New options aim to sustain light truck boom A Ford Motor Co. assembly line

New options aim to sustain light truck boom

OEMs continue to roll out a bevy of upgrades, enhancements, and custom options for their pickup models in part to help sustain the ongoing sales boom in the light truck segment of the U.S. automotive market.

Ford Motor Co., for one, plans to introduce a new “sport package” for its F-150 pickup line this fall –  the 2014 Ford F-150 Tremor – which is the first short-wheelbase regular-cab F-150 powered by Ford's 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged direct injection V-6 EcoBoost engine.

The Tremor pickup also offers what the OEM called a “stylish FX Appearance” package with “flat-black accents including 20-inch flat-black wheels, stylized graphics on the truck body, and black badges with red lettering.

Even Ford’s Tremor is by the OEM’s admission a “niche-market” product it also exemplifies how light truck makers are trying to capitalize on the surging demand for pickups. “The new Tremor gives F-150 customers yet another option to drive a highly capable, distinctive performance truck with features typically found only in the aftermarket,” said Brian Bell, F-150 product marketing manager.

Indeed, demand is riding high for light trucks, as Ford noted that while its U.S. sales increased 13% overall this past June compared with the same month in 2012, truck sales were up 20%, compared to cars (a 12% jump) and utility vehicles such as SUVs and crossovers (up 8%).

"We're particularly encouraged by strong retail share gains, especially in coastal markets, where the combination of great design and fuel economy is resonating with customers,” said Ken Czubay, Ford’s VP for U.S. marketing, sales and Service. “We continued to see strong demand across the entire lineup in June [with] F-Series sales up 24% at 68,009 vehicles. This was the best June sales month for F-Series since 2005.”

Chrysler is also pushing hard to take advantage of surging light truck demand, with its Ram Trucks division officially introducing its new “EcoDiesel” 3.0-liter small-displacement engine – a rollout that’s been in the works since February this year – that will be mated with the 2014 Ram 1500 model pickup, which starts with a base manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) of $24,200, plus $1,095 destination charge.

Ram noted, though, that the EcoDiesel engine option adds $2,850 to that base cost, compared to a 1500 model that comes standard with a 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 engine.

Ram is also introducing what it claims to be the largest displacement V-8 engine in the heavy-duty pickup truck segment in its 2014 Ram 2500 HD: an optional 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 cranking out 410 hp with 429 lb.-ft. of torque that features variable valve timing (VVT) with fuel-saver cylinder deactivation.

Chrysler said the new pickup, which has a starting MSRP of $30,695 (including destination charges), said the optional 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 adds $1,495 to the sticker price.

Again, the push to roll out more light truck variants dovetails with strong sales for such models, with Chrysler noting that Ram Truck sales jumped up 23% to 30,933 units in June – the largest percentage sales gain of any Chrysler Group brand in June and best June sales numbers since 2007 – while the Ram division posting a 23% increase in year-to-date sales to 175,062 units compared to the same stretch in 2012.

Ram added that sales of its light duty pickup increased 36% in June compared to the same month last year, driven by the Quad and Crew Cab pickups, while heavy duty pickup sales jumped 5% and the Ram Cargo Van posted its best sales month since it launched in 2011, with 1,291 units sold.

“Chrysler Group set seven individual vehicle line sales records in June and achieved our 39th-consecutive month of year-over-year sales growth," noted Reid Bigland, Chrysler’s head of U.S. sales. “The fundamentals for continued industry gains in new vehicle sales remain intact.”

Toyota Motor Sales (TMS), U.S.A., said its truck sales increased nearly 14% in June, with the light-duty Tacoma and heavy-duty Tundra both posting double-digit gains, with June sales of 14,023 units and 9,759 units, respectively.

“The auto industry led the economic recovery through the first half of 2013, kicking off a strong summer selling season, which we expect will carry into the second half of the year,” said Bill Fay, Toyota Division group VP and GM. “Sales in June were solid, and demand didn't skip a beat.”

General Motors said its U.S. sales jumped 6% in June to 264,843 vehicles, with truck sales – which include pickups, vans and SUVs – up 8% compared to a 4% jump in passenger car sales and 9% increase in total crossover vehicle sales, all compared to June 2012 numbers.

“We have good momentum heading into the second half of 2013,” said Kurt McNeil, GM’s VP-U.S. sales operations. “The economic outlook is solid and our launch vehicles are performing well in the marketplace.”

Large pickup sales were up 23%, he noted, including a 49% increase in Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra sales to small business customers, who are benefiting from the recovery in housing and overall economic growth.

GM estimates that the seasonally adjusted annual selling rate for light vehicles in June was 15.8 million units, the highest level since November 2007, and that level should stay high, added Mustafa Mohatarem, the OEM’s chief economist.

“America’s families are better off than they were at the beginning of the year and they believe – with good justification – that the economic expansion is going to continue,” he explained. “Even moderate economic growth will be enough to keep the auto sales rate in the second half of the year at healthy levels around the mid 15 million-unit mark.”

Indeed, consumer demand for new cars and light trucks in the U.S. market continues to strengthen, according to analysis by J.D. Power and its strategic partner LMC Automotive, with average transaction prices for new vehicles still rising, reaching $28,900 through the first 13 days of last month – the highest ever for the month of June, noted John Humphrey, senior VP for J.D. Power’s global automotive practice.

LMC Automotive continues to hold the outlook for total light-vehicle sales in 2013 at 15.4 million units, but has increased its forecast for retail light-vehicle sales to 12.6 million units from 12.5 million units, as retail sales growth expands.

"There is little question that the automotive market has strong momentum as we close out the first half of 2013," explained Jeff Schuster, LMC’s senior VP of forecasting. "Looking forward, all the key fundamentals are in alignment to continue the current growth trend, with production capacity limitations being the only major visible risk."

He added that North American light-vehicle production through June is up nearly 5% compared with the same period in 2012, and that Ford's 16% increase in production thus far in 2013 is leading all manufacturers, with a significant portion of its increase driven by sales boosts for the new Escape and Fusion, as well as its F-Series pickups.

LMC is also keeping its forecast for 2013 North American production at 16 million units, with capacity utilization now at a lean 90%.

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