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Trucks Keep Slipping – Is It For Good?

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It didn’t take a trained eye to notice. Heading up to northern Michigan, on warm summer weekends, back in the late 1980s, it was hard to ignore the growing number of minivans, pickups and sport-utility vehicles shooting up I-75. Sure, there were always those who needed a pickup for work, a minivan for a big family, or an SUV to haul a boat. But a close inspection showed that more and more of those light trucks were simply replacing the traditional sedan.

By 1997, the scales officially tipped, and with the brief exception of 2002, trucks have consistently outsold traditional passenger cars. That is, until May, when sedans, coupes and sports cars narrowly nosed into the lead, with 778,651 sold, according to the tracking firm, Ward’s AutoInfoBank, compared with 777,296 light trucks.

That’s probably no surprise, considering the economics of $3-plus gasoline. As light truck critics have long argued, there are plenty of folks who simply don’t need to be running from business luncheon to afternoon meetings behind the wheel of a 12-mpg HUMMER.

One could argue that the balance has tipped even more in favor of cars, depending on your definition of the new crossover vehicles flooding the market. Products like the Toyota RAV4 and Saturn Vue may look like utes, but they ride on unibody platforms often shared with more conventional passenger cars. Under the skin, Ford’s recently renamed Taurus X is virtually identical to the Five Hundred sedan, which is about to be rebranded with the Taurus badge.

For the first time, last year, crossovers outsold conventional, truck-based SUVs, notes George Pipas, Ford’s chief sales analyst, and the trend will continue – at an increasingly rapid pace, many analysts believe, in the face of record gasoline prices.

Don’t write off the truck just yet, industry analysts are quick to caution. Detroit manufacturers, in particular, are maintaining SUV and pickup-heavy production schedules, notes a story in the New York Times. These gas guzzlers are simply too profitable – especially when compared with the fuel stingy econoboxes that Big Three makers have traditionally lost money on.

A revival of the moribund U.S. housing market will likely generate a jump in pickup sales, since a large percentage of these trucks are still sold for commercial applications. And there remain plenty of buyers who need pickups and large SUVs to haul boats, RVs and other trailers.

Meanwhile, facing the reality of high gasoline prices, the industry is looking for ways to counter the naysayers – and regulators – who’d like to drive light trucks off the road. I just experienced one example in the form of the Mercedes-Benz GL320 CDI. This diesel-powered, three-row SUV gave me an average of nearly 30 mpg running around Los Angeles, over the course of a week, much of that in heavy traffic. Expect manufacturers to start adding a lot more oil burners to their powertrain line-ups, now that the technology exists to meet tough new diesel emissions standards.

But barring a collapse in fuel prices, there seems little likelihood conventional trucks will regain the momentum they had early this decade. Mounting social pressures only add to the impact of high gasoline prices. The truck boom is almost certainly at an end.

What do you think? Tell us below if trucks are on the downward spiral.

MAY SALES MOSTLY UP—TheCarConnection.com
 
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Comments (21)
  1. Trucks today are as dead as the muscle cars were after the two oil crises in the 70s.

    The difference is that muscle cars were REAL CARS, and NOT breadvans on stilts as StupidUglyVechicles are.

    Crossovers are barely better. They are as heavy as full size SUVs (esp. the GM x-overs) and burn only slightly less fuel. They are NOT the answer to $4 gas.

    The Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa are. The only equivalent offering from the onetime big 3 is the pitiful (and 0% american) so-called "Chevy" Aveo, a DAWEOO product from Korea.
     
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  2. The price of energy in general (not necessarily just the price of gas or diesel) will eventually drive the market back down to smaller, lightweight vehicles. Regardless of what technology you place in a 6000lb SUV, you can only make it just so efficient, and cheap energy is going the way of the buffalo. Detroit seems to think they can still draw us to the high-margin SUVs if they are perceived as "green", but if I go from 14 mpg to 16 mpg have I really gained that much? Not with my wallet.
     
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  3. I think we've been through this problem before. It's a cycle.

    In the early life of the automobile, cars were an alternative to horse-driven carriages and were only for the wealthy. Production improvements brought the price down and the car became commonplace. Operating costs of the car were also lowered, and as that happened, the more larger (and more expensive) vehicles became affordable.

    In the 60's and early 70's, the car got bigger and bigger. The Mustang and Thunderbird come to mind as good examples. As gas prices shot up during the oil crisis, the operating costs of the large vehicles increased and people reevaluated their automobile purchasing habits.

