Trucks Keep Slipping – Is It For Good?

June 4, 2007
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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.


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