The Detroit Three zealously defend the pickup truck turf. Big pickups make up almost 30 percent of Ford's U.S. sales and nearly a quarter of GM's. With high price tags and lots of features, companies make $5,000 to $10,000 per truck, says Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm.
Detroit is using that cash to develop new cars and — it hopes — win back customers it's been losing to the Japanese for 30 years.
Even Nissan, a distant fifth-place finisher in the big pickup race, has plans for a reworked Titan. Nissan sold just 22,000 Titans last year, slightly over 1 percent of the market. But the truck still makes money, says Pierre Loing, vice president for product planning. The market is big and has relatively few competitors, so there's opportunity, he said.
"If you manage to grab a small segment share, you quickly get some big numbers," Loing said.
Buyers who waited for years to replace trucks are rewarding themselves by loading them with options, and Toyota intends to take advantage of that, says Bob Carter, a Toyota senior vice president in the U.S. The company added two premium lines, including the "1794 Edition," named for the San Antonio ranch— founded in 1794 — where the Tundra plant is located. The 1794 has fancy saddle-like leather seats that are heated and cooled.
Sales of large pickups rise and fall with the economy. In 1980, big pickups accounted for 10 percent of all U.S. sales, then tapered off in the ensuing recession, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank. Sales peaked at 15 percent of the U.S. market in 2004, when gas was cheap. But they fell again in the latest recession, and ended 2012 at 11 percent of the market.
Last year the market surged to 1.6 million, and Carter expects it to rise to around 1.8 million in the coming years as the housing industry recovers and small businesses replace older trucks. The average pickup on U.S. roads is just over 11 years old. Pickup sales rose almost 25 percent in January.
But Schuster says Toyota still won't be able to take sales from GM, Ford and Chrysler.
"They'll be part of the recovery," he says. "I don't see them capturing any share from the Detroit guys."
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