    The 70s and 80s were about practicality and fuel economy as cars got smaller. Think about the Mustang II and the small Tbird of the early 80s. Think Dodge Omni, Plymouth Aries, Geo Storm, Ford Escort, etc. The foreign cars entered the US market as an alternative to oversized domestic vehicles with lower operating costs the their US sales took off. US automakers played catchup, and still haven't fully caught up yet.

    The oil tensions eased, but the wariness remained. As it wore off, consumers saw the larger-than-necessary SUVs (Hummer, Excursion, etc) as a fashion statement or status symbol, and with reduced operating costs, more and more consumers sought to get these vehicles in their garages. Larger and larger they got, and thirstier and thirstier for fuel they became. And once again, gas prices rise. Consumers now have to weigh the status symbol versus the cost of going to work.

    And once again, foreign manufacturers have the upper hand. Think Prius, Volkswagon with TDI, Honda Civic, etc. US makers are playing catchup again, trying to tout the fuel economy of their best vehicles ("X many cars with more than 30 MPG"). On the other hand, foreign manufacturers seem to have just realized the US consumers' desires for the larger vehicles, as they have introduced the Toyota Sequoia, Nissan Armada, Lexus large ugly thing, the new Toyota Tundra, the Nissan Titan, etc. Did they get to the market too late? And how will it affect the foreign manufacturers?

    This shift in consumer attitude will also trickle down to the used car market. If there's a drastic change in our buying habits, will the excess inventory of these type of vehicles hurt dealers and consumers alike? After all, a used $40,000 SUV that's only a couple years old may have a book price way less than the payoff because it's less desirable now. The consumer can't afford to keep it, but they'll lose too much if they sell it.

    Something to think about.
     
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  4. In a couple of years, when new diesel motors are put into the Honda Ridgeline and Chevy, Dodge, Ford, Nissan and Toyota half-ton and smaller pick up trucks, sales should pick up big time.

    Going from 15-16 highway mpg now in my current Dodge truck compared to the above mentioned diesel trucks getting most likely 25-30 mpg, that's huge fuel savings.

    If you are like me and maintain your vehicle and keep it for 10 years or so, after 250k-300k miles (based on 3.25/gallon) , you save $22,000 + in fuel costs, and that's if diesel is the same price as gas, which here in the Midwest right now, diesel is running .30+ cents less than gas. Can't wait for these diesels to get here.
     
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  5. Remember this about diesel, though...the same approach was taken in the late 70s during the 2nd gas crunch: diesel cars started coming out of the woodwork and what happened? The price of diesel immediately shot through the roof because you can't make as much diesel from a barrel of crude oil as you can gasoline. Then you have the knock-on effect of rising food prices, because guess what the truckers are using to haul our groceries? History will definitely repeat itself, though thankfully without the disasterous Oldsmobile 350 diesel!
     
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  6. Trucks aren't "dead", but they're dropping off and will go back to where they SHOULD be - as the vehicle of choice for those who use them for work or seriously heavy play. The whole SUV/Truck craze was driven by two things: personal fantasy about an "active lifestyle" and the appearance of such, and some token amount of improved safety when the ground gets wet (or frozen).

    All that was needed to begin with was an AWD vehicle and a juiced-up apearance and America would have had their love fest AND saved a bundle on gasoline bills.

    I'm damn happy to see this trend, and hope it accelerates. How will we ever break our dependence on the Middle East driving 4WD tanks that drink their processed oil at the rate of 12 MPG? We won't, and we desperately NEED to before we have yet another oil crisis that will make the two previous crises look quaint by comparison.

    Goodbye gas-swilling, lane-hogging, vision-impairing, parking-space gobbling BOF Beasts of Someone's Under-utilized Burden. I hardly knew ye, and am better for it.
     
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  7. Can you say 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 MegaCab diesel with 26mpg on hwy and 4WD? That just might be the ticket!
     
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  8. What is it about Hummers? I'm no fan, but geeze, hardly a day goes by without some scribe or other pounding the rising fuel prices drum and citing a Hummer as proof our evil appetite is out of control. Except, GM sells...what?.....4,000 of them a month? Phffft. There are a many times more 14 - 18 mpg trucks sold each month and at their numbers, yes a 10% improvement in efficiency adds up at the national market level. But here's the kicker: Why are Hummers, SUVs and pickup trucks the new sin symbols and luxury cars with equally robust fuel appetites -- or worse -- get nary a mention? Why is a family's SUV or a pickup truck, or for that matter any Hummer, notable for inefficiency when stupidly heavy (German) luxury muscle sedans and high performance sports cars do no better in real world driving? A 14 mpg vehicle is a 14 mpg vehicle regardless of form. Oh, I get it. Us car guys are supposed to hate trucks for their ham-handed handling, view-blocking bulk, long stopping distances, and weight-challenged acceleration. Well, they're trucks. We don't want to see our 14 mpg performance cars pinched in the market but the unthinking assault on trucks is OK. Got it.

