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Ram pickups surpassed the Chevrolet Silverado in U.S. sales in 2019 for the first time ever.

The popularity of trucks has boomed in recent years, supporting growing profit margins for all three Detroit automakers. Although Ford Motor Co.'s F-Series has been America's best-selling vehicle for more than 40 years, the jostle for No. 2 pickup has heated up the past couple of years. That's when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles began selling an older, less-expensive version of its truck — known as the Ram 1500 Classic — alongside the new-generation Ram 1500 that debuted in 2018.

The tactic paid dividends in the end.

"To shake that up is big," said Jeremy Acevedo, auto information website Edmunds.com Inc.'s senior manager of industry insights. "It was a successful strategy by Ram."

Fiat Chrysler said Friday it sold 633,694 Ram pickups in the United States in 2019, up 18% from 2018, while General Motors Co. delivered 575,600 Silverados, down 1.7%. Slightly more than 58,000 units separated the vehicles. Ford plans to release its 2019 sales numbers Monday; it sold 909,330 F-Series trucks in 2018.

The upset by Ram came as no surprise: It sold more than the Silverado in every quarter of 2019. And a 40-day national strike against GM by the United Auto Workers in September and October cemented the Silverado's fall to No. 3. GM said Friday that wholesale deliveries of its new heavy-duty pickups were off about 17% because of the strike.

"Silverado retail market share held up quite well this year despite going through a cadenced-launch being interrupted by a 40-day strike and Silverado's heavy-duties just getting going," GM spokesman Tom Henderson said. "One year doesn't make a trend."

But it was more than short supplies that dented Silverado sales, said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive's Kelley Blue Book.

"I think there was a demand problem for the Silverado," he said. "The interior on the Silverado some might argue is the biggest disappointment. The exterior is trying too hard. It comes off busy and more disjointed than the Ram."

A 1994 redesign of the Ram that introduced the masculine "big rig" styling put Ram on the path to go to battle with the Silverado, Brauer said.

"Then they followed that up with really good features and engineering," he said.

That showed in the latest redesign. A top-of-the-line new Ram offers a 12-inch touchscreen in the center console with split-screen capabilities and 360-degree camera views. The truck has an "eTorque" mild-hybrid system to boost gas mileage, and automated safety features such as brake-assist and front-collision avoidance. The Ram 1500 crew cab also became the first full-size pickup to earn the "Top Safety Pick+" designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"Credit to Ram and the Ram brand," Brauer said. "And credit to the leadership who, even if they weren’t there from the beginning, saw what was trying to be done and continued the effort. That is what someone started trying to do 25 years ago. They just kept rolling out the defined styling."

Still, GM does sell more pickups overall than Fiat Chrysler. Sales of the full-size GMC Sierra represented an additional 232,323 pickups.

"GM has a very healthy presence in the pickup truck market," said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst at IHS Markit. "It might be of more concern to Ram to hold the second-place position than to GM."

Ram did offer higher incentives for buyers through November, according to Cox Automotive. Average discounts were $6,837 per Ram, up 14% year-over-year, compared to $5,562 for each Silverado, which was down 8%.

The 2019 Silverado and 2019 Ram 1500 both debuted at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, but the Ram beat the Silverado to dealer lots by eight months. While the 2019 Ram 1500 went on sale in the second quarter of 2018, the 2019 Silverado did not begin rolling off the assembly line until August of that year.

Production of the new Silverado did not hit full-swing until March of 2019. And the Silverado's heavy-duty models were introduced in the third quarter of 2019 with only crew cab and single rear-wheel models, while Ram's new heavy-duty models started rolling out a quarter earlier.

Additionally, Ram targets budget-conscious buyers with its 1500 Classic. The automaker declined to provide a breakdown on how many Classics it sold last year compared to its new light-duty and heavy-duty trucks.

"These results underscore two significant decisions we have made when it comes to Ram — invest in technology and adopt a three-truck strategy," Reid Bigland, head of Ram and Fiat Chrysler's U.S. sales, said in a statement.

It could be a challenge for Ram to duplicate its results in 2020: Production of the Classic model will be interrupted for 14 weeks in 2020 as the Warren Truck Assembly Plant is retooled to produce the new Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer SUVs. Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley on the third-quarter earnings conference call said he expects earnings from sales of the Jeep Gladiator pickup and heavy-duty Ram to offset that planned downtime.

Forecasters also predict vehicle sales will decline again in 2020, which means profitable volume will be critical, Brinley said. The average transaction price for Ram pickups through November was $46,948, up 4.4% year-over-year, compared to $45,761 for the Silverado, a 3% increase.

"Ram had an outstanding 2019 and our pickup truck sales speak for themselves," Bigland said. "We look forward to another solid year in 2020."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble, @bykaleahall

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