Line in the dirt: Detroit 3 automakers bet big on big trucks
You'll rarely see a Ford F-450 in the front of a showroom. A Chevrolet Silverado HD or Ram 3500 won't get a high-profile celebrity endorsement.
But the heavy-duty pickups are ubiquitous at construction sites and in commercial fleets. They haul concrete, plow snow and rake in major profits.
Ford says its commercial vehicle business — which also includes its Transit and Transit Connect vans — earned $10 billion in 2017 on $72 billion in revenue, for a profit margin of 14 percent. If it were a standalone company, it would be a Fortune 40 business bigger than Procter & Gamble.
The big bucks spent in the heavy-duty segment have created a heavyweight brawl as the Detroit 3 race to gain a competitive edge by boosting their trucks' capabilities and adding technology once reserved for luxury brands.
Ford, the dominant player, showed a freshened Super Duty at the Chicago Auto Show that features advanced driver-assistance technology and new powertrains it claims will make the model its most powerful. GM, eager to eat into Ford's lead, is adding trims and options to its redesigned Silverado HD and GMC Sierra HD lineups. And Fiat Chrysler Automobiles promised 1,000 pound-feet of torque along with lush interiors on its redesigned Ram 2500 and 3500 HD trucks that debuted at last month's Detroit auto show.
"These are kind of the unsung heroes of our portfolio," Kumar Galhotra, Ford's president of North America, said during a media briefing on the freshened Super Duty. "They don't get as many headlines, but they're really strong in terms of growth, in terms of market share, in terms of revenue generation and, most importantly, in terms of profitability."
Ford's Super Duty pickups — which include the F-250, F-350 and F-450 — have been steadily updated since their introduction in 1999.
The freshened 2020 model will debut the third-generation 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel alongside a new 7.3-liter V-8 engine and updated 6.2-liter V-8.
A new 10-speed transmission, which replaces a six-speed, is better for towing, Ford said, adding that the Super Duty will be the only vehicle in the segment to offer live-drive power takeoff, which allows the operator to engage snowplows and other equipment while driving.
Although executives declined to offer specific figures, they said the new powertrains will improve power, payload and towing capability, critical stats for the companies that most use the brawny pickups.
In the last 10 years, Ford's maximum towing capability has jumped roughly 10,000 pounds, a spokesman said. The 2019 F-450 can tow up to 35,000 pounds with its diesel engine. Ford would not get into specifics on the 2020 Super Duty, saying only that the rating would increase.
In addition to capability, technology enhancements and interior improvements have made Detroit's heavy-duty pickups nearly as luxurious as some premium brands — and nearly as pricey.
The trend began in the early 2000s when Ford added a leather-laced King Ranch trim to the Super Duty lineup.
Ram has followed suit, adding ample leather and wood to its latest models, as well as a 12-inch touch screen option.
Ford's newest Super Duty pickups will come with an optional pro-trailer backup assist feature that is used on the smaller F-150. The class-exclusive feature lets drivers steer a trailer via a reverse camera that can handle all styles, including fifth wheels and goosenecks.
They also get lane-keep assist, emergency braking with pedestrian detection and blind-spot monitoring technology. The features are standard on XLT and higher trims and were designed specifically for vehicles meant to haul heavy loads.
Ford also added new drive modes, including Eco, Slippery and Sand/Mud. The trucks come with an embedded 4G LTE modem and Wi-Fi.
"Driver assistance technology is probably more relevant to our commercial customers than anyone else," said Mike Pruitt, Super Duty's chief engineer. "When your truck is your livelihood, its not just yourself you're protecting, it's your assets."
Vince Bond Jr. and Michael Wayland contributed to this report.