America’s love affair with the pickup truck only became more passionate in 2017.
Although total auto sales eased slightly last year, automakers sold 2.8 million full- and mid-size pickup trucks in 2017, a 4.8 percent increase over the prior year.
Pickup trucks now account for 16.4 percent of U.S. auto sales. That’s up from 15.3 percent in 2016.
Ford Motor Co. alone sold nearly 900,000 F-Series full-size pickup trucks. General Motors Co. sold about 950,000 pickups of all sizes, including its Chevrolet Silverado and Colorado as well as GMC’s Sierra and Canyon.
Several Japanese brands also upped their game.
Based on the strength of new models, Nissan North America Inc. more than doubled sales of its Titan line of full-size trucks. Honda Motor Co. sold nearly 35,000 Ridgeline midsize pickups. That pushed the brand past the GMC Canyon for fourth place in the segment. Toyota dominated the midsize segment as sales of its Tacoma pickup grew more than 3 percent to nearly 200,000.
“In many areas of the country, the truck is just the preferred lifestyle look,” said Michael Ramsey, an automotive analyst at Gartner Inc.
Trucks sales are growing because of the strengthening economy. They are the backbone of the construction industry. Pickups also have become increasingly popular as everyday family vehicles.
“They handle much better than before, and with the aid of technology, are even easier to navigate in tight spaces,” Ramsey said. “The U.S. is ideally suited to bigger vehicles because of big parking spaces and roads.”
All told, full-size pickup sales climbed 5.6 percent to 2.37 million trucks, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp. Midsize sales rose 0.9 percent to 452,336 trucks.
Despite a small pullback, this was the third consecutive year that auto sales topped 17 million, a record for the industry. Total sales dipped about 2 percent to 17.2 million vehicles in 2017 compared with a record 17.6 million in 2016.
But there was a surprise. Toyota’s RAV4 compact crossover was the best-selling vehicle outside of the pickup category. Toyota sold almost 408,000 units of the crossover in 2017. It ousted the automaker’s Camry as the nation’s best-selling vehicle that isn’t a pickup.
“This may be the most significant news of all,” Ramsey said. “Camry has long been Toyota’s stalwart, the unflaggingly popular family sedan. Now that role is shifting to the SUV – a Camry of crossovers, reliable, solid, if not beautiful, but with the higher seating position and the hatchback.”
Based on its broad F-Series line, Ford captured nearly 38 percent of the full-size pickup market.
“Ford has the biggest range of trucks and it also has the strongest brand,” Ramsey said. “Ford could literally stop making all its other vehicles and be a very successful company.”
Pickup trucks are more profitable than other vehicles and account for the majority of the earnings at Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
F-Series sales increased 9.3 percent over 2016, the line’s best performance since 2005.
The F-Series sales tally was impressive but may be hard to sustain, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst at IHS Markit. Overall auto sales are expected to cool this year “and the F-Series will face aggressive competition,” Brinley said.
Ram will start selling a new generation half-ton pickup in the spring. Chevrolet is expected to launch a redesigned Silverado in the fall. F-Series sales also could be cannibalized by the expected launch of the small Ford Ranger later this year.
GM had 34 percent of the full-size truck market between the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra. And despite Ford’s success with the F-Series, GM sold more pickups in the U.S. than any other automaker – a record 948,909 trucks.
It has a broader range of pickups than other manufacturers. Chevrolet and GMC are the only brands to offer midsize, full-size and heavy-duty pickups.
Ram sales topped 500,000, giving the division of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles a 21 percent slice of the full-size truck market.
Business should remain good for automakers this year.
GM expects 2018 light vehicle sales to be in the high 16 million-unit range, said Mustafa Mohatarem, GM’s chief economist.
A low unemployment rate, continued low gas prices and improving consumer sentiment all are powering auto sales, especially of trucks and large SUVs.
“This year, many consumers will see their take-home pay rise because of tax reform,” Mohatarem said. “That will keep the broad economy growing and help keep sales at very healthy levels even as the Fed increases interest rates.”
IHS Markit is forecasting a modest retreat to sales of 16.9 million vehicles.
“Sales gains will be more difficult to accomplish in any segment, including pickup trucks,” Brinley said. But with the significant new truck models that will reach dealers this year, pickups will remain hot, she said.
“The marketing efforts behind these launches are likely to raise awareness that there are new trucks to be shopped and increase excitement about the segment,” Brinley said. “These new trucks will increase available technology as well as continue to improve fuel economy.”