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US pickups craze all about toughness, luxury

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When it came time to revamp the Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, designers at General Motors knew they needed to beef up the look of the vehicle.

[DETROIT] - When it came time to revamp the Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, designers at General Motors knew they needed to beef up the look of the vehicle.

The truck's creative team adjusted the top of the hood so that it would bulge out more where the engine is, like a bodybuilder's chest.

GM also added an inch of height and more curves throughout the vehicle to give it more muscle.

The goal was a "brutal look," said exterior design manager Tim Kozub, adding that the prior version was "too sweet for a truck, maybe too sports car." The revamped Silverado - a larger pickup typical of those geared almost exclusively to the US market - was just one of an army of pickups unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show this week as automakers race to meet runaway demand for the quintessentially American vehicles.

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Strong sales of the elongated giants, which are actually less weighty than their predecessors due to lighter materials, have been a cornerstone for Detroit in recent years amid a period of cheaper gas prices.

The top three selling vehicles in the US in 2017 were all pickups, and the group's share of the overall US vehicle market grew to 16.4 per cent, up from 13.4 per cent in 2012, according to Cox Automotive data.

Some even see a political dimension to the trend, with pickups the top-selling vehicle in rural areas that voted for Donald Trump.

A map by Cox Automotive with pickup-loving counties in red and car-buying regions in blue had more than a little resemblance to the 2016 election map.

"You can say that the heartland of America is also pickup truck country," said Jonathan Smoke, an economist at Cox Automotive.

"It's also an important reminder for the automotive industry that America is more like what's in the middle than what we focus on on the coasts, and that's why the truck market is a solid consistent part of the market." Pickups have long been a mainstay in the US, a logical fit in a vast and varied landscape that includes mountains, farms and swamps.

The vehicles, which are replaced less frequently than other types of autos and are known to enjoy unusually strong brand loyalty, are widely used in some industries, such as construction, the oilfield and agriculture.

They are also popular for recreational use such as hunting or hauling a boat.

In a nod to the appeal of a rough-and-tumble look in the US, Ford tweaked its Ranger mid-sized pickup compared with the version sold in Australasia, South America and other regions.

Ford is positioning the Ranger, which has been absent on the US market since 2011, as a recreational vehicle ideal for weekend activities such as camping or snowboarding.

Some of the changes included giving the sides a boxy look instead of the more rounded style overseas "to give it a tougher feeling," said Todd Willing, who designed the exterior for Ford.

Still, the Ranger is much smaller than Ford's other pickups, including the market-leading F-Series, and communicates an "athleticism probably where it separates itself from the image of the F-150," Willing said.

Other new vehicles fit into the fast-growing "luxury pickup" category that can sell for US$70,000 or more.

The Ram Limited, one of a series of new larger pickups unveiled Monday by Fiat Chrysler, includes a grill bar with an elaborate, worked-over geometric design, soft seats and a tablet-like 12-inch screen that includes the navigation system and switches for climate control, radio volume and other systems.

GM is also seeking to capitalize on the growing luxury market, revamping its Chevrolet Silverado High Country with more bells and whistles designed to appeal to a customer that might be thought of as as "high-end rancher," in the words of Mr Kozub.

The High Country "is meant to be brute but then also have all these luxury appointments and detail," Kozub said. "So it can have the bulging chest and be macho, but then you can dress it up in a fine suit." Designers have been struggling to keep up with demand for even more amenities, said GM interior design manager Craig Sass.

"They want more features, they want more luxury, they want real leather appointments everywhere, so it's not just soft, it's really leather," Mr Sass said.

"Every time we think we've done something that's really what everybody thinks they want, they want more."

AFP

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