Sun, May 25, 2003 - Page 11 News List

Automakers begin battle for truck market domination

AFP , DETROIT, MICHIGAN

When it comes to American motors, bigger is generally better, a fact borne out by the steadily rising demand for sport-utility vehicles and full-sized pickups.

The rugged pick-up -- or "Texas limousine" as it has been dubbed -- started out as a hard working heavy-lifter, but today is as likely to ply Beverly Hills' chi-chi Rodeo Drive as a ranch trail.

Late this summer, the world's number two automaker, the Ford Motor Co, will roll out an all-new version of the most popular US pick-up -- the Ford F-series -- in a bid to hold onto its dominance in this segment of the market.

With sales of 800,000 to 900,000 a year, the F-series is a cash cow and a rare good news story for the ailing automaker: the pickups collectively count as the single best-selling product in the US -- and have for 21 years.

So when the half-ton F-150 debuts later this year, it will be "the most important launch we've had in the last 20 years," says Phil Martens, Ford's North American product development director.

Full-sized pickup sales average around 2.5 million annually, around 16 percent of the total US market, and provide a disproportionate share of Big Three profits.

But the domestic automakers know that a wave of Japanese -- and possibly European -- products are getting ready for market, threatening their traditional dominance of this market niche.

That's of particular concern to Ford Motor Co, which is struggling to reverse staggering losses.

While company officials won't publicly discuss their investment in the all-new truck, insiders hint it will top 1.8 billion dollars, once all three plants come on line.

What Ford does acknowledge is that production costs crept up by as much as US$2,000 over the old F-150. A decade ago, that might have been acceptable, but in today's market, consumers seem reluctant to pay even a penny more. Indeed, typical US vehicle prices have been declining about one percent annually since the latter 1990s.

Jim Padilla, Ford's President of North American Operations, claims "we know how to take that cost out" over the next few years, but insists it was critical to upgrade the truck to stay ahead of the competition.

And there's no question this was an unusual makeover. For one thing, Ford has crafted five distinct versions of the 2004 model, each aimed at a distinct buyer segment -- such as the sporty FX4, and the high-line Lariat.

These boutique versions are expected to retail for 30,000 and up, according to the trade magazine Automotive News.

The customization of the vehicle reflects a global fragmentation in buyer demand, says Martens. "What's happening in passenger cars is now happening in trucks."

That's on top of traditional buyer options, such as various size cargo beds, and cabs. But even with the "standard," or single-row F-150, Ford has added a cargo compartment and two extra doors.

The automaker has adopted sophisticated new suspension technology, and redesigned the truck's chassis to use hydroformed components, increasing its rigidity.

The timing of the new F-150 is critical. This Autumn Nissan launches its first full-size pickup, the Titan. With a number of variants, and more likely to follow, Nissan is betting it will quickly gain access to the American-dominated segment.

Toyota was actually the first "import" to enter the full-size pickup market, but it has, until now, been a cautious player. Its Tundra is a bit undersized and underpowered, critics say. But a larger, more muscular version is set to debut shortly.

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