"We've got a lot of momentum," Brian Sweeney, U.S. vice president of Chevrolet, said in an interview last month.
The latest quarterly results from General Motors and Ford underscore just how critical pickups remain to the bottom lines of the domestic automakers. Each topped $10 billion in pretax profit last year, with GM last week reporting pretax operating profit of $10.8 billion for 2015, its best year since before the 2009 bankruptcy.
For both companies, profits were driven by healthy pickup sales and record transaction prices, as truck buyers continue to show an insatiable appetite for pricey features and add-ons. With car sales sagging and talk of a U.S. sales peak or plateau, analysts say none of the Detroit 3 will cede pickup market share this year without a fight.
GM is looking to keep its momentum on several fronts. Recently launched freshenings of the Silverado and Sierra -- just two-and-a-half years after the redesigned pickups debuted -- sport a more modern look. Chevy launched a yearlong stair-step incentive program that will pay as much as $1,000 per Silverado sale to qualifying dealers. It even has a new commercial tweaking Ford, in which pickup drivers are asked to choose between a Silverado with 4G LTE Internet connection and an F-150 -- sans Internet -- hitched to a wood-paneled trailer equipped with a fax machine.
But some market watchers suspect Chevy's recent run has poked the bear. With launch constraints resolved, F-150 sales already were bouncing back in the fourth quarter. (F-series market share was 36.6 percent in the quarter, the highest since the launch of the redesign.) And that was without opening the incentive spigot -- Ford spent about $3,500 in incentives per F-series pickup in the fourth quarter vs. an industry average of about $4,100, according to TrueCar.com.
"We think we're going to have a really strong February and [are] looking forward to the spring selling season," Ford U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve said last week. "Dealers are very excited about being able to stock a lot of the cab types that they haven't really had for a year."
Ford had constraints for a good part of last year on some regular-cab models as well as SuperCabs with 8-foot-long beds.
Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Matthew Stover estimates that Ford boosted its pickup capacity 7 to 10 percent when it retooled its plants for the redesign by moving to a more flexible shift schedule. And it expanded F-series production capacity by adding Super Duty chassis cab production last month at its Avon Lake, Ohio, truck plant. Ford, Stover says, "is positioned to gain share this year."
The analyst believes the full-size pickup market is primed for more-intense incentive activity in coming months, with Ford production at full throttle and with FCA's proclamation last month that it's doubling down on truck sales to drive growth.
FCA's Ram brand is fighting back. It's offering a variety of financing and leasing deals, including $2,500 cash back along with 0 percent interest for five years, or 84-month financing at 2.9 percent. The deals are advertised on the ramtrucks.com website and vary by region, with some straight rebate offers of as much as $5,000 on specific Ram pickups.
Ram is also offering $1,000 incentives on pickups outfitted with its more fuel-efficient V-6 engine. Dealers were offered an extra dealer cash objective-based incentive of $1,000 on Ram 1500 crew cabs that doesn't show up on the brand's consumer website but that adds to a dealer's flexibility to win sales. A Ram spokesman declined to comment on incentives.
Late last year, incentives heated up after relative restraint amid Ford's capacity crunch. Full-size pickup incentives averaged around $4,100 in the fourth quarter, up 17 percent from about $3,500 the year earlier, according to research from TrueCar.com.
For now, executives are vowing discipline. GM CFO Chuck Stevens told analysts last week that he doesn't foresee the threat of weaker pickup pricing this year. He says GM won't offer big incentives in part because it has relatively lean inventories.
"I think we will be erring on maintaining share and maintaining profitability, as opposed to chasing incremental share in 2016," Stevens said.
In recent months, Chevy has run "15 percent off" sales on some inventory, a simple marketing message that has resonated with customers, says Dug Dugger, general manager of Ourisman Rockmont Chevrolet in Rockville, Md. He said the new Silverado stair-step has helped motivate sales staffers, too.
Meanwhile, the new face on the '16 Silverado, with its more-muscular hood and LED headlights, has motivated some buyers. Dugger says some customers have traded in their 2-year-old Silverados to get the freshened ones.
Dugger said: "They'll say 'I don't care. I just like those new lights.'"
Nick Bunkley and Larry P. Vellequette contributed to this report.