General Motors (NYSE:GM) said this week that its full-size pickups, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, will get big updates for the 2016 model year.
Those updates include a number of enhancements, but the big news is that both trucks are getting major facelifts. As you can see in the photo of the 2016 Silverado above, it's a substantial change. It's still clearly a Chevy, but it's more advanced and somewhat more aggressive.
These trucks were all-new just two years ago, and sales this year have been terrific. Usually, automakers wait three or four years before refreshing an existing model, but these facelifted trucks will be at dealers in a few months.
Why is GM rushing these revised trucks to market?
Was GM too tame with its new-for-2014 trucks?
As is so often the case when we wonder why GM is doing something related to its big pickups, the answer starts with the Silverado's arch-rival, Ford's (NYSE:F) F-150.
When GM revealed the all-new-for-2014 Silverado and Sierra, we saw trucks that looked a lot like their predecessors. There were a lot of changes, and a lot of good improvements, but the trucks didn't look all-new, just... massaged.
That may have hurt sales at first. It seemed to take a while for word to get out: The Silverado and Sierra may not look all-new, but they really are, and they're nice trucks. Sales have picked up quite a bit recently.
Ford didn't take that approach. The F-150 is all-new for 2015, it's a big deal, and if you know anything about trucks, you can see right away that it's all-new. It's still very much a Ford pickup, but it has a fresh new look that's much more up-to-date. Behind that look, there's a whole lot of fresh technology, starting with its industry-first aluminum-alloy body. And Ford has made sure that the whole world -- at least, the world of pickup customers -- knows that its truck is all-new.
The bad news for Ford is that the new truck's aluminum body panels required extensive, time-consuming changes to Ford's two pickup factories. That work has kept supplies of the new 2015 F-150 tight for months -- a situation that has allowed GM to steal some market share and post some nice sales gains in the first half of 2015.
But that's about to change, and suddenly General Motors is looking a little worried.
Gearing up to face a much stronger Ford
Ford is expected to have full supplies of its new F-150 by the end of the summer. GM clearly knows that it's about to have a fight on its hands. That's why it recently launched an aggressive new series of Ford-bashing ads, and it might be the reason that it chose to release refreshed versions of its trucks this fall.
To be clear, these facelifts have been in the works for a while. Making these kinds of changes to a vehicle requires (at minimum) several months of engineering, testing, and working with suppliers and toolmakers.
But it's unusual for any automaker to give a vehicle (especially a successful one) a facelift after just two years on the market. It's not unprecedented for GM under Mary Barra, though: If a new vehicle misses the mark in any significant way, GM has recently moved quickly to make changes.
Sometimes, that even means bringing an all-new version to market earlier than planned, as GM is doing with the Chevy Malibu sedan.
GM's trucks didn't need drastic changes. These facelifts address the one big complaint of critics and customers (at least, the one that can be addressed on the fly).
They certainly won't hurt. But will they be enough to hold off a fully loaded Ford? We'll find out this fall.