DETROIT -- The big American auto makers all unveiled brand-new or completely redone trucks in the past week to cash in further on the high-profit truck market, which is growing even as the overall U.S. market shrinks.
Ford Motor Co.'s new Expedition and Lincoln Navigator sport-utility vehicles, General Motors Corp.'s Hummer H2 SUV, and the super-performance Dodge SRT-10 pickup truck from the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler all are designed to tap into America's growing love affair with trucks, big and small.
But the American brands are not alone.
This week at Detroit's annual North American International Auto Show, Lexus pulled the wraps off its new GX470, Honda Motor Co. introduced the new Pilot, Mercedes revealed the GST, Volvo showed off its new XC90, and Land Rover presented the new Range Rover. All are SUVs set to hit the U.S. market later this year or early in 2003.
And all of them join an ever-increasingly crowded truck market. "The truck segment is growing in part because it is the segment the imports are just starting to develop products for," said Wes Brown, an analyst with Nextrend, a Thousand Oaks, Calif., auto-market research firm.
Ford hopes the 2003 Expedition, with its sliding second-row seats and one-touch power fold-down rear seats, will revive Ford's lackluster truck sales, which have lost considerable ground in the last few years. Expedition sales fell 16.6 percent in 2001, relinquishing the crown of best-selling full-size SUV to the Chevy Tahoe.
"The Expedition is a very important product; dealers are counting on it," said James Padilla, Ford's head of North America. "Trucks are 60 percent of Ford's total volume, so it's very significant. I think with the product content and quality we've added, we'll be right in there."
Light trucks-pickups, SUVs and minivans-outsold passenger cars for the first time in the United States last year, accounting for 51 percent of the market, and SUVs have been the fastest-growing segment.
And imports are muscling in on truck territory with full force. Toyota Motor Co. matches the Big Three in every truck category and then some, with full-size and compact pickups, five Toyota-brand SUVs including two built on passenger car platforms, and as of this week, three Lexus SUVs.
Toyota's truck factory in Indiana churns out full-size Tundra pickups and Sequoia SUVs. Nissan has broken ground for a plant in Mississippi to build similar trucks, and Honda is finishing a plant in Alabama to build minivans and another undisclosed truck product.
Sweden's safe-and-sane car maker, Volvo, has taken some by surprise and entered the truck wars with its first SUV, the XC90. It will be positioned as a full-size luxury sport utility to compete with the likes of Acura's MDX, the Lexus RX300 and the six-cylinder versions of the Mercedes-Benz ML and BMW X5.
Volvo's decision to build an SUV was driven by necessity. No car company that wants to increase its U.S. sales appreciably can be without one these days, says XC90 project director Hans Wikman. Thus Hyundai recently entered the fray, and Volkswagen and even Porsche are planning SUVs, and Saab is developing a "crossover" vehicle with SUV-like characteristics.
While Volvo initially expects to sell 50,000 XC90s worldwide, almost 35,000 will be allocated for the United States.
General Motors entered the so-called "brute-ute" wars last week with the unveiling of the production model H2 sport utility, baby brother to the gigantic Hummer SUV adapted from the military's Humvee personnel carrier and popularized by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Some of these latecomers are in a sense spoiling the party for everybody," says said Greg Salchow, auto analyst with the investment bank Raymond James and Co. in Detroit, "because they're all going to grab a piece of the pie."
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