The Pickup Truck Fight is Moving From a Simmer to a Boil

Bill Ford, Top Ford Executives Hold Press Conference At Dearborn Truck Plant

Source: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In the automotive industry, there’s always one segment where the competition is just a little bit hotter than the rest. For the past few years, that segment has been midsize family sedans. Not only have cars like the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, and Mazda6 completely rejected the traditionally plain styling of the segment, but the desire for added features and improved fuel economy resulted in an arms race that has left the current lineup of midsize sedans almost unrecognizable next to previous generations. The market is moving on, however, and it appears that the next hot segment is pickup trucks.

Pickups have never been the most everyday practical, refined, or technologically advanced, but despite their shortcomings in those areas, they still sell incredibly well — the best, actually, at least in the U.S. In 2013, for example, the two top selling vehicles were the Ford F-series and the Chevrolet Silverado. The best selling car, on the other hand, the Toyota Camry, sold only a little over half as many units as Ford sold trucks. With numbers like that, there are clearly a lot of sales at stake, and manufacturers can’t risk losing out to the competition, especially with renewed efforts from Toyota and Nissan coming down the pipeline.

When Ford went back to the drawing board to redesign the F-150, its main focus was on improving fuel economy, which meant dropping weight and expanding on the success of the original EcoBoost engine. The resulting truck weighs about 700 pounds less than its predecessor did in certain trims thanks to extensive use of aluminum in its construction. That’s a significant weight savings that doesn’t just improve fuel economy — it actually feels noticeably lighter as well. While it’s not the only engine available, Ford also now offers a smaller 2.7 liter EcoBoost V6 that gets a claimed 26 miles per gallon on the highway while still making 325 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque.

Not to be outdone, General Motors has redesigned the Chevrolet Silverado and its more luxurious sibling, the GMC Sierra as well. Instead of relying on forced induction to make more power out of a smaller engine, GM stuck with V8s across the lineup, relying on cylinder deactivation technology and direct injection to improve fuel economy. Perhaps the biggest departure from the traditional pickup truck formula is found in the GMC Sierra Denali though, which comes standard with Magnetic Ride Control, the advanced suspension system that automatically adapts the suspension to road conditions and has previously been reserved for GM’s sportiest vehicles like the Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac CTS-V. It completely changes the feel of the truck, making it drive much more car-like despite its large size.

2015-GMC-Canyon-AT-Three-Quarter-Rear-View-003-medium

Source: GMC

GM’s boldest move, however, may be its revival of the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. The previous generation Colorado and Canyon struggled to compete in the midsize truck segment, but GM came out guns blazing this time, building excellent vehicles that won’t just cannibalize the sales of other midsize trucks but should also attract buyers who may have previously been interested in a midsize truck but felt forced into buying a crossover in order to get the features they wanted.

It isn’t just the Colorado and Canyon that are offering more features though. Across the board, the newest pickups are available with nearly all of the technology and features that the latest sedans and crossovers offer. Material quality is also drastically improved, making it hard for previous generation trucks to compete.

Sales of Nissan’s truck line have all but disappeared, and even with quite a few boxes ticked on the options sheet, the Toyota Tundra feels incredibly dated compared to the latest F-150 and Silverado. The Toyota Tacoma is in the same boat, feeling incredibly long in the tooth compared to the Chevrolet Colorado.

As hot as things have gotten already though, January’s 2015 North American International Auto Show may make things even hotter. Toyota isn’t one to give up on dominating a segment simply because of renewed competition, and it has a new Tacoma ready to unveil in Detroit. GM may be dominating the midsize truck market for now, but don’t expect Toyota to let them get away with it for long. Exact details are sparse, but you can expect a bolder look, more features, more refinement, and better fuel economy out of the redesigned Tacoma that make for a huge leap over the previous generation.

2015NAIAS_Toyota_Tacoma_Teaser

Source: Toyota

Not to be left out, Nissan is also bringing a truck to the North American International Auto Show. An official announcement on the next generation Frontier is likely coming soon, but we only have to wait until January to see the new Titan. A V8 will definitely still be available, but there have been rumors of a V6 option as well. Cummins is chipping in to offer a 5.0 liter diesel V8, the first diesel eight-cylinder to be offered in the full-size truck segment. Regardless, don’t be surprised to see a more refined look with a modern, high quality interior and loads of options to bring it in line with other modern pickups.

Perhaps even more exciting than the redesigned Tacoma and Titan though, Ford is bringing the redesigned F-150 SVT Raptor to Detroit. The first generation took the truck market by storm when it went on sale back in 2009, and the second generation should be even more extreme, even more ridiculous, and even more capable off-road. Interestingly enough, despite the SVT Raptor’s sales success, no one else has introduced a direct competitor yet. You never know though. It could still happen.

As the competition heats up in the truck market, however, you can expect accelerated innovation to continue just like we saw in the midsize sedan segment. Regardless of which direction gas prices go, regulatory pressure to improve fuel economy across the board is going to push manufacturers to continue to find more ways to squeeze extra efficiency out of their engines.

Features and technologies that are currently available on luxury cars can also be expected to find their way into trucks at a much faster rate. And if midsize trucks sell as well as they’re expected to, there’s a good chance that other manufacturers may be tempted to introduce their own models into the segment.

One issue that can’t be overlooked though is price. Advanced engine technology, luxury features, and technology doesn’t come cheaply, and that means manufacturers are having to charge more for their trucks. Buyers who last purchased a truck 10 years ago would be shocked to see the prices that their local dealerships are charging. You can option a GMC Canyon up well over $40,000, and a Ford F-150 with all the options is well over $60,000.

As prices on pickup trucks creep up well past some luxury cars and sports cars, don’t be terribly surprised if a budget-friendly alternative finds its way into the market. That could be the upcoming redesigned Nissan Frontier, but there’s also a second generation Honda Ridgeline slated for the future. Could that be the wallet-friendly midsize pickup truck that’s missing from the U.S. market?

Regardless, if you’re a fan of trucks, sit back and enjoy the next several years because you’re in for one heck of a fun ride. The future is bright, and the competition is about to get very, very hot. In another 10 years, don’t be surprised if the previous 10 years’ pickup trucks feel like complete dinosaurs next to what you’re driving.

Follow the Autos Cheat Sheet on Facebook!

More from the Autos Cheat Sheet: