The Ford F-150 SVT Raptor is one cool customer. The 4x4 pickup has a 6.2-liter V8 engine with 35-inch all-terrain tires and a screaming rear paint job that looks like it's been shredded by talons.
But the Hennessey VelociRaptor 500 is way cooler. Made by Hennessey Performance in Sealy, Texas, the 810-horsepower twin-turbo rig gets double the power output of the standard-issue Raptor. It comes with aluminum pistons, steel conrods, dual intercoolers, an electronic boost controller, a high-end engine management system, stainless-steel exhaust pipes and a transmission rated for speed and off-road fun. (All of which make for a distinctively aggressive, attention-getting engine roar.) The VelociRaptor goes 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds. Price: $72,000.
The Cadillac Escalade EXT and Toyota Tundra Sportsman Edition are two of the few trucks that can claim to be even near the same level as Hennessey's creation. And they're all on our list of the hottest trucks of 2011.
To compile the list, we spoke with analysts like Mike Caudill, president of Driven Media, and Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends and insights at TrueCar.com, to get insight into what to expect from the truck segment next year. We also spoke with reps from several major automakers about their most exciting trucks.
On the sales front, trucks were strong last year, and they're going to be stronger this year. Last month every major automaker besides Mazda reported a year-over-year increase in sales of light trucks (pickups, SUVs and minivans). The F-Series LINK alone is up nearly 30 percent for the year to date; Chevrolet's Silverado is up more than 15 percent. Dodge Ram and GMC Sierra are up of 7 percent and 13.3 percent year to date, respectively.
"The truck industry hasn't been in the tank at any point over the last few years," Caudill says. "Trucks are strong. And that's really going to continue."
All told, trucks comprise 54 percent of the auto market. They are among the highest volume and highest-profit-per vehicle segments of any automotive category — and they are outselling cars by the highest margin in nearly five years, according to J.D. Power and Associates.
One version of the bestselling GMC Sierra (the fourth-highest seller in the nation last month) makes our list this year. The GMC Sierra All Terrain HD, a concept vehicle that will debut at the North American International Auto Show this January in Detroit, has a diesel-powered V8 engine and gets 397 horsepower with 765 lb-ft. of torque. While GM maintains that it's a concept-only vehicle, it's easy to see how the Sierra variant could be an answer to the success of Ford's Raptor and Dodge's "Power Wagon" Rams, which dominate on the off-road market.
This particular Sierra has a wider, 73-inch track for greater stability, three additional inches of ground clearance, specially constructed Fox off-road shocks with remote fluid reservoirs, and 35-inch-tall BFGoodrich KM2 "mud terrain" tires mounted on 20-inch aluminum wheels. If a production version does come out in 2012, it'll certainly grab some truck-fan buzz.
Another off-road winner is the Jeep Wrangler Black Ops Edition. This Jeep — built on a truck-chassis — is made as a special offering for fans of "Call of Duty: Black Ops," the much-anticipated Activision videogame. (The game has already made more than $1 billion in worldwide sales since its launch Nov. 9, according to estimates released last month by Activision.) The Wrangler features heavily in the video game — the real-life version comes with a Rubicon trim and alloy wheels, 32-inch tires, Black Ops logos and a murdered-out exterior. It costs $30,625 for the two-door Wrangler or $33,500 for the four-door.
The real innovation in trucks these days isn't as obvious as an all-black videogame Jeep. It comes in the form of creature comforts and efficiency. TrueCar's Toprak says the super-efficient V6 engines in some of the Ford F-Series trucks are the prime examples of this — and the changes inside the truck, despite being less flashy than a total redesign, are paying off in sales.
"If you use a gas-efficient engine on a full-size truck, Ford can get those people who might be postponing a decision because the gas prices are too high and they can't justify a purchase," Toprak says. "If you tell them, ‘Hey this truck can actually save you money on gas,' that might get them."
Ford has also done well to improve the interior fit and finish of its trucks and to make standard many items previously considered luxury upgrades. Bluetooth capability, navigation systems, XM radio, heated seats, and remote-start, among other amenities, are turning vehicles like the Ford F-Series Platinum into luxury vehicles in their own right. They're even being cross-shopped with SUVs.
Those efficiency and interior upgrades will be even more apparent in 2011 and 2012, Caudill says: "Trucks have come a long way. They're only going to continue to get better. "
Lucky for us.
© 2012 Forbes.com