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Newest pickups have ‘Big 3’ focused on weight, MPGs

Ford introduces all-new Ford F-150 reinventiAmerica's favorite truck. It is toughest smartest most capable F-150 ever -- setting standard for

Ford introduces the all-new Ford F-150, the reinvention of America's favorite truck. It is the toughest, smartest and most capable F-150 ever -- setting the standard for the future of trucks.

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One thing you will notice if you visit this year’s Chicago Auto Show is the attention given to the full-size pickup category. This is one category where the ‘Big 3’ is unarguably — still the ‘Big 3’.

Trucks are known to be highly profitable for automakers and all three pushed hard to capitalize on a recovering economy by introducing all-new or significantly upgraded pickups. Those trucks outperformed the overall light vehicle market for 2013, which saw an 8 percent gain over 2012. The Ram truck brand with a 22 percent increase tied for third place among all brands for the year. As trucks increase in popularity, customer expectations have changed.

“It wasn’t too long ago pickups had a bench seat, vinyl guts, and a three-on-the-tree,” said Bob Hegbloom, director of the Ram Truck brand. “If you look at the way the segment has evolved, we’ve gone from standard cabs to extended cabs, and now crew cabs are 60 percent of the mix. People are using them for daily transportation, not just workhorses. These are luxury vehicles.”

Ford continued into its 37th year in the top pickup sales spot with the F-Series, also in its 32nd year as the top-selling vehicle overall. Ford made the most significant introduction at last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit with the all-new 2015 F-150.

The new F-150 represents a major advancement in the evolution of the pickup truck, highlighted by the use of an aluminum body. Reducing mass is perhaps the most important factor in increasing fuel economy. Ford said this aluminum use will cut some 700 pounds compared to the current truck.

In a truck application, reduced weight potentially means more payload. It also means Ford can use smaller more fuel-efficient engines. To that end, the next radical announcement for the 2015 F-150 was the availability of a 2.7-liter engine. It’s the next step in Ford’s EcoBoost strategy; the current 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost available in the F-150 has proven to be quite popular.

By using turbocharging, direct injection, and variable valve timing, this engine can produce V-8 power with better fuel mileage. The 2.7-liter will use the same idea, and is likely intended for the more casual user who might enjoy the economy, but still have some extra punch for the occasional load.

The number-two best-selling truck, and number-two best-selling vehicle overall for 2013, is the Chevrolet Silverado. General Motors got a lot of traction with a relatively modest redesign for the 2013 model year, which was shared with its sister truck, the GMC Sierra.

All three engines were replaced with new ones of the same size. Significantly, the 5.3-liter V-8, which is the volume engine choice, received a higher fuel economy rating than Ford’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6. While Ford’s strategy appears rife with cost and complexity issues, GM did it the old fashioned way by improving on more traditional powertrain technology, employing direct fuel injection and cylinder deactivation that allows the engine to run on four cylinders under light load.

The Silverado and Sierra get high marks for overall refinement, feature availability and a quieter ride. For those who might be interested in a lighter truck with a smaller engine, General Motors answered by reentering the midsize truck market with introduction of the all-new 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon.

While not a clean sheet redo, Ram has kept momentum going from major upgrades to the Ram 1500 pickup in 2013, continuing to rack up awards for technology as well as refinement and interior design for the 2014 model.

On the fuel economy front, Ram had replaced the base 1500 engine in 2013 with the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, for up to a 25 mpg rating. This year they followed up by introducing the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 which will rate even higher.

“When we design these trucks, just like everyone else, our number one consideration is fuel economy,” said Hegbloom. “We had to deliver, and look at the technology that comes with that.” Ram was the first to use cylinder deactivation and now has added eight-speed transmissions, automatic stop/start, and grille shutters and air suspension to aid aerodynamics, among other innovations.

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