New Kelley Blue Book data shows Americans are choosing new trucks over new sedans.
When Aaron Bieber bought a pickup a few weeks ago, he raised a few eyebrows.
“I’m a software engineering manager who works in Boston, I ride the train every day, and I go buy a pickup truck,” he said. “And my whole family is surprised about it.”
But Bieber, who bought a 2011 Nissan Frontier from a CarMax dealership, is not alone.
American families and workers are piling into pickups at a feverish rate, and automakers are responding with new bells, whistles and comfortable design packages that translate directly into profits.
At the North American International Auto Show, which officially begins with press previews this weekend, General Motors, Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler are all showing off new pickups.
General Motors gave a splashy unveiling to the new Chevrolet Silverado, Ford announced it is bringing back the Ranger midsize pickup and Fiat Chrysler is introducing a new version of the Ram 1500 on Monday.
The trio of new pickups, each promising more capability and more efficiency, underscore the industry’s heavy reliance on tried-and-true models that continue to pay the bills, enabling companies to invest in futuristic but costly self-driving technology and advanced electric vehicles.
Sales still rising
Americans can’t get enough. U.S. pickup sales rose 4.8% in 2017 to 2.69 million, according to Kelley Blue Book, resisting the overall industry’s 1.8% decline after a record overall 2016.
“Nobody knows if we’ve reached peak pickup truck yet,” AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan said. “But we haven’t hit” that point yet.
Especially not if Boston software engineers are now buying pickups.
Bieber said he drove a BMW coupe when he was “a young dotcom guy and single.”
But those days are over. After getting married, having a baby and moving to the Boston suburbs, he needed something with the practicality of a hatchback he owned recently.
“I got a lot of utility out of the extra space, and I thought, ‘Why stop there?’ ” Bieber said.
He soon found himself diving into online automotive research, absorbing the ins and outs of crew cabs, bed styles and interior creature comforts.
“One thing that surprised me is the huge range of price,” he said. “You can spend an awful lot on a pickup truck.”
That you can. For example, the average sale price of Ford’s F-series pickup — the most popular model in the U.S. — hit an all-time record $47,800 in December, Ford U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve said.
Pickup prices have soared in part because buyers want their vehicles outfitted with the same types of features as high-end sedans and crossovers, such as soundproofing and a slick interior.
“I remember testing the Chevy Silverado, and I was towing an empty horse trailer and I couldn’t hear the rattle,” Kelley Blue Book analyst Rebecca Lindland said. “It was amazing.”
Automakers have also responded with luxury variants of their bread-and-butter pickups, including GM’s GMC Sierra Denali, Ford’s F-150 King Ranch and Fiat Chrysler’s Ram Limited Tungsten.
And for good reason: Automakers need pickups to pay the bills. The F series, for example, is widely understood to deliver the lion’s share of Ford’s profits in a given year.
The average GM pickup truck was raking in a profit of about $11,000 in 2016, according to Citigroup analyst Itay Michaeli, while the average GM SUV or crossover was turning a profit of $500 to $1,000. The average passenger car was losing a few hundred dollars.
It’s just not just a sandbox for the Detroit 3. Foreign automakers are grabbing a piece of the pie, as well.
Toyota’s fullsize Tundra and midsize Tacoma pickups have the most loyal following in the business, according to CarGurus. Nissan is likely to redesign the Frontier soon. And Honda’s new Ridgeline won the 2017 North American Truck of the Year Award.
Even Silicon Valley automaker Tesla, known for its ultraluxury electric vehicles, is set to get into the mix. CEO Elon Musk recently reiterated that he’s “dying to build it.”
“I promise that we will make a pickup truck,” he pledged in a tweet last month, saying he has “had the core design/engineering elements in my mind for almost five years.”
Is there room for Tesla?
Perhaps. It wouldn’t be the first time a new entry surprised the industry by expanding the segment.
GM’s introduction of midsize pickups, the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, several years ago proved to be savvy timing, putting to rest any fears they would swipe market share away from full-size pickups. Ford is now playing catch-up with its plans to resuscitate the Ranger.
Sandor Piszar, director of Chevy truck marketing, said buyers of midsize trucks are different from buyers of full-size pickups.
“The person buying a midsize isn’t settling because they can’t afford a full size,” Piszar said. “They are usually a little more urban, a little younger — looking for something that works 9 to 5 and something that enables the lifestyle on the weekend.”
Midsize trucks have become part of “work and recreation,” Ford truck marketing manager Brian Bell said. Owners “work all week, then use this truck to go out where they go climbing and hiking.”
Despite the influx of lifestyle buyers, the American tradition of towing, hauling and offroading with a gritty full-size pickup is going strong.
One factor currently driving pickup sales is the flourishing economy. With the housing sector in good shape, the job market at essentially full employment and interest rates still relatively low, the mix is right for strong pickup sales.
And if Washington pulls together a bipartisan package to invest in the nation’s infrastructure, that could provide yet another boost to pickup sales, Autotrader.com analyst Michelle Krebs said. That’s because auto sales typically get a sharp boost from an increase in construction activity.
But even without an infrastructure plan, Krebs said, “2018 is going to be a huge year for pickups.”
Just don’t expect the feverish competition to lead to sharp shifts in market share.
One truth in pickup land is the fierce loyalty of truck buyers. Ford buyers love Fords, Chevy buyers love Chevys, and so on.
About 40% of pickup truck owners say they are “not at all likely” to switch brands with their next purchase, according to CarGurus.
“Whether there are ups or downs in the economy, you can count on the core group of buyer who needs to have a pickup truck,” Piszar said.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.