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Full-size pickups about to duke it out

More models enter competitive market

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As a General Motors vice president and executive in charge of its full-size trucks, Gary White knows a lot about big pickups.

He looks at a segment that's grown by 340,000 trucks in yearly sales in 2005 compared with 1999, a period that covers the arrival of the Toyota Tundra (1999) and the Nissan Titan (2004), plus major redesigns of the Dodge Ram (2003) and the Ford F-150 (2004).

But those days of continued growth might soon end.

Over the next few months, GM will launch its totally redone Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks, and Toyota will bring out its all-new, big-as-Texas (where it'll be built) Tundra.

``This time," White said, ``somebody's going to get hurt."

That's his way saying that some automaker isn't going to sell as many trucks as it used to.

Big trucks remain a huge and profitable segment for the few automakers that play the pickup game. That's especially true of the domestic makers.

Total sales of the segment's six trucks -- F-Series, Silverado, Ram, Sierra, Tundra, and Titan -- were 2.45 million in 2005.

But, as Craig Bierley, GMC's product director noted recently, sales of those trucks are down about 13 percent this year.

That's due to a combination of higher gas prices, since big trucks get notoriously bad fuel economy, and the realization by buyers that new models are coming soon.

One truck expert expects the new Silverado and Sierra models to do well, even with more competition from the also-new Tundra.

``The question is, will GM consider the new pickups a success?" said Mike Levine, founder of PickupTruck.com. ``In relative market terms, yes, but in absolute terms, with climbing gas prices and higher interest rates, I don't think these trucks will sell the same total numbers" as the previous versions.

Ultimately, Levine said, the new Tundra will affect sales of the Dodge Ram most directly, and it will make Ford ``extra motivated to buff up its next F-Series."

In describing the new-generation Silverado and Sierra, White called them ``pure American -- confident and strong, but not over the top or pretentious."

GMC buyers want something that's traditional, he said. While 30 percent opt for front bucket seats, the remaining 70 percent buy their trucks with the full front bench that seats three, a sure sign the truck is being used for work.

Beside new exteriors, the new GM trucks feature two different instrument panels -- one for traditional buyers who will appreciate things like double glove boxes and big door handles and a fancier one with wood trim and special gauge treatment.

The GM executives point to a long list of improvements, many of them shared with the full-size sport utilities such as the Chevy Suburban and Tahoe and GMC Yukon that came out earlier this year.

Front and rear tracks are wider than in the past, and improvements including a stiffer chassis, a new coil-over-shock front suspension, and new steering make for a better ride.

The Silverado and Sierra will come in regular, extended, and crew-cab models, with three boxes ranging from 5-feet-8-inches to 8-feet long.

Safety features include dual front air bags, side head-curtain air bags, and stability control that's standard on crew cabs and optional on extended-cab versions.

Production on the new GM trucks is expected to begin in October with extended-cab and crew-cab models. They'll go on sale by late November. Within six months, all light- and heavy-duty versions including the upscale Sierra Denali will be on sale.

Here's a quick glimpse at the world of big pickups, circa the 2007 model year.

Ford F-150: The favorite vehicle in the United States for two decades, the F-Series truck gets two new body styles, added payload and towing capacity, and a longer warranty.

The new F-150 FX2 Sport model has the look of a custom truck with its dark billet grille, monochromatic paint and 18-inch wheels. The F-150 Harley-Davidson SuperCrew features 22-inch wheels, dark exterior paint, black leather seats, and plenty of chrome.

Ford said it lowered F-150 prices, too, as 2007 models range from $19,120 to $39,565.

Nissan Titan: Offered in King and Crew Cab models, the 2007 Titan gets more horsepower (from 305 to 317) and torque from its 5.6-liter V-8.

Toyota Tundra: Toyota built a new factory near San Antonio, symbolically putting its new pickup in the heart of truck country. It will still make trucks in Indiana, too.

The 2007 Tundra goes on sale in January. In top configuration, it'll come with a 5.7-liter V-8 and a six-speed automatic transmission.

It's 10 inches longer, 5 inches taller, and 4 inches wider than the current Tundra. Towing capacity grows to 10,000 pounds.

Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra: The new trucks pick up many of the changes introduced earlier this year to GM's full-size SUVs. That means stiffer rides and much-improved interiors.

Choices are plentiful -- three cab configurations, three box sizes, five engines, five suspension setups, even two instrument panels.

Dodge Ram: Chrysler has added a big work-truck version of the Ram, the 3500 Chassis Cab for 2007. And its 2007 Rams with Cummins diesel engines can now burn B20, a fuel blend that's 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular diesel.

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