Changing perspectives on pickups

Demand for better fuel economy and functionality ramps up

Time used to be that toughness was the only attribute a pickup needed. Squared off on all four corners like concrete blocks, Fords, Chevys, and Dodges serving on the commercial front lines needed no more finesse, efficiency or functionality than a hammer or chisel: They were tools powered by big block engines so they could get all manner of work completed.

Now, however, things are changing. In addition to toughness, power, performance, and reliability, owners across the spectrum are also demanding fuel efficiency along with far more subtle features such as improved interior configurations to support the “mobile office” function pickups now fulfill.

Demand for alternative fuel options are on the upswing, too, note pickup OEMs, especially for bi-fuel systems capable of operating on compressed natural gas (CNG) and gasoline but not necessarily from expected quarters. Bob Hegbloom, director of Chrysler’s Ram Trucks division, says the demand pattern for the company’s new bi-fuel 2500 HD pickups unveiled in March shifted unexpectedly right from the start.

“We originally laid it out as a big fleet play, a truck that large fleets operating 50 to 100 vehicles or more would be the most capable of utilizing as they had more resources to address CNG refueling infrastructure needs,” he explains. “But right away, we started getting calls from our dealers for a ‘retail’ option so they could sell these bi-fuel trucks to small fleets operating, say, five vehicles as well as individual buyers. That was a piece of the demand picture we weren’t prepared for. It was just surprising how fast demand for such alternative fuel options spread.”

Ram’s bi-fuel 2500 HD pickup will be sold in a crew cab configuration with either a long or short bed for $47,000, the company notes. Powered by a 5.7L Hemi V8 engine linked to a 6-spd. automatic, it comes equipped with two CNG tanks providing 18.2 gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE) worth of storage secured in the pickup’s bed to its frame. The truck also comes with an 8-gal. gasoline tank that can be upgraded to a 35-gal. option by Canadian customers.

Hegbloom says the reason for the interest in such a bifuel platform is pretty simple: cost. With diesel engines and mandated emissions control systems adding in some cases $10,000 to the base sticker price of a heavy-duty pickup, fleets and individual buyers alike are exploring any number of options to help drive down the all-important total cost of ownership (TCO) calculation for their vehicles. That includes looking at alternative fuels, such as natural gas, that can potentially deliver significant savings over the expected lifecycle of heavy-duty pickups without compromising their tool-like characteristics, says Brian Raithsburg, F-Series Super Duty marketing manager for Ford Motor.

He notes that Westport LD, a wholly owned subsidiary of Canada-based Westport Innovations, is one of six qualified vehicle modifiers (QVMs) that will be providing a bifuel system for Ford’s F-250 and F-350 SuperDuty models. Westport will be providing its WiNG Power System.

IT’S A GAS

Westport LD notes that the upcharge for equipping either of those Ford Super Duty models with the WiNG system is $9,750. An extra $1,200 will be added if buyers want to add a 24 GGE CNG storage tank array versus the standard 18.4 GGE package, a cost right in line with the $8,000 to $10,000 extra required to power such models with diesel engines, Raithsburg says.

“It gives pickup operators a strategic opportunity, especially for small fleets,” he explains. “For those operating in Texas, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, for example, where public CNG filling stations exist in numbers, they can achieve savings from the lower cost of natural gas over time. That clearly factors into the TCO decisions they’re making.”

General Motors is also traveling the bi-fuel pickup trail, offering its Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD and GMC Sierra 2500 HD with factory-installed CNG/gasoline systems with 17 GGE worth of CNG storage coupled to a 36 gal. gasoline tank. The CNG tank occupies only 25% of the usable space in the pickup bed, the company said. GM notes that its bifuel pickup models are priced $11,000 above gasoline-only versions and cautions that there is a 12% falloff in horsepower when the vehicle shifts from gasoline to CNG power.

Still, Dan Tigges, GM’s product manager for full-size trucks, says owners are examining alternative fuel options far more closely as they search for ways to rein in fuel costs. “We’ve offered dedicated natural gas options for our vans for some time, but this bi-fuel system addresses a couple of other issues,” he explains. “First, it removes the concern over range. If CNG isn’t available, they can operate solely on gasoline. And second, it provides a full factory-warranted system [customers will] be able to take to the 4,000 Chevrolet and GMC dealerships for repairs.”

Dealing with the rising cost of diesel and gasoline is also being addressed more broadly in other ways as well, Tigges notes, alongside deeper investigation of alternative fuels. For some time, out of mind “capability,” which incorporates metrics such as horsepower, torque, reliability, durability, and longevity, took the top slot on the list of attributes demanded by commercial users of pickup trucks, he says. Now that’s rapidly changing.

“Fuel economy was also a concern but a distant one because the first priority for these pickup users was to get a tool to get the job done,” Tigges says. “After that came the lifecycle cost of the vehicle, which included factors such as initial purchase price and fuel economy.”