    Mazda's roughly 3000 lb. diminutive 4 seat RX-8 sports car averages about 15 mpg real world efficiency under the feet of everyone I know who drives one. Let's get that evil little glutton off the road! A mercedes SL, S Class, and any AMG version will be lucky to match that if driven as its maker intended. A Corvette with a 6.0 liter engine can be driven for 28 mpg highway efficiency -- some drivers manage to soft-toe it even better. But you know that especially its Z06 variant can be driven for 10 mpg results, too. BMW M series, any Porsche driven spiritedly, especially the Turbo. Audis, Ferraris, Lambos, Shelbys, Range Rovers, Maseratis, Jeeps.....there are a lot of elites sneering at trucks yet if those same people believe burning less fuel matters....they aren't. More to the point, what do you suppose the correlation is between megabuck fuel-sucking cars and 10,000 - 30,000 square foot energy hog homes, compared to pickups, SUVs and Hummer H3s and 1,000 - 4,000 square foot dwellings? Both high, huh? You see where this goes.

    A warming climate change seems to have overlaid our span of temporal concern, but it's far from clear that man has anything at all to do with it. Debate over? Hah! CO2 concentrations tend to rise *after* a warming trend is established. Mankind's contribution is tiny, in the context of all natural emitters. "Consensus" about anthropogenic global warming has not included a majority of climate scientists. And the alarmists are ignoring the cycles of the Sun, not to mention the precedent of warm periods that were warmer still, followed by cooling. Did anyone notice reports that Mars' climate is warming too? That must be your carbon-liberating V8 too.

    Face it. Your choice of vehicle is not going to affect global temperatures, but if you're still worried why not get your power company to sequester all the carbon output from its coal-fired generating plants, and while you're at it, take your name off that no-nuclear power petition, too.

    So if you're going to attack truck owners for their fuel appetites, you can cite other good reasons to burn less fuel, including fewer exported dollars and lower true toxic pollutants (C02 is not a pollutant). But if you're serious about this, tar the Ferrari, Lambo, RS-4, AMG, Maserati, Range Rover and M5 owner with the same brush stroke you've stained the Hummer, Sierra, Escalade and F150 owner with.

    There is considerable elasticity in American disposable income budgets. Fuel rise hits poor and working poor folks, to be sure. But the bulk of the market can easily shift spending to accommodate paying for fuel. Some people will cut back, others won't. The F150 has been the best selling vehicle line in the US for three decades. It began its rise during the 1970s inflation, including the run-up to the highest real-dollar fuel costs to date, in 1981. And this continued during the long price plateau through the '80s. It was clearly in response to the withdrawal of upright rear drive accommodating cars from the market as car makers feverishly downsized nearly every model. GM used to sell over a million Impalas a year in a smaller market, but that beloved car and its competitors morphed into something less. It's no mistake pickup and van sales climbed.

    Right now, we are seeing a repeat of a common 1970s error. People are prematurely getting out of perfectly good vehicles, accepting massive accelerated depreciation, in order to buy or finance a brand new vehicle that will save less money on fuel than has been spent prematurely buying it. The Global Warming Swindle is part of the reason for irrational behavior this time. But if so, those people are not thinking about the end-to-end carbon cycle associated with prematurely replacing a vehicle. Muscle cars and mastodon sedans were available for dust in 1976, but 20 years later we had 300, then 400+ hp cars that are 2 - 2.5X more efficient and faster. In 1979, when a Corvette couldn't even muster a measly 200 hp, people thought performance cars would never appear again. Less than 10 years later, digitally-controlled EFI put quick, efficient V8 Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes on the market again. Trucks will be back because the form factor suits how large numbers of people live. And an SUV filled with people is pretty efficient transportation on a people-miles-per-gallon basis.

    No I don't own a truck.....at the moment.
     
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  9. Don't be so quick o write off trucks because of the crrent mini-slump. Americans have aways wanted choice in their vehicular purchases, and soetimes economic climate plays a part in the decisions, sometimes not.

