January 13, 2015 / 5:38 PM / in 3 years

Automakers cater to America’s renewed love affair with trucks

The 2016 Nissan Titan pickup truck is unveiled at the first press preview day of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, January 12, 2015.Mark Blinch

(Reuters) - While General Motors Co's Chevrolet on Monday pulled the wraps off a tiny, environmentally friendly electric car called the Bolt, rival Ford Motor Co was showing off a 400-plus-horsepower pickup truck better suited to burning rubber than hauling hay.

The new F-150 Raptor has racing shock absorbers, a 10-speed transmission and the word FORD splayed across the grill.

A few steps away, Nissan Motor Co touted its redesigned Titan pickup, which will be equipped this fall with a brawny Cummins V8 diesel rated at 310 horsepower and 555 pound-feet of torque.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is scheduled on Tuesday to reveal updated versions of its popular Ram 1500 truck, far and away the company's best-selling U.S. vehicle.

Cheap gas is rekindling American consumers’ love affair with big trucks, and automakers are eagerly expanding their truck lineups to squeeze more money out of one of the most profitable segments anywhere in the global auto industry.

"Follow the money," said Kelley Blue Book analyst Matt DeLorenzo, who said the Detroit show is focused this year on "those vehicles that are hot in the market with large margins."

And there are no hotter, higher-margin models than pickups, which fueled much of the growth in U.S. vehicle sales last year. Three of the four top-selling models in 2014 were full-size trucks: Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado and Ram 1500.

Pickups drive profits at the Detroit Three, accounting for 90 percent and more of global pretax margins at GM, Ford and Chrysler, according to analysts.

Easy credit allows many buyers to buy higher-end trucks with more features, which in turn has goosed average transaction prices well above $40,000.

"That's where the money is going - into F-150 Titaniums," said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at AutoForecast Solutions. "Who buys a big Cadillac any more over a four-door pickup?"

AMBITIOUS REDESIGNS

The redesigned F-150 Raptor is still at least 18 months away from showrooms, but Ford is eager to promote the truck’s lighter body – the new model sheds 500 pounds compared to the old one – and new technology. The new Raptor swaps the old model’s monster V8 for a smaller, more efficient yet more powerful EcoBoost V6.

The 2014 Raptor is one of Detroit's most expensive full-size pickups, topping out at just under $50,000. The 2017 model that's on view at the Detroit show goes on sale in fall 2016, likely with an even higher sticker price.

Nissan has big ambitions for its redesigned 2016 Titan, which was largely designed and engineered, and will be built in the United States.

Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn told Reuters the new Titan should be able to capture about 5% of the pickup segment, or more than 100,000 vehicles a year after its introduction, up from sales of fewer than 13,000 Titans in 2014.

Nissan has borrowed some moves from the Detroit truckmakers, offering the Titan in three cab configurations and five trim levels, as well as a choice of three engines, including gas and diesel V8s and a V6.

As big pickups get larger, pricier and more luxurious, some manufacturers also see opportunity in a long-dormant sector: mid-size trucks.

That label is relative. GM's new mid-size Chevrolet Colorado Crew Cab is actually seven inches longer than the "full-size" 2005 Silverado standard cab of 10 years ago.

GM’s recently launched Colorado and GMC Canyon are challenging Toyota Motor Corp's dominance in the mid-size truck market, where the Tacoma has been one of the last survivors.

Toyota answered GM Monday at the Detroit show, unveiling a redesigned 2016 Tacoma, which was designed and developed in the U.S., and will be built in Texas and Mexico. Prices will start at about $21,000.

A surprise entry at the Detroit show is the Santa Cruz "crossover truck" concept from Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co, which currently does not sell pickups in North America.

Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Bernard Orr

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