Let the pickup smack-down begin

Even in the hubris-filled auto industry, it can be tough to get executives to publicly talk smack. Ask a leading question about a rival’s latest entry and the best you can hope for usually is a generic, delicately worded put-down.

But the elbows get a little sharper when it comes to full-sized pickups. That was hammered home Friday with word from Reuters that Ford will show a sneak peek of its next-generation F-150 at the Detroit auto show, in a not-so-subtle move to blunt the debut of General Motors’ redesigned pickups.

At GM’s event Thursday to unveil its next-gen Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, the darts lobbed at arch-rival Ford weren’t exactly veiled. Most were aimed at the same target: Ford’s Ecoboost V-6 engine.

GM execs gave the impression that they have grown tired of hearing about the rousing success of EcoBoost since its 2011 launch. Among the shots:

  • "Some competitors are turning to smaller-displacement engines originally engineered for passenger cars" that require "complex hardware" to boost the truck’s power, said Jeff Luke, executive chief engineer for GM’s pickups. GM’s cylinder deactivation on its new small block engines is "a much better solution."
  • GM North America President Mark Reuss said that "real-world fuel economy suffers" when you rely on a turbocharger to boost a full-sized pickup. Was he implying that EcoBoost drivers might not be getting those 16 city/22 highway mpg ratings? Reuss said no, he wasn’t. But GM product chief Mary Barra also used the "real-world" line in response to a question about what mpg ratings the pickups will get: "In the real world, people are going to be very pleased with their fuel-economy performance," she said.
  • Another well-worn talking point from the unveiling: EcoBoost only benefits a slice of Ford’s pickup customers, while GM is offering its best stuff -- three versions of its redesigned small block -- across its lineup. "We didn’t just update one engine," top Chevy marketer Chris Perry said, "but wanted all of our customers to have our best technology."

Of course, the fur has flown for decades in this battle of the two top dogs in the pickup world. What makes this next round more interesting, though, is that GM and Ford are following two "very different" strategies, as Reuss acknowledged.

Ford is pouring all of its fuel-saving efforts into its full-sized pickups. While GM won’t concede that Ford’s pickups will beat the Silverado and Sierra -- we won’t know until specs are out in a few months -- it’s not counting on those big pickups to satisfy mpg-minded customers.

That role will be filled by redesigned versions of the mid-sized Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, which will arrive in 2014. Ford, and Ram, have abandoned that segment.

Who’s strategy is best? We won’t fully know for a few years. In the meantime, let the barbs fly.

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