General Motors (NYSE:GM) on Thursday took the wraps off the new 2016 Chevrolet Silverado pickup. The 2016 Silverado isn't all-new, but it has been overhauled with a new face and a bunch of new features.
It's an intriguing move. The Silverado was new-from-the-ground-up just two years ago, and automakers usually wait longer before making significant changes. The Silverado's sales haven't been slipping -- in fact, they've been quite good, up almost 17% this year through August. And pricing has also been very good, meaning that GM is making plenty of money on those sales.
So why make changes now? There's one big reason, and it's coming from Dearborn.
GM knows that the competition is about to get a lot fiercer
There's nothing wrong with the current Silverado. It's a good, solid entry. Critics like it, and it has lots of features that draw buyers.
But the truth is, a lot of the Silverado's big sales gains this year have probably been due to short supplies of its arch-rival, Ford's (NYSE:F) F-150.
The F-150 was all-new for 2015, and the changes were so extensive that Ford's two pickup factories had to be completely retooled. Both are typically very busy, but each had to be taken out of service for about 12 weeks to be set up to make the new F-150s.
Ford has been contending with shortages of its new F-150 all year. The new Fords are selling very quickly, but dealers have been having trouble getting enough of the new trucks to meet demand. That has surely sent some customers to the Chevrolet dealers down the street.
Sales of pickups to commercial fleets are normally a big business for both Ford and GM. But because of the short supplies, Ford was prioritizing retail sales over commercial-fleet sales. That gave GM an opening to grab a lot of that business -- and it didn't neglect its chance.
But now, Ford's factories are up to full speed, and its dealers finally have good inventories of the new F-150. After months of short supplies and tepid sales, Ford is finally ready to do battle.
And in what is probably not entirely a coincidence, GM has chosen this moment to give its contender a facelift.
A high-tech truck gets added technology
The new 2016 Silverado gets a bolder-looking front grille, more eye-catching than the outgoing model. It's also getting a bunch of new high-features, including a new infotainment system with support for CarPlay and Android Auto. Heavy-duty models will get a new "smart" steering assist system that will help with hauling heavy loads and trailers.
Smartphone connectivity might seem like a strange thing to emphasize in a pickup truck, but GM says that Silverado customers are among the top users of its optional OnStar and 4G LTE Wi-Fi services.
GM is also making its well-regarded 8-speed automatic transmission available in Silverados equipped with the popular 5.3 liter V8. The eight-speed was standard with the brawnier 6.2-liter V8 last year (and will be again in 2016). But the 5.3-liter engine is a fuel-efficient option that is positioned against Ford's strong-selling "EcoBoost" turbo V6 engines.
Adding the eight-speed automatic transmission is likely to give the 5.3-liter V8 an additional fuel-economy boost. It might also make the 5.3-powered Silverados a bit smoother in regular driving.
The upshot: GM is doing what it can to preserve its gains
The Silverado's facelift has probably been in the works for a while. But it wouldn't surprise me to learn that GM is releasing it earlier than it had originally planned, hoping to hold onto some of the ground it has gained now that Ford is on an upswing.
It should help. Changes that update a vehicle's look often generate a sales boost, as curious shoppers stop in to take a closer look. In this case, while the 2016 Silverado isn't drastically different from the 2015 version, the changes are a bit more than skin deep -- and it should give the Chevy a little bit of ammo to fight back as Ford ramps up its sales push.