Big 3 battle shapes up to haul in pickup buyers

Melissa Burden and Michael Wayland
The Detroit News
Stanford Martin, left, and Chris Ramsey install the front end module on a 2014 Ram 1500 at the Warren Truck Assembly plant.

It's game-on for Chevrolet, GMC and Ram in the race to grab bigger shares of the full-size pickup market.

Analysts expect a battle from General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC against rival and sales leader Ford Motor Co. over the next several months as Ford readies the all-new 2015 F-150. Ram has gained the most market share so far this year.

"Without question you'll see GM and Ram will continue to play the incentive game to continue to bite into Ford's share," said Bill Rinna, LMC Automotive senior manager of North American forecasts, in an interview.

That means consumers will win, too: Deals should be plentiful on pickups during the fall when truck sales typically perk up, analysts say.

Ford idled its Dearborn truck plant for several weeks to retool for the 2015 F-150, a radically redesigned model with a lightweight aluminum body. It plans to idle its truck plant in Kansas City in early 2015 to retool that operation. Because it can't crank out as many trucks as usual and some loyal Ford customers are likely waiting for the new truck, F-150 sales have slowed as the automaker conserves inventory until it builds up a stock of the next-generation pickup.

Pickup trucks like the Chevrolet Silverado, top,  the GMC Sierra, center left, and the Ram 1500, right, are grabbing market share from Ford, which is retooling for the all-new 2015 Ford F-150, lower left.

Ford expects a production loss — and lost sales — of more than 90,000 F-150 pickups during the changeover. Barclays Capital Inc. analyst Brian A. Johnson, in a recent research note, said Ford's share of the truck market is the lowest in more than three years.

Ram and GM already have taken advantage of Ford's predicament in the third quarter. Ram's market share increased 2.5 percentage points to 21.6 percent of the full-size pickup market compared to the third quarter of 2013, according to Autodata Corp. through J.P. Morgan. GM, during that same period, was up 2.1 percentage points to 36.4 percent market share, while Ford declined 4 percentage points to 35.6 percent.

The third-quarter gains helped Ram increase its market share 2.9 percentage points through September, to 21.3 percent of the truck market, while Ford's share has fallen 2.2 percentage points to 37 percent, according to industry data and automakers. GM's Silverado market share is up 0.1 percentage points to 25.4 percent; the Sierra is up 0.3 percentage points to 9.8 percent share.

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Bob Hegbloom, Ram CEO and president, said the brand will continue to attempt to lure customers from Ford during the changeover: "The analysts are saying we're going to go after their share. Heck yes, we're going to go after their share."

Ram extended from September a zero-percent financing option for up to 72 months or $2,000 off certain 2014 Ram 1500 models. Some packages, such as the 2014 Ram 1500 Lone Star crew cab two-wheel drive, offer up to $5,000 in incentives off a $36,500 sticker price.

Chevrolet extended its Truck Month advertising and sales promotion — originally due to expire at the end of September — through Nov. 3. The promotion drove Silverado 1500 to outsell the F-150 last month for the first time since 2011 and only the second time in the past five years, according to GM.

Deals include $8,500 off the $47,000-plus sticker of a 2014 Silverado Crew Cab LT All Star edition if buyers trade in a vehicle from the 1999 model year or newer. Buyers also can get $9,500 off a 2014 Silverado Double Cab LT All Star by trading in a 1999-or-newer vehicle. In both examples, figures include $1,500 trade-in assistance, plus the vehicles' trade-in value.

GMC also is taking $5,000 off certain 2014 Sierra regular cabs. It also is offering zero-percent financing for 60 months plus $1,500 off on other Sierra models.

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Loyal to their brands

Pickup buyers have tended to be the most loyal to their brands, and trucks are automakers' most profitable vehicles. So losing those buyers can hurt for years to come.

But with improved trucks across the industry, buyers increasingly can be lured by the best deal.

"If someone can get a comparable vehicle at $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 less than the competitor, if they're not brand-loyal, they're going to go that way," LMC's Rinna said.

Ford, in an attempt to retain customers, is offering some discounts. Through its Built Ford Tough Sales Event, it's advertising zero-percent financing for 60 months on the 2014 F-150, plus $1,500 cash back for trade-ins of 1995 or newer vehicles. It's also offering $5,500 cash back on certain models.

Last month, GM's average incentive spending was about $4,700 on the Sierra 1500 and $3,594 on the 2014 Silverado, according to auto research firm TrueCar Inc.

Chrysler's average for the Ram 1500 was highest in the segment at about $5,000, while Ford's was $3,403 for the F-150. Ford was the only one to lower incentive spending from a year ago, according to TrueCar.

Erich Merkle, Ford sales analyst, said the Dearborn automaker's main focus is balancing incentives and truck volume over the coming months.

"We just remain very disciplined in our incentive approach," he said. "We don't like to instill a lot of volatility in terms of incentives. We've proven that over a number of years now."

Rinna said Ford has decent F-150 supply, but it may be limited in some trim levels. At the beginning of October, Ford had 106 days' supply of F-Series trucks, up from 76 at the same time a year ago. Ram had 83 days' supply at the beginning of October, Silverado 95 days and Sierra 98 days, according to Rinna.

GM went through its own transition to a new truck about a year ago. It held to a strict pricing strategy and Silverados are selling on average for $4,100 higher this year compared to the same time a year ago. In September, Silverado's average sales price was around $37,000.

"We stand behind our product, our incentive plan. We don't want those jagged swings of incentivizing," said Brian Sweeney, U.S. vice president of sales and service for Chevrolet, in a recent interview. "We're merchandising, promoting our product. We've done some special editions that the dealers have certainly rallied around ... It's just continuing running our play."

Chevrolet Silverado 1500 sales are up 7 percent and GMC Sierra light-duty sales are up 10 percent through September, according to, an automotive shopping and research website. That comes as sales of Ford's F-150 light-duty sales are up 1 percent through the first nine months of the year and sales of the light-duty Ram 1500 have surged 61 percent, according to Edmunds.

Ram boosts leasing

Beside cash on the hood, Ram is building sales through leasing: 28 percent of Ram 1500 models that left dealer lots this year were leased, a very high rate for trucks, said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst for Edmunds. Ram 1500 leases are up 11 percentage points this year; typically about 10-15 percent of trucks are leased.

The expanded leasing, Hegbloom said, comes as Ram's sales have moved more toward mid-range and premium models.

Sales of Ram's four-door crew cabs, a roughly $2,000 option, have grown from 45 percent to 70 percent of sales since 2009. Meanwhile, sales of its entry-level Tradesman and Express, he said, have dropped from 45 percent to 29 percent in the last year.

"We've been working to bring a richer mix into our product portfolio," he said.

While GM acknowledges Ram's aggressiveness, GM officials last month said the company doesn't plan to change its game plan and wouldn't dramatically boost incentives. The company expects the recent introduction of its 2015 midsize trucks, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, will grow sales in lower-priced end of the market.

"Colorado's got to be incremental for us. I think our dealers see that...," Sweeney said. "It's going to give us more choice out there."