Light Duty, HARD WORK

In this age of high fuel prices, where most consumers are trying to slim their light-duty vehicles down so they burn less gasoline and diesel, commercial users are actually looking for ways to bulk up their light-duty trucks in terms of engine power, carrying and towing capacity, and overall size. These are some of the reasons behind the raft of four-door King and Crew Cab options for pickups hitting

In this age of high fuel prices, where most consumers are trying to slim their light-duty vehicles down so they burn less gasoline and diesel, commercial users are actually looking for ways to bulk up their light-duty trucks in terms of engine power, carrying and towing capacity, and overall size. These are some of the reasons behind the raft of four-door King and Crew Cab options for pickups hitting the market this year.

“All the OEMs are now in competition to have the largest payload and biggest GVWR,” explains Douglas Weichman, director of the fleet management division for Palm Beach County, FL. “Just a few years ago, a half-ton pickup's GVWR hovered in the 5,000- to 5,500-lb. range. Now you can get up to 8,300 GVWR if you order the heavy-duty package. Payloads have also gone up, in some cases from 1,000 to 2,300 lb,” he adds.

The same kind of increase in GVWR and payload capacity is happening in the 3/4-ton, one-ton and super-duty segments as well. “Also, you are getting other obvious changes as a result of that GVWR boost, such as many more choices of configurations in terms of standard, heavy-duty, extended cab and crew cab options,” says Weichman.

Then there is the rise of diesel power among all light-duty truck segments — even among vans and lower-GVWR pickup models, where it's been rare in the past.

DIESEL RULES

For example, General Motors is now offering the 6.6-liter Duramax 6600 turbodiesel V-8 for its Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans for 2006. This boosts engine power to 250 hp. at 3,200 rpm, provides 460 lb.-ft. of torque at 1,600 rpm and gives both vans a maximum gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 12,300 lb. and a towing capacity of 10,000 lb. Switching to diesel also helps improve fuel economy to 20.2 mpg, says Jack Blanchard, assistant chief engineer for Duramax diesel engines.

“Diesel power makes the most sense for customers who rely on their vehicles for towing and hauling,” he notes. “With the inherent capabilities of a diesel engine and excellent fuel economy, it's a win-win scenario for van customers.”

“Diesel is becoming a big influence in this light-truck segment,” says Weichman. “Here at Palm Beach County, we pretty much order diesel for any truck one ton or larger, and even some 3/4-ton models, depending on application. It costs more money up front — as a municipal fleet, the up-charge for us is about $2,000 to $3,000 — but in terms of resale value we make up a lot of that,” he explains. “Our vehicles idle a lot, which dovetails with a diesel's strengths. In addition, maintenance and durability are also much better on diesel engines.”

For Weichman, who is responsible for an annual budget of $18 million and a staff of 67 to purchase, maintain, and dispose of 3,000 pieces of equipment and to supply fueling services for 4,600 vehicles at 12 automated fuel sites, one aviation fuel site and 22 tank vaults at fire stations, the increased size and power of light trucks is a welcome trend.

“We're getting more efficiency and more productivity,” he explains. “It allows us to use one truck across multiple applications instead of buying two. We're getting better resale value, as well as better reliability and durability over the six- to eight-year life cycle we expect from these vehicles. We have more options and capabilities than before.”

“On both the medium- and light-duty sides, we have seen that consumers generally want three things: engine power, fuel economy, and durability,” says John Tews, a spokesman for J.D. Power & Associates. “They want an engine that provides the power needed for their specific use, whether it be a medium-duty truck hauling gravel or a pickup pulling a trailer of supplies to the job site. They also want fuel economy and quality and reliability with their engine and transmission.”

J.D. Power's research also indicates that there's major growth in 4WD vehicles in the car and light-truck market. In fact, they anticipate a nearly 37% market penetration of 4WD vehicles by 2008. According to its 2004 Global 4WD-Driveline Market Report, about 64% of all SUVs are equipped with 4WD, followed by pickups (42%), vans (4%) and cars (3%).

CHOICES

General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler (via it's Dodge subdivision) continue to make power the major battleground in the heavy-duty pickup arena, and are now being joined by Japanese manufacturers Toyota and Nissan.

In 2001, GM rolled out a completely redesigned line of pickups — the Chevrolet Silverado 2500 and 3500, along with the GMC Sierra 2500 and 3500 — sporting more power from its own gasoline and Duramax diesel engine lines (an optional 6.6-liter diesel producing 590 lb.-ft. of torque at 1,600 rpm), and an Allison automatic transmission option.