Thus, the fuel economy portion of that lifecycle cost equation is taking on far greater weight, he notes, to the point where commercial operators are actually selecting different models compared to past preferences in order to gain better fuel efficiency.

“We continue to hear that customers are taking the fuel economy piece up a big notch within the overall cost of ownership structure, and we’re seeing a lot of movement down the model chain as a result,” explains Ford’s Raithsburg. “We’re seeing fleets move from an F-450 down to an F-350 or F-250—even an F-150—to gain a lighter chassis with better fuel economy that can still get the job done. That’s not just happening to us; it’s happening industry-wide.”

MORE BEEF

It’s happening, in part, because OEMs are also increasing the capability of their lighter models, giving them more horsepower and torque and resulting in more payload and towing capacity while retaining fuel-sipping characteristics.

Take the new 2013 model Ram 1500 pickup rolled out by Chrysler’s Ram Trucks division back in April of this year. It features a redesigned 3.6L Pentastar V6 engine that cranks out 305 hp. and 269 lbs.-ft. of torque—42% and 13% more, respectively, than the 3.7L V6 it replaces.

Ram’s Hegbloom says that when combined with the company’s new 8-spd. TorqueFlite 8 automatic transmission, the 2013 Ram 1500 offers a 20% improvement in fuel economy to the tune of 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. Further, Ram’s optional 5.7L V8 Hemi, equipped with what Ram calls “fuel saver technology” and variablevalve timing, cranks out 395 hp. and 407 lbs.-ft. of torque, yet offers a 10% improvement in fuel economy over the V8 powertrain it replaces.

That extra power gives the 2013 Ram 1500 heavy-duty tradesman model, which automatically comes spec’d with the V8 package, 11,500 lbs. worth of towing capacity and 3,125 lbs. of payload. As a result, Hegbloom is seeing customers “downshift” from heavier and more fuel-consuming 1-ton and ¾-ton pickups into the ½-ton Ram segment because they aren’t sacrificing much capability to gain better fuel economy.

“The cost of fuel is now so extremely important within the total cost of operation calculation for these truck users,” he points out. “This shift is application-specific; these trucks are first and foremost viewed as tools by these users for their businesses...But today, fuel economy is a primary factor in that tool selection process. It’s become one of the key buying requirements in this segment.”

“Fuel economy has definitely crept up on everyone’s list,” says Joyce Mattman, director of GM commercial products and specialty vehicles. “The interesting thing is that all vehicles in this segment have more power and capability...so the opportunity is better than before to downsize in order to gain better fuel efficiency,” she notes. “And when a fleet downsizes, they also typically get a less expensive truck as well. That’s two wins—less cost and better fuel economy—if they can do it.”

Yet it’s not all about cost. Ford’s Raithsburg stresses it’s about functionality, too, especially as many pickups are becoming more and more like mobile offices than just mere rough-and-tumble work tools. “For many of our customers, the interior configuration is critical—power outlets and work spaces for laptop computers, extra storage space, cup holder design, and how they can integrate mobile communication devices into the vehicle,” he says.

MOBILE OFFICE

For example, Raithsburg points to Ford’s Sync onboard computer system that can be added to its F-Series Super Duty truck line. In-cab voice-controlled connectivity for compatible mobile phones and media players via Bluetooth or USB ports allows drivers to make calls and play music using voice control.

The 2013 F-Series Super Duty builds on the foundation of Sync with MyFord Touch, available with a new 8-in., high-resolution touchscreen display that gives drivers easy access to phone, climate control, entertainment and navigation features along with a dramatically expanded voice control vocabulary. The display provides a large, clear view behind the truck when in reverse to help drivers maneuver in tight spaces or line up conventional trailers with the truck’s hitch, Raithsburg says. The company’s truck designers also optimized the physical interface for MyFord Touch to accommodate users who may be wearing work gloves by providing easy access to climate controls and audio presets on the center stack, he says.

Ryan Nagode, chief of Ram’s interior design, points out that his company is aiming for a “trickle-down effect” when it comes to pickup interiors, trying to sprinkle some of the higher end features found on the luxury versions of Ram models down into the base models.

“We’re doing things to improve the materials in the headliners, visors, and door coverings because we know how much time customers are now spending in these vehicles,” Nagode explains. “When they are using their pickup as a mobile office, it’s got to have some of those comfort factors as well as extra storage, space for laptops, iPods, and iPhones. We’ve made numerous little tweaks to improve on that functionality.”

That includes the Uconnect Media Center R3 and Media Center R4 being offered on the 2013 Ram 1500. An onboard computer system with WiFi hotspot capability, the systems are crafted around an 8.4-in. screen with a built-in cellular connection so vehicle occupants can be automatically connected to the Internet.

“It’s all about providing a more functional work tool to truck owners in this segment,” Nagode says.

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