    I, for instance, against many of the whishes of friends and family, am in the mrket for a Mercury Grand Marquis LS, an American style v-8 lxury car, after years of drivig and riding in various econoboxes and mini-vans. Do I wish gas was cheaper? You bet. Will that drive me ito buying a hybrid Camry? Don't hold your breath. I want what I want; besides, American full sized cars hav made great strides in terms of fuel economy and emissions reduction since the 1970s. Given the space and performance available for the price, nothing can touch it.
     
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  10. With gas prices at $3 plus many people have to chose between their supermarket list on any given Saturday or a full tank on their trucks. Most buyers want to know if they can afford the monthly payments, completely ignoring the cost of maintenance and gasoline to power the big "rigs" or their luxury imports. Prestige and fashion go right along with pocket power. Credit makes it easy to acquire, however, once you get over the "honeymoon" with your new and wasteful vehicle reality sets it. I belive that environment issues along with cost of maintaining such vehicles will play a major role in their possible ressurgence. I have a Tacoma crew cab repalcing a large V8. It is still expensive to buy, however, much easier to afford on a monthly basis. To top it off, I can do the same the big rigs do with the exception of heavy towing. On the other hand I don't own a boat.
     
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  11. It is kind of good to see that people are choosing their vehicles per their desires not market coercion. That is about to change with congressional approval of a CAFE increase to 35 mpg. When you get uninformed boobs like Obama, Clinton, Bush, Leiberman, and McCain (I hate both parties) making decisions on fuel efficiency, I see a return to the 1970s when cars couldn't muster enough power to gasp uphill. Cars and trucks are much heavier than they were 10 years ago, mainly due to safety equipment, rollover requirements and structural enhancements. They are touting a lot more horsepower, but there is more weight to move around as well.

    Phil makes a lot of good points in his statements. A 14 mpg car is a 14 mpg car regarless of the form it takes. Thats why I never understood the tax break for "hybrids" but not diesel powered cars. A VW diesel gets anywhere from 35-45 mpg in normal driving, similar to the ugly Prius (sorry, my opinion). Its another case of morons in Washington DC botching the system up.

    As far as trucks go, the reason they are attacked is that they are ugly, unlike a nice European gas guzzling sedan or sports car... I don't own a truck, suv or a crossover. The American car industry is showing promise with the proposal to add rear wheel drive to the lineup. Hopefully they will develop diesel and efficient 4 and V6 powerplants to match the times that we're living in. Heck, the Europeans have been doing it for decades.
     
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  12. I think once gas prices level out and stay stable for awhile, coupled with a rebound in the housing market, demand will increase. In other words, people still wants the big utes, but just can't afford them right now. Once we can afford them they will make a comeback.
     
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  13. As I look out the window I see a Toyota Blundra and A Nissan Frighten. The japanese have got into the truck industry too late. I remember when the "Frighten" came out. The media went GaGa over it and said that the end of Domestic trucks were in sight. Well two or three years later, after a lot of customer dissapointment, the Nissan has failed to make its proclaimed 100,000 in sales for one calender year. So Toyota comes out with the "Blundra". Media goes GaGa over it. "The end is here for the domestics!" I here again. Toyota has dissapointing sales and slaps $3000 on the hood to pay Americans to buy it. Now camshafts are breaking in two and Toyota is pushing the blame onto someone else. Sounds a lot like my 2004 Camry. Engine blew. Toyota blames everyone but themselves. I go without a car for six weeks while Toyota decides what to do with the "ENGINE SLUDGE FIASCO". Finally they are going to replace my engine.
    Now I'm told by the media, I have to buy a cardboard box on wheels. The greatest thing ever is the Yaris, Fit, and Versa. I say no thanks. I will never ride in one of those deathtraps. I just dumped my Toyota on some young teenager that doesn't know any better, and bought a new Chysler Sebring. I'm probably going to buy a Ford F150 next week. I guess I won't be the darling of the media anymore.
     
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  14. My F150 got better mileage than the new Saturn Vue as tested by Car & Driver - I don't get it.....
     
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  15. My 2000 Sierra gets 16+ MPG city and about 20 highway (at 70+ MPH), for $20K I can improve that by 2 to 5 MPG, can haul nothing larger than a bushell basket, have payments for 60 to 72 months, and not afford any gasoline. Where is the beef?
     
