A FEW MONTHS ago, on an ordinary day in an unremarkable
parking lot, I was nearly squashed by an unusually large pickup. Thank God I was wearing a mask.
As that chrome grille closed on me like a man-eating Norelco shaver, time slowed. It seemed I was watching myself from afar, being nimble for a man my age, darting from the path of a towering, limousine-black pickup with temporary plates, whose driver barely checked his pace. Jerk.
What the hell was that thing? A 2020 GMC Sierra HD Denali? It was huge! The domed hood was at forehead level. The paramedics would have had to extract me from the grille with a spray hose, like Randall Jarrell’s ball-turret gunner.
He didn’t even see me.
Later, returning to my car, I noticed something: The parking lot was dotted with similarly enormous luxury pickups—many new, many taking up two spaces: Ram,
Chevy, GMC. They stood out like Percherons in a herd of Shetland ponies.
Are pickups really getting bigger, on average, or do they just look scarier? Both. The average pickup gained 1,142 pounds between 1990 and 2019.
What is going on here? When did pickups get so big? And why are XL-sized pickups so big now?
I know. Pickup trucks at Costco. Film at 11. Except that in April, U.S. sales of pickups surpassed automobiles for the first time ever—about 112 years, give or take. Trucks and truck-based sport-utilities now account for roughly 70% of new vehicles sold in the U.S.
How we came to be Pickup Nation is a longer story (cheap gas, the Chicken Tax, IRS Section 179, marketing). But this year, to help move the tin during the pandemic, U.S. auto makers laid out a bounty of discounts and cheap financing, including 0% interest for 84 months and deferred-payment plans.
“Pickups without a doubt benefited from the great deals,” said Mark Schirmer, spokesperson for market service providers Cox Automotive. “And the deals were particularly great for consumers buying expensive vehicles.” The data suggest these incentives also juiced a boomlet in XL-sized, heavy-duty pickups, otherwise known as ¾-ton and 1-ton pickups, for private use.
That’s right: Gucci cowboys. Historically aimed at commercial customers, sole proprietors, horse-haulers and mega-RVers, heavy-duty pickups are stronger and taller than ordinary (half-ton) trucks, with cabs mounted high above reinforced frame rails and heavy, long-travel suspensions. But HD trucks have evolved in the past decade, irradiated with the same prestige-luxury rays as light-duty trucks.
Behold MotorTrend 2020 Truck of the Year, the Ram Heavy-Duty. In Limited trim (about $65,000 with four-wheel drive but before options) the 2500 HD sports an elaborate chromified grille that gleams like a tea service. Its flight deck glows with untrucky amenities such as acoustically insulated glass; active noise canceling; 12-inch center touch screen; wood trim, premium leather—all paired with a maximum 19,680-pound towing capacity. With the optional cab lights, it measures over 6-feet-9 inches tall.
Thus has been born a uniquely American vehicle type: the mega-luxury mega-pickup.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
The dimensions of Chevy’s 2020 Silverado 2500 HD LTZ. Just how big?
81.85 in. wide
79.82 in. tall
249.95 in. long
It seems to be resonating. While sales of Silverado light-duty were off 18.6% in the second quarter, sales of the HD model sales were off less than a point. GMC’s light-duty Sierra was down 9.5%, while sales of our menacing new friend, the Sierra HD, were up 7.6% in the second quarter and 21.5% year-to-date.
don’t break out HD sales from pickups overall. However, Ram’s average transaction price in the second quarter soared above $50,000, according to a Cox Automotive analysis of data from Kelley Blue Book. Ford F-Series sales fell 23% (to 180,825 units) but its ATP was mostly unaffected—$51,688, the highest among pickups.
In July, J.D. Power declared Sierra HD the king of the bro-dozers, placing it first in its 2020 U.S. APEAL Study of Large Heavy-Duty Pickups, which tracks owners’ excitement and emotional attachment in the first 90 days.
“The front end was always the focal point,” GM designer Karan Moorjani told Muscle Cars & Trucks e-zine. “We spent a lot of time making sure that when you stand in front of this thing it looks like it’s going to come get you.”
But are pickups really getting bigger, on average, or do they just look scarier? The answers are somewhat and definitely. The average pickup on the road gained 1,142 pounds between 1990 and 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and 730 pounds since 2000.
“One of the most significant changes in that time was the arrival of crew-cab configurations, which added cab space to make them more family and work friendly,” said Mike Levine, Ford spokesperson.
In 2011, a change in the way the feds calculate vehicle fuel economy (the so-called “footprint rule”) gave domestic truck makers incentive to go big. Ever since, GMC, Chevy, Ram and Ford have been locked in a competitive feedback loop chasing best-in-class attributes and capacities—the “towing/hauling” wars. For MY 2019, for example, Ram’s 1500 Crew Cab gained 3.9 inches in overall length over a 4.1-inch longer wheelbase. In the same model-year, the Chevy Silverado gained 1.7 inches in length on a 3.9-inch longer wheelbase.
As a result, new light-duty pickup dimensions are approaching those of heavy-duty pickups. While the 2021 F-150 is about 18 inches shorter than the equivalent F-250, it is the same width (79.9). Mr. Levine noted that the company has gone to a common-cab design, using the same four-door living quarters for both light- and heavy-duty models.
‘The face of these trucks is where the action is, a Chevy must shout Chevy. Every pickup has become a rolling brand billboard and the billboards are big.’
