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Friday, January 22, 2010

Lost in recent auto show buzz about the vehicles government and greenies think Americans should buy were reminders about what many Americans do buy.

Yes, Mr. President, “Anybody can buy a truck.” And they do.

President Obama’s last minute (and futile) campaign slam at Massachusetts’s new U.S. Senator, Scott Brown—trying to belittle the fact that he drove his GMC pickup truck up and down the state on the way to an upset victory—is another poignant example of how out of touch with mainstream America the “educated classes” can be.

Indeed, at last week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, amid all the buzz about the vehicles government and greenies believe Americans should buy—think electric, small, tiny, little, abstemious—there were some interesting reminders about what many Americans do buy.

Trucks. Specifically, pickup trucks and truck-based SUVs.

Struggling General Motors let it be known that as part of its effort to shake off the dust and rubble of its collapse into bankruptcy and pay back the billions it owes taxpayers, it will invest a reported $1 billion to refresh and update its full-size Chevrolet and GMC pickup trucks. Why? Because they make money—lots of money.

Of the top ten best-selling vehicles in the United States last year, three were full-size American made pickup trucks.

And Ford Motor Co., which has been touting its bevy of new, smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, announced that it was going to increase production of its biggest SUVs, the hulking Ford Expedition and its better-dressed twin, the Lincoln Navigator. Reason: Expedition sales were up 45 percent in December and Navigator sales were up 60 percent. The normal 60-day inventories of these two truck-based vehicles have dropped to a month or less, and dealers have been clamoring for more.

While 2009 was certainly a down year for the auto industry in the United States (it saw a 20 percent sales drop) and pretty much all over the world, millions of Americans did buy new vehicles and a review of the best sellers says something about how much Americans continue to love their pickups. Of the top ten best-selling vehicles in the United States last year, three were full-size, American-made pickup trucks. The Ford F-150, which has been the best-selling vehicle in the United States for the past 28 years, was first again, with 413,625 sold. The Chevrolet Silverado came in third with 316,544 sales and the Dodge Ram came in tenth with177,268. That’s close to a million trucks, and if you count the GMC Sierra pickup, a virtual (though pricier) clone of the Silverado, which sold 111,842 (18th in the sales rankings), you top a million.

The full-size pickup truck is, has been, and will be a permanent part of the U.S. car mix because of its handiness, versatility, and power.

It is significant, too, that the other seven vehicles in the top ten were not small cars, but larger mid-size cars or large compacts. The cars with their rankings: Toyota Camry (2), Toyota Corolla (4), Honda Accord (5), Honda Civic (6), Nissan Altima (7), Honda CR-V (8), and Ford Fusion (9).

Truck sales are certainly down from the heady days at the beginning of the decade when pickup trucks of all makes were selling more than 3 million annually in the United States. Remember, folks, full-size pickups are only a part of the “light truck” segment of vehicle sales. The rest of the segment includes popular smaller pickups—such as the Ford Ranger, Chevy Colorado, or Toyota Tacoma—and all those larger SUVs and Minivans, including the Ford Explorer, Dodge Grand Caravan, or Chevy Suburban. In 2004, this light-truck segment accounted for 54 percent of U.S. vehicle sales. In 2009, after two years of gas price spikes and economic turmoil, the segment share dropped to 45.4 percent—still a huge segment of the market.

The other seven vehicles in the top ten were not small cars, but larger mid-size cars or large compacts.

The full-size pickup truck is, has been, and will be a permanent part of the U.S. vehicle mix because of its handiness, versatility (including backseats and car-like comforts), and power for towing, hauling, and getting in and out of tough spots. Sure, some people see it merely as a “rugged” lifestyle statement. But many individuals and families swear by its capabilities as a family hauler, a recreational vehicle, or a remarkably flexible beast of burden. Beyond this, the pickup remains a backbone vehicle for many small businesses and an indispensible tool for those working on their own as carpenters, contractors, haulers, and repairmen—an endless spectrum of individual enterprise.

Unless an incredible breakthrough in batteries occurs, electric power—even in a hybrid—just cannot deliver the cross-the-spectrum capabilities pickup truck buyers expect without adding a lot of weight. On the other hand, pickup truck engines, both gasoline and diesel, are getting more fuel-efficient, and consumers can expect continued advances in “green” power trains. General Motors’ billion-dollar investment in the future of their pickups is an astute move. The automakers know that, in addition to exploring every avenue to more fuel-efficient cars, they have to expend the same kind of innovative energy on their light-truck lines, because not only are these vehicles very profitable to build, they are a staple of American mobility.

Ralph Kinney Bennett writes the Automobility column for The American.

FURTHER READING: Bennett recently discussed “The Passing of Pontiac” and how the compact car revolution began in “Small Car, Big Shadow.” Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling evaluate how energy and environmental regulations are “Planning the Next Bubble.” And AEI’s Kenneth Green testified before Congress on the “Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act.”


Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.


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