Why big trucks mean big sales

The Detroit Three automakers are engaged in a spitting contest over whose truck is manliest

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In a recent commercial, the Dodge Ram Heavy Duty pickup truck is shown splashing through mud, pulling massive loads, and charging across the desert, with a gravelly voice-over from actor Sam Elliott—the quintessential cowboy—in the background. Macho truck ads are nothing new, but lately it seems like the Detroit Three automakers are engaged in a spitting contest over whose truck is biggest, toughest, and manliest of all. Earlier this year, GM even challenged Ford to a truck tug-of-war between their 2011 heavy duty pickups (Ford declined).

As Chrysler, General Motors and Ford recover from a difficult year in the auto industry, pickup trucks have been a bright spot. “We’re seeing vehicle sales in general improve in Canada,” but while cars are up by only about three per cent this year over last, trucks are up by 23 per cent, says Carlos Gomes, senior economist at Scotiabank. Gomes credits a rebound in the construction industry for the surge in sales: the number of new houses being built has almost doubled since this time last year, and as a result, “trucks are outperforming the market.” Growing demand for pickups is good news for Detroit, which makes 95 per cent of trucks on the road, says auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers.

Only about one-fifth of pickup trucks are bought as personal vehicles; the rest are for work, used by roofers, landscapers or construction companies, DesRosiers says, noting that these buyers tend to be very loyal to one brand. “A farmer who has 10 pickup trucks only wants to train his mechanics to fix one kind,” he says. You’d think, then, that manly television ads and other bells and whistles—like the chrome wheels and heated leather seats on the new Sierra Denali luxury pickup from GM—might not be necessary.

Still, commercial use vehicles often double as personal ones, and promoting these vehicles as manly and elegant does lure buyers. Unlike an individual who’s paying out of their own pocketbook, “many of these companies can afford to pay, and their vehicles are very well-appointed,” DesRosiers says. In the battle to build a better pickup, horsepower and towing capability are key, but a heated steering wheel doesn’t hurt either.

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