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  16. Ken -

    Interesting points. I have owned both domestic and Japanese makes. I found little difference in reliability between my 1987 Acura Integra and the 2001 Saturn L100 I currently own. Toyota makes probably the dullest automobiles on earth. The Camry is about as exciting to drive as a can opener. Toyota trucks are nothing to get riled up about either. Nissan's vehicles are styled nicely, but they fall apart from underneath. The 2005 Quest minivan I drove had brake problems, was a gas pig, and handled like a pig.

    I like American and European cars.
     
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  17. The popularity of trucks in the late 90s was the perverse effect of CAFE rules. America did not really want the lighter, less-powerful vehicles governed by the car limits. They wanted the bigger, more-powerful vehicles classified as trucks for CAFE. Even the manufacturers that made only small, economy cars 30 years ago now make sub-20MPG SUVs.

    CAFE ultimately did not have any effect on fuel consumption. Consumers just do not care how much fuel they use when it is so cheap. Even at current prices, most people will not change how or what they drive. The F-150 will continue to be the top-selling vehicle in the US unless gas tops $5/gal.
     
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  18. In the end, most people prefer to select a vehicle based on what they like, not based on concern for other issues. It's been a constant battle between Government (pretending that people aren't smart enough to make the right decisions so that they should make the correct ones for us) and what people like. I remember these arguments between big & small, trucks and cars reoccurring over the years.

    The bottom line is that if as a society we deem that more fuel efficient, smaller vehicles should be used, no amount of legislation generally works. But raise the gas prices and it's the economics that ended up changing the situation.
     
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  19. I believe we are focused more on, "How high does price have to go for truck sales to deminish", when in actually it should be "How far must it go for people to reconsider a more fuel efficient alternative".

    Let's face it, people don't like crimping their style and more-so than ever, they'll mortgage everything and anything and push their financial limits to get the vehicle they want. Whenever fuel spikes, it's either "Fuel or food tonight?" for some families...blaming fuel prices for their starvation, not blaming their buying decision.

    Usually for automakers, it's the highest sellers that will stay alive. It's economically viable for them to sustain such sales, no matter how low they are. Trucks are much more inexpensive to manufacture than cars, and profits are hefty. Honda is phasing out the Ridgeline because it's everything that's opposite of a regular truck. And most probably other manufacturer's with unit sales of under 100K units (like the Titan) might drop the offering if fuel prices continue to climb.

    Right now we'll see a transition where people who had the Tahoe making 13MPG, are moving into a GMC Arcadia that makes 16MPG. Hardly much of an improvement, but at least it's something.
     
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  20. No, we have not just seen a rtransition from 13 MPG SUVS to 16 MPG Xovers Fake SUVS.

    If you study sales in the US in 2000 and today, esp. if you focus on the top ten bestsellers, there is HUGE, ENORMOUS change!

    Do the homework and you will observe the EXTINCTION of the EXPLORER from the list, WHILE not only ALL FOUR of the Accord, Civic, Camry and Corolla made it (Camry with 50,000 was NO 3! in May), but even the IMPALA with 35,000 sales in May alone also made it.

    In 2000, that would be UNHEARD OF.

    There is major and significant change. People cannot afford driving 100 and even 50 miles to work a day in 13 and 16 MPG POS SUVS or Fake SUVS crossovers. They need a 30 and 40 MPG vehicle, and there are PLENTY of them for sale, ALL NON_HYBRIDS. Civic, Fit, Corolla, Versa, Sentra, Yaris. Not ot mentuion the STELLAR MODERN DIESELS uwith ultra clean diesel fuel. The Mercedes 3-lt diesel in the biug 4,200 lbs Chrysler 300 got 412 ACTUAL MPG in a 325 mile highway run in VA, at 60-70 MPH.


    and after three successive years of $3-$3.50 gas in the driving season, They KNOW it is NOT Temporary, but that $3-4 gas is HERE TO STAY. EVEN if people in the US get SOBER for a change and drop their energy consumption consuiderably, the difference will be picked up soon by the stellar growth of oil consumption in CHINA and soon in India too.

    PS In 2000, FOrd had FIVE of the top 10 vehicles. TOday it barely has one or two.
     
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  21. I meant of course 41, not 412 MPG for the heavy, big Chrysler 300 with the mercedes DIESEL. Highway miles. Too bad the car is not for sale yet with the diesel, but if Chrysler knows what's good for them, they should, IMMEDIATELY, and put that diesel on all their MINIVANS too, and blow all competition away.
     
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