Nearly two of every three vehicles the Detroit Three have sold this year are light trucks, but more fuel-efficient engines, smaller crossover models and seasonal patterns indicate this isn't a return to the bad old days, say analysts and dealers.
Pickup trucks, SUVs, crossovers and, in Chrysler's case, minivans accounted for 65.8 percent of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler 2011 sales through November, according to Autodata. That's up from 64 percent last year and the domestic automakers' heaviest truck concentration since 66.3 percent in 2004.
"What is different than in the past for the domestic automakers is that they're selling a lot of smaller SUVs -- Ford Escape was the best-selling compact SUV in November," said Jessica Caldwell, a sales analyst with Edmunds.com. "Jeep Compass has done really well for Chrysler as has Equinox for Chevrolet."
For perspective, light trucks made up 46.7 percent of Honda's U.S. sales through November; 45.3% of Toyota's; 34.4 percent of Nissan's and only 20.3 percent of Hyundai's.
Does this matter?
Not much when gas is selling for less than $3.50 a gallon, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with TrueCar.com.
"There is a risk if gasoline climbs back above $4 a gallon," Toprak said.
Pickups and SUVs sell well in the winter, especially in northern states. But the other factor driving this light-truck surge is pent-up demand.
"Small businesses, who are a big part of the market for pickups and vans, tend to wait longer for the dust to settle in the economy before they make their purchase decisions," Toprak said. "But when they see signs of life, these buyers tend to start a bit of a chain reaction."
Some pundits argue that Detroit is falling into old habits.
"For all of the talk of cutting costs to eke profits out of sedans and compacts, trucks are still the profit center," wrote Jordan Weissman, a blogger at the Atlantic Monthly.
That overlooks some major innovations.
First, GM actually increased the percentage of sales from passenger cars this year, thanks largely to its compact Chevrolet Cruze. Second, the powertrains of pickups and SUVs have changed dramatically.
Ken Czubay, Ford vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, boasted that 51 percent of the F-150 pickups sold in November were powered by a V6 engine. As recently as a year ago, nearly all F-150s had V8 engines under the hood. Ford also offers a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine as a choice on its hot-selling Explorer.
In addition, certain types of trucks have attractive rebates or discounted financing.
"You can get a decently equipped GMC Sierra for less than $300 a month," said Todd McCallum, operations director for LaFontaine Automotive Group.
What happens if gas prices approach $4 a gallon again?
"The domestic companies have small-car options that are very competitive where they weren't in the past," said Jeff Schuster, head of forecasting for LMC Automotive.
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