February 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Q&Auto: The General's pickup guru on Truck War strategy

Chevrolet Silverado Vehicle Chief Engineer Jeff Luke with the 2014 North American Truck of the Year, the Chevrolet Silverado on Tuesday, January 14, 2013 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. (Jeffrey Sauger / Chevrolet)

Consider the challenge. Americans buyers want big trucks at the same time their federal government wants more fuel efficient small vehicles. Not since the 55 mph speed limit has a regulation been more out of touch with the way Americans drive than the 55 mpg-by-2025 mpg mandate.

That's why auto engineers get the big bucks.

These technical magicians must deliver vehicles that meet customer and political demands. General Motors' Jeff Luke, a 20-year truck combat veteran and GM's global chief engineer for full-size trucks, is one of the best. The Canadian transplant has seen Detroit take heavy sedan losses but hold strong on its truck lines. On a clear, pleasant January day north of Phoenix — miles from Michigan's record-cold winter — Luke and I took time from testing heavy-duty pickups to talk about dramatically different automaker strategies to meet Washington’s global warming obsession, and how the General fights the Truck Wars. It's worth noting that we took refuge from Payson, Arizona’s mid-day bustle in the quietest place I could find: the leather-upholstered cab of a 2015 Chevy Silverado Heavy Duty pickup truck.

Yes, it’s that quiet.

HP: Jeff, the headliner coming into 2014 is the new, aluminum Ford F150 to meet federal fuel economy regulations. You have a different truck strategy, what is it?

Luke: We have a three-truck strategy — times two brands. So it’s really a six-truck strategy. Three trucks are mid-size with excellent fuel economy. Next are full-size trucks, with the heavy-duty and light-duty Silverado (which) today is best in class. We believe that against the Ford lineup — specifically in light duty where they’re going to be using a lot of aluminum with down-sized engines — we can give the customer many more choices.

HP: One leg of that strategy is getting back into mid-size trucks — a segment that you had abandoned. Why go back in?

Luke: We’re looking at that segment a lot differently. Today, the two competitors in that market, Toyota and Nissan, haven’t made many changes in either styling or performance. We’re going to come in with the Colorado and the Canyon with features this segment won’t have: lane departure warning, forward collision alert, most-versatile box usage, corner-step bumper, and easy lift-and-lower tailgate. There are four key segments of buyers who we think will look at us. First, loyalists: Former S10/S15 customers. Next are the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier folks. We think this is a much better vehicle for them. Third, our domestic competitors, Ford and Ram. Their strategy is to try to sell people a larger truck with a smaller engine. We think a lot of customers just don’t want a bigger truck. And the fourth segment is crossovers — a lot of people left the mid-pickup segment many years ago looking for more refinement and safety. We think the new Colorado and Canyon provide all of that — and the versatility of a box.

HP: Everyone in the industry is looking at federal mpg regulations. Ford’s decision to invest in aluminum is driven in part by 54.5 mpg-by-2025. How does it help GM with so-called Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules to go into mid-size trucks?

Luke: Each manufacturer is required to meet their specific CAFE standards according to the line-up that they sell. Coming back into the mid-size truck segment, we’re meeting the requirements for their particular size and they are positive for our company line-up.

HP: When Americans buy a sedan, they look at a foreign manufacturer first. That’s reversed in the truck segment. The foreign makers are on the outside looking in. What lessons have the Detroit manufacturers learned from Asian dominance of sedans?

Luke: There’s a lot of lessons to be learned. We are working our way back with some great domestic sedans. When it comes to trucks, we have strong brand loyalty. For me, it’s a very personal thing to protect this segment. You ensure that customers have quality, reliability and durability. (Trucks) also must be styled extremely well and the features must be purposeful. You can never let your guard down.

HP: Also different about the truck segment is the prevalence of diesel, particularly in heavy-duty. Why?

Luke: Diesel is a natural truck application because of its torque when you’re towing or hauling. Diesel becomes a much more efficient power train in those circumstances, which is the basic design premise. There's also more acceptance that diesels are clean. Two of three heavy duty trucks sold is a diesel.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. or Twitter @HenryEPayne