In a piece about pickup trucks entitled, "You Don't Need A Full-Size Pickup Truck, You Need a Cowboy Costume," colleague Brett Berk talks about the lunacy of owning a pickup truck, despite trucks being the one growing segment in an otherwise flat market. "Brobdingnagian scale, appliqué steer horns, remotely erecting towing hitches, and power-opening tailgates that drop like the rear flap on a cowpoke’s union suit, pickup trucks may be the greatest examples of overcompensation ever invented," he said.
More importantly, he added: "[Pickup trucks] are also kind of ruining the world." While I agree with Brett on a number of points he makes in the article, the reality is that pickup trucks aren't going anywhere, and they're no more ridiculous than all of the other things we overbuy: Supercars, luxury watches and sandwiches all come in excess in the U.S. If anything most clearly defines this country today, it is excess. In fact, the profitability of pickup trucks keeps many automakers afloat, which keeps the economy going, which keeps the country going.
I reached out to Tyson Jominy at JD Power to provide some numbers from truck sales last year. Total pickup truck sales made up 16.9-percent of the total amount of vehicles sold in 2018. That's an increase from 13.9-percent in 2014. That's not an insignificant amount of total sales. Brett's article cited nearly 3 million units. Could you imagine what would happen to the economy, not just the automakers, if those sale stopped?
Surely trucks have to be bad for the environment, right? If you were to compare the fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions of a 2019 Ford Raptor with that of a 2019 Toyota Prius Eco, you'd be right. But an increase of a few miles-per-gallon on a truck that gets 18 mpg is far more significant than a low-volume green car gaining 10 mpg.
To further illustrate the point that truck efficiency has come a long way, let's look at the first-generation Mazda Miata. I'm a fan of sports cars and roadsters, and like any sane person, I adore the NA. But recently internet sleuth Bozi Tatarevic compared the greenhouse gas emissions of a brand new F-150 to that of an NA Miata. To paraphrase Buzzfeed, The results might surprise you.
The 1994 Mazda Miata uses 15.7 barrels of oil per year and emits 423 grams of CO2 per mile. The 2019 Ford F-150? It uses 15 barrels per year and emits 403 grams per mile. That isn't the base F-150 engine, but the volume 2.7-liter EcoBoost. Additionally, the F-150 comes with a new factory warranty, better safety technology, and more space. Plus it can tow and haul if the owner decides they want to. So you could drive a Miata, or you can drive something cleaner that uses less oil, emits less CO2 and is more practical.
Of course I'd like to see trucks get even better fuel economy. So do the truck makers. A hybrid F-150 is coming. General Motors is talking about an electric pickup truck in the near future. Rivian and Tesla have trucks in the works. They're all doing this because they know that people want trucks, so why not give them the future of trucks?
What is fascinating, according to Alexander Edwards of Strategic Vision, is that truck owners love to drive. “The highest indexed use among truck owners is pleasure driving,” says Edwards. They're enthusiasts just like the rest of us.
Truck buyers have the highest loyalty rate of any segment. If you talk to anyone in truck marketing, like Ford F-150's Brian Bell, he'll tell you that once you own a truck, you will always own a truck.
Do many truck drivers spend most of their days driving back and forth to work, towing 10,000 pounds of air instead of a trailer? Sure. But how many Ferrari owners only drive their cars at the race track? Heck, how many Ferrari owners drive their cars at all? While sports car enthusiasts might not understand truck fans, and truck fans might not understand sports car fans, they're both very similar in their love for their vehicle and the enthusiasm behind the community. Don't we want more of that as the industry moves towards androgynous blobs and full autonomy?
True, in cities like New York, Amsterdam, and Tokyo, full-size trucks don't make sense. Yet when I was near the De Wellen part of Amsterdam's city center last year, I saw two street-parked first-generation V8 Raptors. The owners were such truck enthusiasts that they purchased the vehicles gray market, had them imported, paid the outrageous tax on a 6.2-liter V8, paid outrageous money for premium fuel, and continue to struggle every day to find a parking spot. That's enthusiasm.
Truck owners also use their vehicles to help others. Recently I attended an event in Wyoming with a group of Nissan Titan enthusiasts. Many of the folks on that trip help out in their community, building up their neighbors, or even just go out in snowstorms and rescue stuck motorists. It's what truck drivers do.
Living in the midwest, I know people who purchase a truck because not only might they need the practicality of the truck but also that their neighbors might need to borrow it for use.
Is a pickup truck a form of cosplay? For some, maybe it is. A Ram Laramie Longhorn is definitely not my cup of tea, but premium trucks offer a premium experience for those who want to pay it. And if you're not digging the cowboy vibe, a Ram Limited offers an interior as good as most of the luxury car brands.
The volume of truck sales doesn't rest in these premium models. The volume Ram 1500 model is the Big Horn/Texas Edition (depending on region) with cloth seats and a standard 3.6-liter V6 with eTorque. Chevrolet's volume trims are LT, RST and the ilk. Ford's volume lives in XLT. Yes, a person can spend a ton of money on a premium truck, but most are buying what they think they'll need.
These trucks also function as family cars. Larger cabs allow for the whole family to come on the trip. Every single Toyota pickup truck sold in the United States comes with Toyota Safety Sense, which includes autonomous emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. That's a feature that's still optional on many cars.
Brett does make a valid point about buying a truck in the anticipation of needing it maybe once or twice a year. Logically, renting a vehicle for one-time use is cheaper and more economical than owning that vehicle year round. Vehicle purchases aren't logical, though. If we all bought sensible, logical vehicles then outside of trucks that are purchased by businesses, everyone would drive the Toyota RAV4. Which, I suppose, would be good for Toyota.
The beauty of the pickup truck, unlike other cars and SUVs, is the buyer can get what they want. Want a truck that can go 100 mph off-road? Ford has your solution. Need something to tow over 35,000 pounds for some reason? Ram has a solution. Want an inexpensive little hauler? The Nissan Frontier is great. All of those trucks come in different cab sizes, some with different bed sizes, and all have optional features you can skip if you don't want.
So what percentage of truck buyers is actually using their truck for work? The line is blurry. Some will take their truck to a job site and then go home, unload their equipment, put a quad in the back and hit the trails. Trucks, in many ways, are the ultimate utility vehicle.
Truck buyers are also unique. Their reasoning for needing a truck might be a real need or a perceived need, but it's still a reason in their mind. They might have an office job and hit up Home Depot on the weekends. They might go fly fishing or hunting. They might volunteer regularly for Habitat for Humanity. Trucks are versatile that way and fill many needs.
Psychologically, truck buyers might be looking at trucks to look good while driving or have a vehicle that is an extension of their personality. A pickup truck fits that role. So does a bright green Lamborghini. All vehicle purchases, to some extent, are emotional purchases.
Trucks also keep the economy flowing. They keep people employed. They allow people to get work done and enjoy the benefits of play. They're more functional, safer and more fuel efficient than ever before. Plus all the major truck makers are looking to the future to make them even safer, even more functional and even better for the planet. Based on sales number, people also want them more than ever.
Give the people what they want.