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Pickups have long been the U.S. auto industry’s hardest-fought sector, with stakes so high that no potential advantage is seen as too costly and no gain goes uncontested. But the competition will be even more heated in 2018 as Ford, General Motors and FCA US pursue new strategies for their truck lineups.

GM made a splash in Texas this month by showing off its redesigned Chevrolet Silverado, which it promised will be leaner and meaner when it debuts late next year. Ford will lob two shells into the segment in 2018: a light-duty diesel for its F-150 and the return of the midsize Ranger to challenge GM’s Colorado/Canyon combination.

And FCA will throw the first full redesign of its Ram 1500 pickup since the 2009 model at its two crosstown competitors in January. Then, late in the year, it will introduce the first midsize Jeep pickup in a couple of decades.

“The pickup truck segment has reached into a hypercompetitive mode, and consumers are benefiting from more power, improved fuel economy and increased comfort,” said Dave Sullivan, senior analyst at AutoPacific. “What’s interesting is that all three pickups are really deviating from each other. They are all going their own way when it comes to materials, powertrains and drivetrains.”

The full-size pickup segment has grown 5.5 percent through November, while the overall light-truck market — which includes crossovers and SUVs — is up 4.7 percent, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Those hot segments stick out in a U.S. market off 1.4 percent this year, mainly because of much weaker car demand.

But regardless of roiling segments, there is no doubt that pickups are the U.S. kings: The Ford F series has been the nation’s top-selling vehicle for nearly four decades, with the Silverado now at No. 2, followed by the Ram pickup.

Sales of the F series have risen 10 percent through November, while Ram sales are up 3.2 percent. Silverado sales have slipped 0.5 percent from a year ago and the GMC Sierra has fallen 3.5 percent.

The Toyota Tundra has gained in the segment, with sales up 1.4 percent through November, but it remains far below the fourth-place Sierra.

Nissan Titan sales have more than doubled from a year ago, yet Nissan’s full-size pickup volume remains a fraction of its domestic competitors.

One long-sought number remains out of reach for the pickup contenders: an EPA rating of 30 mpg in highway driving. Yet that milestone could be attained in 2018 with the latest pickups. Some analysts speculated Ford would achieve the feat with its change to aluminum. But the 2018 F-150 is rated at 26 mpg in highway driving with a 2.7-liter V-6 EcoBoost engine and 10-speed automatic transmission.

The current-generation 2018 Ram 1500 with a 3.0-liter V-6 diesel engine gets up to 29 mpg with an aerodynamics package, while the Ram’s 3.6-liter V-6 engine is rated at 25 mpg highway. Both Ram models come standard with an eight-speed automatic transmission. The 2018 Silverado is rated at 24 mpg highway with a 4.3-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission.

Mixed materials

GM’s slippage in the segment this year may have been motivation to lift the veil early on its redesigned Silverado this month, nearly a year ahead of its planned production. Chevrolet said it would use mixed materials to shed weight, boost fuel economy and enhance functionality of its twin pickups.

Chevrolet did not specify how much steel and aluminum will be used on the new truck, but it’s expected to be a mix of both materials and other lightweight components.

GM said changes in engineering and materials will result in “a significant reduction in total vehicle weight” and “improved performance in many measures.” Eventually, the company is expected to offer a pickup bed that uses carbon fiber.

Alan Batey, president of GM’s North America operations, said the automaker’s next-generation pickup will have “a stronger, roll-formed steel alloy for the bed and floor, contributing to a cargo box that is both lighter and even more functional than ever before.”

Rangers, diesels

Since the F series was redesigned in 2014 and given an aluminum body, Ford has added features nearly every model year, including a 10-speed transmission, a Raptor performance variant and swankier trims.

Spring will mark the first time in the F-150’s storied history that it is available with a diesel, though performance details have not been released.

Later in the year, Ford will begin building Ranger midsize pickups in the U.S. for the first time since 2011, competing with the Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, Honda Ridgeline, Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon.

Overall, Ford expects to sell just shy of 900,000 F-series trucks in 2017, not far off its record of nearly 940,000 in 2004.

2019 Chevy Silverado premieres at Chevy Truck Legends

“Certainly, there will be activity,” said Todd Eckert, Ford’s truck marketing manager. “But at the same time … we really feel like we have an outstanding lineup to be competitive like we have been. That’s what leaders do, and we’re very confident in our product going forward.”

Eckert said Ford will try to stay disciplined on incentives as Ram and Chevy likely put more cash on the hood to help move old models off dealer lots.

“Affordability continues to be very important, but we continue to feel very strong about our product and it fitting the needs of our customers, and that’s how we’ll continue to go to market,” Eckert said.

FCA will reveal the details of its redesigned Ram 1500 at the Detroit auto show and likely will begin producing it the same week. Spy photographers caught much of the Ram 1500’s new styling after a strong breeze blew the cover off a preproduction model this fall, revealing many secrets.

Under the hood, the next-generation Ram will have upgraded engines, complete with a 48-volt mild-hybrid belt-start generator system to improve fuel economy, as well as improved suspension systems.

It’s also expected to shed weight from current versions, have a larger crew cab and come with the latest version of FCA’s Uconnect infotainment system to go with a reworked interior.

FCA will continue to produce its current-generation DS Ram 1500 for at least a year while production of the new DT ramps up at a retooled plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., in suburban Detroit. The move should enable Ram to produce record numbers of pickups, with the current version packing the lower end of the trim and price spectrum.

In the fourth quarter of 2018, about the time the next-generation Silverado and Sierra are hitting the market, FCA will start building the Scrambler, a Wrangler-based pickup. The Scrambler will feature a midsize pickup bed attached to a four-door cabin similar to the 2018 Wrangler Unlimited. It also will carry the Wrangler’s off-road suspension system.

Largely because of the Jeep badge, FCA expects to be able to sell the Scrambler at a substantial premium compared with competitors in the medium pickup segment.

The article “Detroit’s fierce pickup rivalry gets fiercer” originally appeared at Automotive News on 12/15/17.

By Larry P. Vellequette, Automotive News