Dodge picked up the challenge in 2003 by retooling its Ram 2500 and 3500 to match the styling of its 1500 light-duty pickup, while adding a 5.7-liter HEMI Magnum V8 gasoline powerplant and a 5.9-liter diesel option that enables the Ram 3500 to tow more than 15,000 lb.

Ford hasn't sat idly by in this segment, either, now offering an all-new 32-valve 6.0-liter V-8 PowerStroke turbodiesel engine built by partner International Truck & Engine Corp. that produces 325 hp. at 3,300 rpm and 560 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,000 rpm — at better fuel economy and lower emissions than the 7.3-liter engine it replaces.

On the light-duty side, Ford introduced the next-generation of its F-150 for the 2004 model year, offering a new 5.4-liter V8 engine, more interior room and a deeper bed for better cargo capacity.

Nissan and Toyota are starting to apply some competitive heat in the light-duty truck market‥

Nissan rolled out its Titan pickup last year equipped with a standard 305-hp. V8 gasoline engine offering towing capacity of over 9,000 lb. Interestingly, Nissan only offers an extended King Cab or four-door crew cab with the Titan, completely forgoing a regular cab option.

Toyota's Tundra has made inroads as well, although like Nissan's Titan it lacks a diesel-engine option, which is hampering its efforts to compete on the commercial side of the light truck market as a whole. The Tundra's Access and Double Cab models can seat six people, just like the crew cab versions of Ford, GM and Dodge pickups. The Tundra also boasts a bigger gasoline powerplant now — a 282-hp. 4.7-liter i-FORCE V8.

The light-duty side of the pickup market is also where the newest challenger, the four-door Ridgeline from Honda, is getting attention from fleet managers. The new vehicle offers a 255-hp., 3.5-liter SOHC VTEC V-6 engine with 252 lb.-ft. of torque. Fuel economy ranges from 16 to 21 mpg, giving it a range of 462 miles with its 22-gal. tank. The integrated closed-box frame with unibody construction offers up to 20 times the torsional rigidity of traditional body-on-frame truck designs, according to Honda, and offers 1,550-lb. hauling capacity and 5,000-lb. towing capacity; 4WD is optional.

“Since it's a single complete structure, as opposed to most pickups where the bed is bolted on to the frame, it should be more durable,” says Weichman. “That's why we're looking at it.”

One of the biggest changes in how OEMs approach building bigger and more powerful light trucks is the inclusion of what used to be considered aftermarket additions into their factory-built offerings.

Take Ford's new TowCommand System, the first factory-installed and warrantied electronic trailer brake controller in the light truck market, available of 2005 model Ford Super-Duty pickups.

“It's about giving light truck users more power and control all integrated into a more efficient factory-built package,” explains Phil O'Connor, F-Series Super Duty marketing manager. “This used to be only an aftermarket option. Now it is integrated right into the vehicle to maximize the control, confidence, and efficiency for the light truck user.”

TWO WARNINGS

TowCommand gives the driver audible and visual warnings if trailer wiring becomes disconnected. It's integrated into an in-dash unit, alerting the driver when the truck's antilock braking system detects poor traction, while automatically modulating the trailer brakes in real time. Ford's TowCommand System also includes its TorqShift transmission with tow-haul mode, beefed-up brakes and telescoping trailer tow mirrors.

It's a big deal, notes O'Connor, because 90% of F-Series buyers use their trucks to tow trailers and 80% use them to haul significant payloads, according to Ford's research.

“It's safer and easier to operate because this system is all bundled into the basic platform, not spliced in there as an aftermarket option would be,” he says.

More factory-built options are a big deal with fleet managers as well, notes Palm Beach's Weichman, as it tends to make the vehicle operate more smoothly.

“Take transmissions — many now come available with a PTO port,” he explains. “That's a wonderful thing for us — no more adding a hydraulic pump on the front end of the engine or having to use non-OEM serpentine belts to drive that pump for things like cranes, air compressors and aerial buckets.”

“It's all part of the design trend to get more capability and power out of light trucks,” adds Ford's O'Connor. “The reason you are seeing significantly more horsepower and torque in today's light trucks is that they are being asked to haul more and tow more, and that includes people,” he continues.

“We're seeing an across-the-board explosion in demand for crew and super-crew cabs that can carry up to six adults comfortably,” notes O'Connor. “That's all about efficiency — getting all the people and equipment you need to the work site with just one truck.”

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