Times certainly are a-changing when it comes to trucks in the United States—so much so, it's almost a sea change taking place. Maybe it's fuel being inexpensive for several years, maybe harsh weather and tough driving conditions are more frequent, maybe the road infrastructure getting bumpier and deteriorating has played a role.
But the fact is Americans are favoring trucks, SUVs, and crossover-type vehicles more over traditional sedans, and automakers have been responding by transforming and refocusing their lineups. It's drastic in some cases: Both Ford and General Motors, for example, are discontinuing a number of sedans in favor of trucks. Ford's F-150 notably has been the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. for a quarter of a century. A preference for trucks is helping drive advancement.
You can effectively throw out preconceptions and old catch phrases to the tune of “it drives like a truck” that assume trucks only are clunky, unrefined, and inefficient utility vehicles. Today's trucks can outperform their predecessors in decades past in many ways, and auto and truck makers are pouring big R&D dollars into the range of trucks across Classes 1-8.
If it's what you're looking for, you can often get your trucks with interiors and technology that would give luxury cars a run for their money.
Versatile light vehicles
Starting with the largest-selling light truck segment, one of the strongest and most noticeable trends has been to make pickups more fuel-efficient. Necessity is the mother of invention once again—if these trucks are becoming a more or at least equally common passenger car than what one would typically think of as a “passenger car,” automakers need to find ways to boost fuel efficiency of the fleets they're selling at large.
And they are, in multiple ways. One option individual buyers and business fleets have is to go smaller, with more offerings in midsize pickups. That segment gets enriched this year with Ford's Ranger, which has just gone into production at the OEM's Michigan Assembly Plant. The Ranger has earned top midsize fuel economy honors with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates of 21 mpg city, 26 mpg highway, and 23 mpg combined in 4x2 configuration.
Alternatives in this smallest but increasingly capable class include General Motors' cadre—the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon—as well as the Honda Ridgeline, Nissan Frontier, and Toyota Tacoma. And while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has stayed out of this ring with its Ram Trucks line, FCA has unveiled an all-new midsize player with its long-promised Jeep pickup. That has materialized and is on the way in the form of the 2020 Gladiator, which boasts some very solid off-road and utility credentials as you'd expect from the brand.
FCA is also offering one of the more unique paths to greater fuel economy in trucks via its mild hybrid eTorque system on the 2019 Ram 1500. It's available on the pickup's 3.6L Pentastar V6 and 5.7L HEMI V8 engines and can produce 90 lbs.-ft. and 130 lbs.-ft. of short-term torque, respectively, for those engines.
The idea with the 48-volt eTorque system, which includes a generator, small motor, and lithium-ion battery pack and utilizes regenerative braking, is to take over that chunk of force the internal combustion engine needs to produce as the truck accelerates, reducing the need to burn fuel. It's designed to be seamless to the driver as it operates and also manages the engines' start-stop functionality.
Buyers now have an unprecedented number of engine choices when it comes to light trucks, including more diesels than ever before. The sweet spot looks to be a 3.0L turbo diesel in half-ton/full-size pickups, which will be available in Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra, and Ram 1500 pickups, and it's helping the segment break the 30-mpg mark on the highway for the first time.
Manufacturers such as General Motors are finding increasingly sophisticated ways to squeeze additional efficiency out of those and other truck engines. The 2019 Silverado, for example, will offer six different engine and transmission combinations, and the updated 5.3L and 6.2L V8s have 17 different cylinder-deactivation modes to save fuel, adjusting based on power and performance demands.
You can also get more with less displacement these days: The Silverado is swapping predecessor models' 4.3L gasoline V6 for a new 2.7L 4-cyl. turbo designed specifically for trucks. It's lighter, smaller, and more fuel-efficient, yet makes 22% more torque than the older V6 and accelerates the truck noticeably faster.
Like the broader passenger car segment, light trucks are coming loaded with advanced driver assistance systems. Things like lane-keeping assistance and pedestrian/obstacle detection paired with autonomous emergency braking are available and fast becoming the standard. It's not only emergency/safety tech but also assistance systems that can boost driver capabilities, such as towing/trailering cameras that can make easier work of backing up to a trailer or eliminating typical towing blind spots.
It's not surprising that light trucks, if they're becoming a premiere commercial and personal vehicle preference, would also see the latest technological advancements. Tech in that vein is also helping introduce trucks and their full capabilities to younger, less-experienced buyers as manufacturers work to stave off potential vehicle sales declines from more people buying vehicles one ride at a time—ride-sharing services, that is.
Off-road and trail-navigating functionality additionally fits into this high-tech pot and is showing up more frequently. A notable example is Ford's Trail Control in the 2019 F-150 Raptor, which works like a low-speed cruise control that manages a variety of serious terrain while the driver can focus on steering.
* * *