Last year, General Motors (NYSE: GM ) released all-new versions of its full-sized Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups.
Those new pickups were definitely improvements over the outgoing models, and they've sold fairly well. But it was clear that GM took an incremental approach to its new pickups, choosing to refine what it had rather than to make dramatic changes.
That seemed like a good idea at the time.
But now, Ford (NYSE: F ) is gearing up to launch its all-new pickup. And while the new F-150 doesn't look all that different, it's actually a radical step forward -- thanks to its aluminum-alloy body.
The new and much lighter F-150 is expected to give Ford's pickup line a nice boost in fuel economy. That could translate into a big step up on Ford's rivals, particularly in sales to cost-conscious businesses.
So, how will GM respond? By rushing its next all-new pickups to market earlier than scheduled, apparently.
Worried by Ford, GM moves to rush a redo
GM's current pickups are just a year old, but Reuters reported this week that GM is already accelerating the timetable for their successors. According to the report, GM has pulled forward the launch of its next-generation Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra by about nine months, to the fall of 2018.
Redesigned versions of GM's big SUVs, which are closely related to the pickups, are likely to follow about a year later, according to the report.
Those new GM pickups are expected to follow Ford's lead, making extensive use of aluminum to reduce weight. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that GM has agreed to contracts with aluminum heavyweights Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) and Novelis to supply aluminum sheet metal for the next-generation pickups.
The advantages of lighter weight are significant: All other things equal, a lighter vehicle will have better acceleration, fuel economy, handling, and towing capacity than a heavier counterpart.
But even with the timetable stepped up, GM will be very late to the party.
GM's current pickups are lighter, but not light enough
To be fair, GM did take some steps to reduce the weight of its current pickups. The trucks' engine blocks and some structural sections make use of aluminum and other lighter-weight materials -- enough to give the Silverado and Sierra a weight advantage over the current F-150s.
According to GM, a 2014 Silverado with 4.3-liter V6, regular cab, and six-and-a-half-foot box has a curb weight of 4,387 pounds, an advantage of almost 300 pounds over a comparably equipped 2014 Ford F-150.
The 2015 F-150 will be substantially lighter, of course. But GM hasn't made a lot of marketing hay out of its weight advantage so far, while Ford has trumpeted its move to aluminum body panels. Even if the new Fords aren't a lot lighter than the current Silverado and Sierra, Ford seems likely to have a significant marketing advantage that should pay benefits for a few years.
It'll also have a marketing advantage over the other big contender in the full-size pickup wars, Fiat Chrysler's (NASDAQOTH: FIATY ) Ram. Rather than focusing on weight reduction, Chrysler has looked to technology to improve the Ram's fuel economy, with a high-tech, eight-speed transmission, changes to its engine lineup, and an efficient diesel option.
That has helped the Ram's sales numbers, but as with GM, Chrysler's moves lack the "big leap" marketing impact of Ford's new aluminum trucks.
The upshot: Ford looks to be leading -- again
All of the global automakers are experimenting with different ways to improve fuel economy and emissions, looking to find advantages that will be readily accepted by customers.
While Ford has yet to ship a single aluminum F-150, initial reactions suggest that the new trucks are likely to be strong sellers. Clearly, GM's management believes Ford has found a winning path -- but how much ground will the General lose while it plays catch-up?
What do you think? Is GM really late to this party, or is Ford's weight reduction likely to be less of an advantage than it seems? Scroll down to leave a comment and share your thoughts.
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