Image: Fields, Keith, truck
Mike Cassese  /  Reuters
Country music star Toby Keith, left, and Mark Fields, Ford's president for the Americas, present the 2009 Ford F-150 pickup at the Detroit auto show.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 1/14/2008 11:25:58 AM ET 2008-01-14T16:25:58

With sales of pickup trucks slipping, Ford and Chrysler are tugging on American heartstrings at this year’s Detroit auto show, painting themselves in red, white and blue to capture customers in an increasingly competitive market.

Ford, for example, unveiled its redesigned F-150 pickup Sunday flanked by all-American cultural icons including country singer Toby Keith, professional bull rider Justin McBride and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver Rick Crawford.

Chrysler went one better, handing out Dodge-brand beef jerky and introducing its revamped Ram pickup with a posse of bull-whipping cowboys and driving a herd of 120 cattle past a corral of shivering journalists outside Detroit’s Cobo Center.

In both cases, the aim was unambiguous — automakers want to stimulate sales, which sagged last year as the housing market sank and construction activity declined. U.S. sales of pickup trucks, which are highly profitable for the automakers, fell 6 percent in 2007, while overall U.S. vehicle sales declined by 3 percent.

With the housing market expected to be soft through this year, the truck market is likely to face another tough road in 2008, and so automakers are pulling out all the stops in search of profit.

“For years, people who didn’t really need trucks were buying them as fashion statements, but now with gas prices rising those buyers are leaving the market, wondering why they’re going to pay so much money for trucks and have to pay for the extra gas needed to run them,” said Karl Brauer, editor in chief at automotive research site Edmunds.com.

“So you’re seeing the big manufacturers trying to lure them back, focusing on functionality, and adding cool, hip fashion statements, and better gas mileage,” he said.

To tempt customers in, Ford’s new F-150, which has been the best-selling truck in the United States for 31 years, comes in 35 different configurations, including a new luxury “Platinum” version with fine leather upholstery and embroidered headrests. Ford has also improved the truck's fuel economy and will offer a more fuel-efficient diesel version by 2010.

The Ram comes with such luxuries as a heated steering wheel and will run on diesel by 2009, improving fuel economy by 30 percent, while a Ram with a hybrid powertrain is due in 2010.

Both the F-150 and the Ram, which will debut as new models this fall, have been redesigned to fix flaws in the old models, and both Ford and Chrysler stressed they are taking heed of consumers’ desires when it comes to trucks. Increased competition means they’re likely to be under pressure to update their vehicles more often, said Tom Appel, editor of Consumer Guide Automotive, which offers buying advice to car shoppers.

“There was a time when a new pickup was big news, but now with more players in the market there’s always something new, and what used to be an 8- to 10-year product cycle has shrunk, so news of a new pickup is not as exciting as it used to be,” he said. “There is more competition, and that means there have to be more redesigns to get people excited.”

As a result, the usual model introductions won’t do, said Edmunds.com’s Brauer

“The manufacturers could have come out with their next versions (of their trucks) and just made them a little bit bigger and a little bit better, which is what they would have done in any previous redesign of a full-size truck,” he said. “This time they have definitely gone the extra mile,” he said, noting that diesel versions of light trucks are a new move by the automakers.

Ford and Dodge are going head-to-head with their new truck introductions this year, and they face stiff competition in the large truck market from Toyota, which has entered the highly profitable segment with its new Tundra, and Chevrolet’s Silverado, both of which have just been redesigned, he said.

Competition in the segment will be especially tough in 2008. Most economists are forecasting a harsh economic environment, so buyers will likely spend cautiously. With no clear end in sight to the housing market downturn, commercial sales of pickups to small businesses in the home-building sector are also likely to be weak.

The solution is for automakers to woo back the average American consumer with nicer, better-performing trucks packed full of luxury trimmings, including softer fabrics with richer colors, and the latest automotive gadgets, said Appel.

“You can’t pull commercial sales ahead. Companies will buy a new truck when it makes financial sense to do so, and commercial sales of light duty trucks tend to coincide with the housing market,” he said. “But for the average car buyer a vehicle purchase is more elastic, more emotional, so you can lure them in.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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