Light trucks. Heavy sales

The manufacturers and marketers of commercial-grade pickups and full-size vans have told me in recent days that 2011 will be a very good year for sales and— remarkably, to me anyway—that last year was even better.

“A lot of commercial pickup and van buyers are doing more than kicking tires,” Eric Guenther, Ford’s general marketing manager-- North American Fleet, Lease & Remarketing Operations (NAFLRO) told me. “Last year was a good one as we saw total industry sales for full-size vans/buses increase 42% over 2009.


CNG-powered Ford Transit Connect

“Those are purely commercial fleet sales, as tracked by R.L. Polk, with fleets defined as having five or more vehicles in a local unit,” Guenther continued. “And Ford outpaced that slightly, being up 49% in van/bus sales.” As for commercial pickups, he says total industry sales were up 40% and Ford’s sales in that segment climbed 47%.

“This year sales won’t be as substantial as the big rebound in 2010, but the market is still moving in the right direction,” noted Guenther. He said Ford “does not get into specific estimates, but in general we expect continued growth in both segments for 2011 of 10 to 20%.”

He pointed out that what happened last year was the “volume customers began buying first and then, by the end of the year into this year’s first quarter, we saw stability for [orders from] big buyers and renewed purchasing by smaller fleets. Light-truck buyers are showing more confidence in the economy and finding it easier to get credit,” which together are driving up sales.

GM Fleet and Commercial’s Joyce Mattman, director of commercial product & specialty vehicles, and Brian Bowden, director of commercial dealer operations, told me much the same as Guenther.

“Overall growth for the total [commercial] industry will be 10 to 15%,” said Mattman. “We continue to see growth in the small-business buyer segment as the economy keeps recovering,” added Bowden, “with full-size pickup and van sales up 30% year to date.

“We’re seeing great acceptance of our GMC and Chevrolet HD pickups and the customers who historically buy vans are coming back,” he continued. “[Right now] we’re up 38% in pickup/van sales.”


GMC Sierra pickup

Bowden noted that GM is “not reporting a lot yet from residential construction buyers, but we are seeing van and pickup sales to firms engaged in home additions and remodeling.

“Another key vocation is agriculture,” he added. “Farmers and ranchers are out buying new heavy-duty pickups and chassis-cabs. Together, the construction and agriculture segments are accounting for 40% of sales volume this year.”

He pointed out that the third big segment for light-duty truck sales is “service repair” providers, such as plumbers, electricians, and appliance and HVAC techs.

Daimler Vans USA (DVU), marketer of the Daimler Sprinter van—now offered here either as a Mercedes-Benz or a Freightliner model-- reports it sold 8,559 Sprinters in 2010-- a 2.5% jump over ’09.

Ernst Lieb, president & CEO of DVU’s parent Mercedes-Benz USA, recently told the media that “we were able to not only sustain our sales performance, but achieve this increase” over the year before.” While not divulging a 2011 Sprinter sales forecast, DVU is “working off a forecast increase of 26% for the marketplace—to 240,000 units [in 2011].”

Peter Bedrosian, senior manager of product planning for Nissan North America, Inc. (NNA), which just launched the market-engineered Nissan NV full-size van, told me that based on R.L. Polk numbers and the OEM’s internal projections the “full-size pickup market will get back to two million in size in the next two years and full-size vans are headed back to their historical volume of 300,00 units in the next two to three years.”


Nissan NV roll-out earlier this year

Bedrosian added jocularly that “commercial customers can only put so much duct tape on their trucks. To be sure, there is pent-up demand out there for new light-duty trucks.”

For a look at what OEMs see as the key demands of light-duty commercial truck fleets and how they're meeting those requirements, keep an eye out for my feature article on this topic in the May print issue of FleetOwner.


Sprinter: First "Eurovan" here-- and still the largest in size