As sales shrink, Detroit Three's truck wars intensify

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
Fiat Chrysler is claiming bragging rights for second-place in pickup sales over GM.

Pickup trucks are the only bright point in sales for U.S. automakers. And that will make the Detroit truck wars even more contentious going forward.

Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported this week that through the first half of the year, trucks were the only vehicles with a sales uptick compared to a year ago. At General Motors Co., sales of both light-duty and heavy-duty pickups fell as GM ramps production of all-new models.

That left room for Fiat Chrysler's three-pronged pickup approach — the new Ram 1500, the previous-generation Ram Classic and the Ram Heavy Duty — to surpass Chevy Silverado sales and claim bragging rights for second-place position behind Ford's F-Series through the end of June

But GM officials dispute they've been surpassed. First, accounting for Chevy and GMC sales — not just Chevy — GM still outsells FCA on full-size pickups. 

"The thing everybody needs to remember about this sensationalized Ram versus Chevrolet sales battle is that Rome won the Pyrrhic War," said GM spokesman Jim Cain. A "Pyrrhic victory" is a reference to winning a battle but losing the war. "They've indicated they're gonna stay on offense. That's fine. We are about to make a massive move in full-size pickups."

Placement on the podium in the pickup wars amounts to bragging rights, to be sure. But increased pickup sales also net higher profits at a time when automakers are accumulating cash to fund an uncertain future of new electric vehicles and self-driving cars. To that end, it matters deeply how many pickups automakers sell as overall sales slow and the SUV market becomes oversaturated.

GM officials dispute they've been surpassed by Fiat Chrysler in pickup sales, insisting that combined Chevy and GMC sales still surpass FCA.

GM and Cain maintain that selling a discounted Ram Classic alongside the new Ram light- and heavy-duty models will come back to bite FCA eventually. FCA leadership, meanwhile, has said their sales strategy is paying off. Ram Classic discounts meant Ram's previous full-size model cost less than a new GM midsize truck.

"Ram has been on a tear since we made the strategic decision to enter the year with a three-truck strategy," FCA U.S. sales chief Reid Bigland said in a statement. "The new Ram 1500, Ram Classic and Heavy Duty are all generating a huge response from customers and critics alike. This is now the third month Ram pickup sales have surpassed 60,000 since December. Our dealers had a steady stream of customers all month long."

"It's an extremely strong pickup market," said Michelle Krebs, industry analyst with Cox Automotive. "But this is not some kind of new game. New trucks are expensive, and there are truck buyers that don't care if they have the previous generation, and they get it deeply discounted. It's how the game is played, and they all play it."

Krebs noted that Ram, to its credit, has a strong new 1500 that's won consumers over with its interior design, ruggedness and new technology. Meantime, Ford reigns supreme on full-size trucks.

Ford on Wednesday reported it sold 448,398 F-Series trucks and 30,301 Rangers in the first half of 2019. Compare that to 299,480 Rams and 7,252 Jeep Gladiators, or 352,866 Silverados and Sierras, and 84,026 Colorados and Canyons. Ford sales chief Mark LaNeve said the automaker aims to sell 1 million pickups in the U.S. this year.

"Ford wins," Krebs said. "They are always going to make sure that's the best-selling truck. Ford is not giving up that title. They will do something every month to make that happen."

The Ford F-150 still rules the sales game over GM and Fiat Chrysler.

The automaker has traditionally lumped its most of its trucks under the F-Series nameplate on sales charts. The F-Series lineup has five pickups ranging from the F-150 to the F-550. That makes it difficult to see exactly how well the F-150 sells compared to its competitors' counterparts. 

GM said Tuesday it would start reporting separately its Silverado and Sierra heavy-duty and light-duty models, in part an attempt to goad Ford and FCA into doing the same. LaNeve said Ford doesn't have plans to follow suit.

Krebs said it doesn't matter much how many heavy-duty pickups versus light-duty — it really only matters that "beefy trucks" are making profits.

As overall sales slow through the second half of 2019, carmakers continue to back out of sedans and compact cars. The SUV and crossover market is getting more saturated, more competitive and profits are likely get slimmer. Analysts and company officials expect to push more trucks on dealer lots to boost the bottom line.

"We're all gonna be aggressive," said Ford's LaNeve. "Do I expect it to be really competitive in the back half of the year? Yes. But the No. 2 (company) is different. That's really the only significant change."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau