General Motors uncovered its most important new vehicles Thursday, the 2014 Chevrolet and GMC full-size pickups that were delayed by GM's visit to Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2009.
From GM's view, they simply must be a direct hit on the truck market. The alternative is unthinkable.
"There's nothing more core to our business than our pickup trucks," said Mark Reuss, president of GM's North American operations, at the unveiling of the new trucks here.
The Silverado and Sierra are the company's biggest sellers -- together generating about a fourth of its U.S. sales -- and biggest earners. And they have perhaps the fiercest competition because of the profits at stake.
Chrysler updated its Ram for 2013 with interior, exterior and drivetrain improvements. Ford updated the styling, interior and drivetrains of its F-150 in 2011, freshened it again for 2013, and advertised heavily. The Ram and F-Series have been tough rivals to GM's aging trucks for sales.
"This (launch) is incredibly crazy-important for GM. These trucks will have to hit it out of the park," says Rebecca Lindland, veteran auto industry analyst at consultant IHS Automotive.
Normally, such marquee machines would make their public debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month. But that'll be the stage for another GM redesign, the seventh-generation Chevrolet Corvette. The concern within GM is that Corvette's star would have outshone the financially vital trucks at the show.
Thus, the introduction here at the Michigan Motion Picture Studios a month ahead of the Detroit show. They'll go on sale, beginning with crew cabs, in the second quarter as 2014 models. Pricing wasn't announced. The new trucks also will be the platform for GM's revamped, full-size SUVs coming in early 2014, probably as 2015 models.
The GM trucks lack the eight-speed automatic transmission that gives Ram bragging rights, nor do they have an engine family as easy to market as Ford's EcoBoost.
But truck buyers "won't say, 'I'm not going to buy that truck because it doesn't have an eight-speed automatic,'" or some other specific feature -- as long as it performs well overall, says industry watcher Jesse Toprak at TrueCar.com.
He believes the GM rigs will do well: "Those trucks have loyal buyers; from our perspective, (GM) will have to try hard to mess up."
GM's redone trucks haven't stayed in idle under the hood. Their trio of engines -- called EcoTec3 and bestowed with the auto industry's favorite designator, "all-new" -- have fuel-saving direct fuel injection, cylinder deactivation and lightweight aluminum blocks instead of cast iron. The V-6 gets variable valve timing in addition to the other upgrades. The V-8s have had variable valve timing, and that continues.
GM says horsepower, torque and fuel-economy ratings will be announced early next year.
While the engines continue the displacements familiar to GM truck fans -- 4.3-liter V-6, 5.3-liter V-8, 6.2-liter V-8 -- they honestly are all-new, "sharing just a few part numbers" with current engines of the same displacement, says Jeff Luke, GM's executive chief engineer for full-size and midsize trucks. The 4.8-liter V-8 is discontinued.
Taking a swipe at Ford's EcoBoost approach to better fuel economy -- smaller displacement engines using turbochargers -- Jeff Luke, GM's executive chief engineer for full-size and midsize trucks, said at the unveiling, "Some competitors are resorting to smaller-displacement engines from passenger cars. We think cylinder deactivation (running on four cylinders under light load instead of six or eight) is superior."
Throughout the presentation, GM officials emphasized their "true truck engines."
The most obvious changes for the new GM trucks are more dramatic styling and revamped, upgraded interiors. Inside, an 8-inch touch-screen in the middle of the dashboard on most models catches up to what designers are doing inside cars and SUVs.
That's what truck buyers want, says Luke. "Don't let the work boots fool you. Truck customers are among the most discerning and demanding in the business."
Less obvious but arguably more important changes in the new trucks:
A chassis redesigned for less noise, more comfort, better handling. Reuss says pickups often are used as family vehicles and should be refined enough to fill that role gracefully, as well as able to handle truck tasks.
Changes to the cargo bed, the "business end" of a pickup. Beefier tie-down hooks are rated to restrain 500 pounds each. The tailgate's easier to operate. Available LED lights under the bed rails should quickly win approval from truckers who have to wrangle cargo at night or when the bed's covered.
Crew-cab trucks will offer 61/2-foot-long beds for the first time, as well as the industry standard for crew-cab trucks, 51/2 feet.
Bigger rear doors on crew-cab models so rear seat users can enter and exit more easily. GM had fallen well behind rivals in rear-seat room and ease of use.
The extended-door cab models get conventional, front-hinged rear doors. They should be more convenient than the rear-hinged back doors on current extended-cab models. Those require the front door to be open before the rear door can be operated.
The list of improvements in the new trucks is long, which could compound GM's task of trimming a glut of 2012 and 2013 trucks, 183 days' worth at the end of November, or more than twice the normal supply.
If GM fire-sales those to make way for these upgraded 2014s, it could end up cutting into the pool of potential buyers for the new trucks. Many will buy the current-generation trucks at big discounts rather than gambling that the new ones will be enough better to justify higher prices.
The overstock's threat to the new models "is unfortunate," Lindland says. "It would be catastrophic if these (2014s) don't sell well. You can't overstate how important these trucks are to GM."
GM built up inventory intentionally to ensure it wouldn't run short during production downtime to revamp factories for the 2014s. But it overshot as rivals began heavy discounting, soaking up truck buyers, just as GM was trying to wean itself from huge pickup incentives in order to boost profits.
An analysis by Edmunds.com shows that Chrysler raised Ram incentives 48.9% in the year that ended in November. Ford incentives on the F-Series rose about 1%. GM cut its incentive spending on pickups 4.8%. Edmunds.com says that even with the new incentives, it still took an average 95 days to sell a Ram, as of November. An F-Series took 81 days. GM pickups sat for 101 days.
GM says it'll go back to heavier discounting to help dealers clear the lots of unsold Silverados and Sierras.
Analysts such as Toprak say the simplest solution, but one out of GM's control, would be an improving U.S. economy. "A lot of buyers of full-size trucks are small businesses, and they're not feeling a recovery yet."
But if the housing market continues to creep back, and other signs of recovery are visible, "pent-up demand, and businesses generally feeling better about things, will bring a lot more into the market for $40,000 trucks," Toprak says.
Most Popular Stories
- Criminal Investigation Opened Into James Foley's Death
- Swiss Suicide Tourism Doubled Since 2009
- Florida's Largest Insurer Says 'Bailout' Attacks Unfair
- Wealth Gap Widened in Past Decade: Census
- James Foley Beheading Sparks Anger, Little Action
- International Revulsion Grows Over James Foley Death
- Gap Reports Higher Profits, India Plans
- Sears Holdings Loses $573 Million
- Beyonce, Jay-Z Cuba Trip Was Legal After All
- Chinese Stock Funds Are a Late-summer Bloomer