July 6, 2010 Pickups emerging as leaders in quality | detnews.com | The Detroit News
Pickups emerging as leaders in quality
Improved reliability has broadened appeal of workhorse vehicles
On a list of today's best-built vehicles, you might expect to find a sleek Mercedes sedan or an iconic Porsche convertible. Even a fuel-sipping minivan from Toyota -- despite the automaker's recent troubles with recalls.
But a pickup? Probably not.
Yet these workhorses are now among the highest-quality vehicles on the road, earning better marks in key quality studies than many cars, including some luxury models.
Leading the way are American brands, determined to keep their Japanese rivals at bay.
In the latest J.D. Power and Associates' initial quality rankings, pickups widened their lead over other light vehicles for 2010 models: Problems per 100 vehicles reported during the first three months of ownership totaled 95, compared with the industry average of 109. Leading the pack were General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Avalanche and GMC Sierra.
At stake is more than just bragging rights: Even amid the worst industry downturn in decades, Detroit's Big Three sold more than 1 million of the 1.14 million full-size pickups bought in the United States last year, underscoring how critical the truck market is to domestic automakers.
"Pickups likely will remain in the forefront of quality because they are profitable vehicles automakers can't afford to lose," said Mike Levine, editor of PickupTrucks.com in Santa Monica, Calif., an editorial site devoted to coverage of the pickup industry.
Today's pickup buyers are finding fewer problems because buyers demanded and got more creature comforts and Detroit's automakers drew a line in the sand vowing not to relinquish the quintessentially American segment to the Japanese.
"Pickups used to lag," said Dave Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research for J.D. Power in Troy. "Now they're pretty much the highest-quality vehicles.
"Twenty years ago, the pickup was essentially a work tool with no focus on the interior at all, only whether it was washable and could you fit a bunch of guys in there."
The pickup segment is unique in that Detroit-made pickups collectively score better than average, while the Japanese entries fall below the median. In many other segments, imports are the quality leaders.
The best of the best in the large pickup class, the Avalanche and Sierra, tied for the fewest problems with 81, followed by the Ford F-150 at 85.
Quality engenders loyalty, said Rick Spina, GM line executive for trucks.
"Happy customers don't move. It is up to the Big Three to not disappoint," he said.
"It has been one of the strongest stands, one of the only spots where key Japanese competitors made a good hard run at it and have not been successful."
The pickup has come a long way from the spartan regular cab of the '90s with a bench front seat and few amenities, said Bob Hegbloom, Chrysler's head of truck, SUV and commercial vehicle product planning. "They didn't ride well. They were a tool."
Higher quality expected
Along with plush options such as leather seating and infotainment systems -- and bigger cabs making them family vehicles -- came buyers' expectations of higher quality.
"I think it will last," Sargent said of trucks' improved quality. "It is an incredibly competitive segment."
Because most pickups are comparable in terms of functionality, one of their differentiators is quality, he said, which fosters continual one-upmanship. Doug Scott, Ford's truck marketing manager, said for years the belief was that trucks came with a compromise.
"To get towing and off-road capability, you gave up on comfort and ride and handling," he said.
That's no longer the case. Base models have the comforts associated with most cars and Ford's expansion into high-end models such as the King Ranch and Platinum trim lines has exceeded its sales expectations by double, Scott said.
The 1994 Dodge Ram was another tipping point. That's when the bold exterior that defines the Dodge brand today made its debut.
"It was clearly a shot across the bow in exterior styling to say 'Look at me,' " GM's Spina said, and exterior styling has been high on customers' lists ever since.
"The '94 Ram made Dodge a contender," agreed Levine of PickupTrucks.com. "It prompted the competition to respond with better quality."
Tundra was potential threat
Toyota Motor Corp.'s foray into the U.S. truck market put the Americans on notice.
The Japanese automaker introduced the Tundra in 1999 and while the original truck was smaller and not competitive, Toyota's reputation for continual improvement made it a potential future threat.
Nissan Motor Corp. used the 2003 Detroit auto show to unveil the more competitive Titan, setting an ambitious sales goal of 100,000.
"They never even sniffed that level," Scott said.
Toyota and Nissan, combined, accounted for fewer than 100,000 U.S. sales last year. Ford and GM sell that many in a month. The scare made the domestics even better.
"Full-size trucks from Nissan and Toyota forced the domestics to double down and not lose the segment like they had lost other segments," Levine said.
Sargent noted, "When you have Toyota entering a segment, it turns the heat up on the quality side. But the domestics have been improving faster than the imports and they dominate that segment."
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