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Full-size pickup sales growth continues, led by Ford

Phoebe Wall Howard, Detroit Free Press

Updated: Friday, November 24, 2017, 3:01 AM

The 2016 4×4 Supercrew Limited is Ford's top of the line F-150 model, which has been the most popular vehicle sold in the U.S. for the last three decades.

Sam Parnagian oversees thousands of acres of fresh grapes and mandarin oranges that will be sold at Costco and Sam’s Club. Each day, he drives a 2017 F-250 Platinum through California’s heartland, the third full-size pickup he has owned. “I bought one Ford and never looked back.”

The vice president of operations at Fowler Packing Co. in Fresno, Calif., is a prime example of why the pickup sales streak is likely to continue bolstering profits at Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler.

Ford dominates the market, with F-Series truck sales at a 12-year high.

The company benefits from having the newest products in this lucrative segment, an advantage that ends next year with the introduction of Fiat Chrysler’s redesigned 2019 Ram pickup at the North American International Auto Show. Shortly after, General Motors will launch updated designs of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra.

Some observers wonder whether Ford is too dependent on a single segment and what might happen if demand wanes, as occurred in the months before the 2007 to 2009 recession.

But, for now, analysts see no end in sight for the pickup boom.

“There’s less risk in the large pickup truck. There’s no depreciation,” said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive. “If you look at things from an investor standpoint, I don’t know that Ford gets credit for just how valuable the truck franchise is.”

AutoPacific estimates Americans will buy 2.2 million full-size pickups this year.

The price of a new F-150 starts at $27,380. The F-Series Super Duty trucks start at $32,535. High-series Super Duty trucks — Lariat, King Ranch, and Platinum — range from $45,305 to $90,000. Consumers aren’t blinking at the prices. In October, the F-Series average transaction price increased $4,000 over a year ago to $47,300. The F-Series Super Duty increased its average transaction $1,600 over a year ago to $55,200.

This year through October, Ford sold 658,636 full-size pickups, or about 38 percent of the segment, while 24 percent went to Chevy Silverado, 22 percent to Ram Truck, and 9 percent to GMC Sierra.

The first 10 months of 2017 have been the F-Series’ best since 2005, when consumers bought 734,610 trucks.

Sales of the Ford F-Series, which include luxury amenities and greater towing capacity with the F-250, F-350, F-450, and F-550 trucks, grew at 11 percent, nearly twice the 4.8 percent rate of the full-size pickup segment this year through October. That reflects greater availability as production on the current aluminum-body Super Duty began in late summer of 2016.

While Ford sales benefited from vehicle replacement after recent hurricanes, growth appears part of a solid long-term trend.

Economic indicators that track with strong pickup sales are new home and commercial construction, and growing agricultural markets. Construction employment is running modestly ahead of year-ago levels, but below 2007 levels, according to November data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There is still concern that Ford needs to focus more on other segments.

“The company is late to market on small crossovers but, in the short term, they need to work on making the Escape, Edge, and Explorer more appealing to millennial and Gen X shoppers,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

The top-selling market segment now is the compact SUV, which moved from 1.8 percent in 1994 to 17.2 percent in 2017, according to Cox Automotive research.

But Smoke said pickup sales are more stable and dependable than the SUV market, which is seeing more spending by manufacturers on incentives.

Pickup sales make up 16.1 percent of the vehicle market, just slightly ahead of midsize SUV sales, but less than compact SUVs, the Cox Automotive data show.

Pickups accounted for as much as 19 percent of the U.S. market in 2005 and 2006 at the peak of the last housing boom. The market fell to 14 percent in 2009 before starting its steady ascent over the past five years.

Phoebe Wall Howard, Detroit Free Press

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