Ask any kid with a crayon. If you draw the box in the middle bigger, you have to make the ones on the end bigger, too.
Which brings us to the 2020 Silverado HD—10 inches longer, 1.8 inches wider, and 1.6 inches taller than the previous model. The big Chevy’s challenging kisser comprises a thick, knee-high bumper; a central grille opening; several sets of lighting assemblies; a full-width transverse element helpfully informing with the message CHEVROLET…and then, above that, between very square corners, is a whole other layer, then a peaked hood with a central inlet. This hood line meets the base of the windshield about 6 inches above the side window sill.
Another cause of facial swelling? Marketing. “Full-size pickups are generally identical in profile,” Mr. Schirmer said. “The face of these trucks is where the action is; a Ford has to say Ford from head on, a Chevy must shout Chevy. Every pickup has become a rolling brand billboard and the billboards are big.”
You don’t have to be Steven Pinker to see that truck designers are leaning into the bully with these lantern-jawed bumpers and walls of chrome. Detroit’s blithe codifications of purposeful and powerful pickup design fail to describe the intimidation factor from the outside.
“A few brands, Ram and Ford, have taken to an overscale brand identity [and] applied it onto the grille,” said Kimberly Marte, associate professor of design at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. “The Chevy team did benchmarking of new models and followed the trend.”
It’s not clear how long pickup designs can keep getting their chrome on. In 2018 the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released a study examining the connection between SUV design and pedestrian fatalities. In a separate study released in June, IIHS found fatal single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs striking pedestrians increased 81% from 2009 to 2016.
While IIHS studied SUVs and not pickups, “The key is the geometry of the front end, the high and flat shape,” said Becky Mueller, a senior research engineer for IIHS. “It’s like hitting a wall.”
XL-pickups’ high-rising hoods also create significant blind spots just ahead of the vehicle. I know because apparently I was in one of them. While truck makers like Ford offer automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection systems as standard equipment on most trims, and forward-view cameras as an option, such systems are not mandatory, as they would be in Europe.
NHTSA proposed that new pedestrian-safety tests for SUVs and trucks be included in the New Car Assessment Program in 2015. But as of this writing, the agency had not issued guidance on new standards. When asked, the industry trade group Alliance for Automotive Innovation had no comment.
And what if the next administration should issue pickup-pedestrian safety rules? Could the extra tall hoods and bluff grilles, the sightlines, the scale, the very form language of the traditional American pickup ever be made pedestrian safe? “Of course not,” said Ms. Marte. “No way.”
So watch yourself at Costco.
TOO BIG FOR ITS BRITCHES?
Sizing up Chevy’s 2020 Silverado 2500HD
HIGH-END HOOD: Modern pickups like the Silverado 2500 HD LT with Z71 Off-Road Package appear huge not just because roofs have gotten taller (topping out around 80 inches), but because hoods have grown relative to a truck’s overall height.
KING-SIZE BED: The 2020 Silverado 2500 HD Crew Cab with Standard Bed is 10.3 inches longer, 1.3 inches wider, and 1.6 inches taller than the 2019 model.
GAUDY GRILLE: The vast chrome rictus of Chevy’s Silverado has been coolly received by some critics and customers. But Silverado sales are up, and there’s a booming business in aftermarket grilles.
A STEP UP: To assist you in boarding its very tall seat—which maintains proportionality with the height of the hood, the 2021 Silverado HD High Country is available with power running boards that automatically slide out to meet you.
The changing face of pickup trucks over the past century
1926: Ford Model T Runabout
Dearborn’s first pickup shared a distinctive radiator shape with the Model T, and sported a cargo box that measured 56 inches long by 40 inches wide.
1949: International Harvester KR-1
Old school even by 1949 standards, the KB-1 model got a little bling with chrome plated wings lateral to the grille and even a hood ornament.
1949: Dodge Power Wagon
This medium-duty pickup was based on a WWII-era Dodge military truck and retained the “flat fender” for which they became known.
1949: GMC Model FC pickup
Like competing Chevys of the era, GMC Trucks were fronted with “Bumper Bar” grilles—large horizontal bars surrounded by a thick frame on the top and sides.
1963: Jeep Gladiator J-200 Thriftside
Are you not entertained? The Gladiator’s early years featured the coolest grilles—centrally mounted, canted forward, with the Jeep badge in the lower-left.
MORE SWANK, LESS SCHLEP
How Ford’s uber-popular F-150 pickup has changed shape and style since 1995
PICKUPS AND SUVS have become the vehicles of choice for U.S. drivers over the last 25 years. Along the way, they’ve also become less trucklike, emphasizing comfort as well as capability. Take the F-150, the flagship of Ford’s F-Series, America’s bestselling vehicles 43 years running, which has morphed from rural work truck into a daily-driving people-mover as suburbanites ditched minivans in droves. The bestselling F-150 of 1995 was a rigid two-door set with a 6.5-foot bed; today’s bestselling F-150 has four doors, copious creature comforts, and a cargo box that’s a full foot shorter. —Aaron Stern
1995 F-150 SuperCab XL 4×4
Length: 235” Width: 79”
Curb Weight: 4,600 lbs. Payload Box: 6.5’
2020 F-150 SuperCrew XLT 4×4
Length: 231.9” Width: 79.9”
Curb Weight: 4,858 lbs. Payload box: 5.5’
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8