updated 2/8/2006 8:10:50 PM ET 2006-02-09T01:10:50

High gas prices may be giving consumers monster headaches, but automakers are betting that hasn't curbed their appetite for monster trucks.

At the Chicago Auto Show, International Truck and Engine Corp. plans to debut its new MXT pickup, a colossus with the ability to tow three regular-sized pickups. General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. are also using the Chicago show to introduce big pickups. The media preview begins Wednesday, and the show is open to the public Feb. 10-19.

Tom Libby, senior director of analysis for the Power Information Network, a division of J.D. Power & Associates, said the full-size pickup segment has been steady even as sales of sport utility vehicles have plummeted.

"There really is no substitute for a full-size pickup," Libby said. "People who want that functionality can't find it anywhere else."

Large pickup sales were flat between 2004 and 2005, while large SUV sales were down 18 percent, according to Autodata Corp. Luxury pickups — the Cadillac Escalade EXT, the Lincoln Mark LT and the Hummer H2 SUT — saw sales spike 23 percent last year.

Libby said the pickup segment is attractive to automakers because it's stable, it has relatively few players and it has the most loyal customers. As SUV sales fall, automakers also have found that luxury pickups can take up some of the slack in profits. It doesn't cost much for Ford Motor Co. to make a Ford F-150 into a Lincoln Mark LT, Libby said, but the starting price of the Mark LT is $20,000 higher.

International Truck has been producing trucks for more than 100 years, but it wasn't until two years ago that it brought out the gargantuan CXT, its first pickup. The company offered the slightly smaller RXT last year. This year it's debuting the MXT, which will be the smallest of the company's three pickups.

The MXT, which goes on sale this summer, has a diesel V8 engine and a towing capacity of 8 tons. But it also has luxury touches, like a leather-wrapped steering wheel, keyless entry and options like chrome details, a DVD player and padded armrests. The MXT starts at $69,000 and tops out at $85,000 fully loaded.

International Truck President Dee Kapur said the company expects to sell about 1,000 MXTs this year, making it a relatively small player in the 2.5-million strong full-size pickup market. Still, the trucks are selling beyond the company's expectations.

"We had no idea that the market would really scream out for these vehicles," said Al Saltiel, vice president of marketing. Saltiel said advertising companies have been among the biggest customers, buying the pickups to use with mobile billboards.

Another big truck that will be unveiled in Chicago is the 2007 Chevrolet Avalanche, which goes on sale this spring. GM says it was the first to combine the comfort of an SUV with the cargo space of a truck when it launched the Avalanche in 2002.

This time around, the Avalanche has GM's new full-size SUV platform, which gives it improved fuel economy, more precise steering and a quieter interior. The company is hoping the 2007 model can revive Avalanche sales, which fell 21 percent last year as newer competitors like the Honda Ridgeline, Nissan Titan and Toyota Tundra grabbed sales.

The 2007 Toyota Tundra, which also will debut in Chicago, is likely to continue to grab share, according to early reviews. Toyota is abandoning the cautious styling of the first-generation Tundra in favor of a more powerful stance, matched by a V8 engine that will help the Tundra compete head-on with the Big Three, according to the auto research site Edmunds.com. The Tundra will be built in Indiana and Texas later this year.

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