How about trucks? What role will they play in the Detroit 3s new-vehicle sales picture in the years to come?
This is the last column in a four-part series that presents one mans view of the coming car-truck market and the Detroit 3s place in it.
The first column looked at small cars and advised the Detroit 3 to concentrate on higher-priced, fully equipped models since they have never made a dime on entry-level smallies.
The second installment congratulated Detroit on such mid-sized cars as the Chevrolet Malibu and Impala and the Ford Fusion and Taurus. More of the same was recommended.
The third installment urged Detroit to market its upscale cars -- Cadillac and Lincoln -- to all who can afford them.
So now to trucks, all sorts of trucks -- pickups, vans, crossovers and SUVs. They have enjoyed a sales boom since the 1984 model year, when Chrysler Corp. began building Hal Sperlichs minivan -- which Ford Motor Co. had rejected when Sperlich was with that company.
Pickup: Most versatile
In 1983, trucks had 24.7 percent of the U.S. market. Their slice rose to 33.1 percent in 1990 and 48.3 percent in 2000. From 2002 through 2007, trucks outsold cars.
The truck bonanza is winding down, pushed along by last summers $4-a-gallon gasoline. The $4 fuel brutalized pickups and SUVs.
Even so, pickups will always sell well, and so will crossovers. Minivans have passed their peak. And SUVs, never more than a fad, will become less and less important in the overall scheme of things.
Without question, the pickup is the most versatile vehicle on the American road. It can haul anything and everything, and it is essential to many types of businesses. But in recent years, it has doubled as a personal vehicle.
George Pipas, Fords man of all sales stats, told me that in the heyday of pickups, 25 to 30 percent of owners never used them for the purposes for which they were intended. Ive always thought it was a macho thing. The 100-pound weakling flexes his skinny biceps and declares, Im a real man; I drive a pickup. He probably doesnt today.
Crossovers: A good bet
In 2004, Ford sold 939,511 -- nearly a million -- F-series pickups. This years total for all makes likely will be a bit more than half that many. Sales of all pickups fell 37.6 percent in the first half of this year. But pickups remain the fourth-best-selling vehicle segment in the United States, trailing only small and mid-sized cars and crossovers.
Crossovers are the station wagons of the 21st century. And for a while, they seemed immune from the overall sales downturn. But, sure enough, sales dipped 22.9 percent in the first half of this year.
The field is crowded and due for a pruning, but it appears that the import models will bear the brunt of the cutbacks. There are 33 foreign nameplates in the segment and 18 domestic.
Crossovers are often considered smaller SUVs. If so, the domestic entries have a lot going for them. They are prettier than SUVs (which isnt difficult); they are way ahead on the mpg scale; they are more comfortable, and a stepladder is not needed to enter or leave them. All in all, they are excellent for Detroit 3 sales growth.
Minivans had their day, but that day is gone. Soccer moms loved them; they dont anymore. Chrysler and Dodge, the progenitors of the class, still sell a lot of minivans; so do Honda and Toyota.
For other brands, I suggest: If youre in it, get out. If youre not in it, stay out.
SUV: Head for the hills
Finally, SUVs. I have often called them a fad and have been royally ripped by the lovers of the genre. I have not changed my mind.
They are bigger than a barn and thirstier than a camel. They have no place in an economy that is serious about saving gasoline.
SUVs suffered mightily when gasoline hit $4 a gallon last summer. Owners and would-be owners rebelled against fill-ups that cost $100 to $120. Gasoline is cheaper now, but the memory and the aversion linger on.
Like the crossover field, the SUV stable is bursting at the seams -- 45 nameplates; 21 domestic and 24 import. Sales plunged 38.2 percent last year and fell 48.0 percent in the first six months of this year.
My advice is the same as for minivans: If youre into SUVs, get out. If youre out, stay out.
Summing up, trucks are an important part of the pie for dealers and manufacturers.
General Motors Co. proved that when it saved GMC from the chopping block. Why? Because Buick cannot stand alone in this country. Buick-GMC duals will be the order of the day when the new kids get their company running.
For some 15 years (1990-2005), the Detroit 3 overemphasized trucks and ignored cars. Its easy to understand why. Pickups and SUVs brought in the big bucks, and the Detroiters needed those big bucks desperately.
Today, the market is turning back toward cars, and Detroit lacks the cars that people want. Its as simple as that.
A better reading of market trends is a must for the folks in Dearborn, Auburn Hills and Detroit.