Trucks pick up where luxe cars leave off

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News
View Comments

There was a time I thought having a big four-door pickup made sense as a secondary and occasional-use vehicle for a normal American family, but then came the bankruptcies and recession of 2009. Sales plunged, money was scarce. So I dropped the dream, and since then I’m envious of my friends who have rearranged their households to work well with a single smaller vehicle, like a compact crossover SUV such as a Toyota RAV4.

As always, I seem to be in a minority. The American pickup market is more than 2 million in sales annually, dominated by the three Detroit automakers.

“In Texas, the pickup is the family car,” Jim Morrison, head of Ram truck division of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, told me two weeks ago. “We’ve put all the needs of customers into one vehicle, the pickup. We want it to be the only car in a single-car family.”

Yikes, I thought. I like the country’s recent minimizing trend. You know, buy less, downsize, every consumer producing a smaller carbon footprint.

Pickups are too big. The new 2019 Ram 1500 pickup grew four inches longer and half an inch wider than last year’s model, which is still on sale, and now it’s eight inches longer than the 1994 Ram that joined the Ford and Chevrolet big pickups back when the “trucks are cars” frenzy began.

The two-door 1994 Dodge Ram pickup was only 10 inches longer than today’s Toyota Camry sedan, while today’s Ram 1500 Crew Cab four-door is 52 inches longer than the Toyota. That mimics a complaint by Car and Driver magazine test driver Andrew Wendler about a Ford F-150 SuperCrew pickup: “Too big for some modern parking facilities.” My parent’s Winnebago Brave was 13 inches shorter, and it could sleep and feed a family of five.

Why so big? Interior space in today’s pickups seems to have no upper limits: The rear-seat area of the latest Ram 1500 Crew Cab boasts 45 inches of legroom, enough for a 7-foot person. That’s more legroom than the $90,000 Mercedes-Benz S-450 luxury sedan. Even with a lightweight aluminum body structure, a Ford F-150 Platinum SuperCrew is almost 5,300 pounds — the weight of two Kia Rio sedans.

Even so, handling and performance has been improving on large pickups, too, despite the increased size. The 2018 Ford F-150 Platinum SuperCrew stops from 70 mph in 180 feet, two feet shorter than Mercedes’ S550 luxury sedan did in 2008. The F-150 can tow more than 12,000 pounds and carry a load of more than 3,000 pounds in its bed, too.

But size and capability are not the only reasons pickups are popular. Today’s new vehicle customers are eager to spend more on luxury. In the U.S. pickup market, says Morrison, “We haven’t seen an upper limit” on price. In other words, there’s no end in sight.

Ford’s F-150 Limited starts at $60,000; and there is a whole range of Lariat, King Ranch (with a Kingsville luxury upgrade) and Platinum versions with options like Blue Jeans Metallic paint, and woodgrain and leather interiors, as well as top-end communication and entertainment technology. The latest Ram comes in a Limited edition at $70,000, and plush Big Horn, Laramie and Longhorn models and all have 12-inch touch screens available to control internet connectivity and other functions. The names of upscale pickup models tell the story: Kingsville King Ranch. Big Horn. Longhorn. Silverado Trailboss. “Customers tell me ‘Pickups make me feel rugged,’” explains Morrison.

Luxury is different for pickup buyers versus car fans, explains Ram interior designer John Godneau: “In a pickup, luxury is when it does something for you. Designers want a subconscious connection to communicating the purpose of the truck. Materials that look good in a luxury sedan, they don’t have a purpose. In a pickup, materials have an interlocking look, they make it look strong. Pickup design shapes wouldn’t work in a car. You don’t see the corners of a bolt in a car. In a truck you see something you could put a wrench on. A car interior is relaxing, like being at a spa. A pickup communicates strength, like Lego blocks.”

I can further translate that difference between car and truck luxury to a real-world experience: During an off-road drive in Arizona of a Ram 1500 Laramie crew cab with optional air springs and standard electronic “Active Tune Mass Modules” (both systems designed to counteract noise and vibration), my passenger and I experienced eerie silence at 25 mph through foot-deep sand ruts and while scrambling over steep rocky washes.

The interior of the Ram remained so unusually quiet that we had to open the windows to hear when the tires were slinging dirt. It was so quiet that we couldn’t orient ourselves to the bouncing chaos of off-road driving going on outside. It seemed to our senses more like a video game. And Ford’s F-150 and Chevrolet’s Silverado luxurious off-road behavior is not that far behind the Ram, either.

As an example of highly developed automotive technology, there are no luxury sedans that can tame the Wild West with the level of luxury available in today’s pickups. Hi-yo, Silverado!

View Comments