of marketing, sales and service, acknowledged competitors are “ramping up.”

Still, he said, “If you take a look at our performance, we’ve sold over 600,000 F-Series by August 2018, and that’s up 5 percent on a year-over-year basis. We saw a shift into Ram coming out of Silverado. Ford F-Series did over 35 percent of the pickup truck segment.”

Ford says the company’s lead is holding and growing in full-size pickups.

“Our competitors are claiming to be eating our lunch? That can’t be true based on sales numbers,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. sales analyst for Ford.

“The real war in pickups is not for No. 1, but for the No. 2 position. F-Series outsells Silverado by 225,195 pickups this year,” Merkle said. “However, Ram has been closing in on Silverado. Look at Silverado share versus Ram going back to 2010. Ram is challenging Silverado. You can also see that Ram’s share peaked in 2017. F-Series has not only expanded its share of the full-size pickup segment this year, but it has done so while expanding its average transaction pricing, too. That is no small feat.”

Economic factors

No one seems to question the public’s appetite for trucks. There are other considerations that analysts are watching: economic indicators.

“If we use new construction starts as a barometer for predicting pickup truck sales, we will likely see a slowdown or decline into the coming year,” said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive. “It’s normal in this stage in an economic cycle to see a slowdown in construction; the early signs are already there. And that is often a signal for slowing pickup sales. On the upside for pickups, Trump-era tax reform disproportionately benefits heartland consumers, who are more likely to buy trucks than their coastal counterparts.”

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Autotrader, said the competition “is going to become increasingly intense, particularly since the overall market is not growing but rather is contracting a bit. Truck sales will not be immune to the contraction if the economic environment deteriorates and trickles down to the construction industry, the lifeblood of truck sales.”