For decades, Chevrolet's Silverado pickup has carried the load for General Motors, most recently providing needed cash and loyal buyers through the automaker's bailout and bankruptcy.
Truck sales remain central to GM's North American strategy, even as it has uncharacteristic success with new car models including the small Cruze sedan and the Chevy Equinox crossover. That's largely because GM makes $9,000 to $11,000 from each pickup sale, compared with about $5,000 for a passenger car, according to Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays Research.
But now — as GM introduced a new generation of Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks in Detroit on Thursday — the automaker is driving into rugged terrain. The current models, the oldest of the major offerings in the full-size pickup market, have lost market share as rivals from Ford and Chrysler have surpassed GM trucks in fuel economy and other features.
GM's truck inventory has ballooned to 110 days despite hefty sales incentives designed to move the vehicles off dealer lots. Analysts worry that slack sales could set off a profit-sucking price war in the industry if GM were to pile on incentives to fire-sale current models before the redesigned trucks hit dealerships in the second quarter of 2013.
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Still, the Silverado notches nearly double the annual sales of the Cruze, GM's next-best-selling vehicle.
"GM's profits in North America still ride in the bed of pickup trucks," Johnson said.
Combined, the Chevrolet Silverado and its sister GMC Sierra make up 34.7 percent of the full-size truck market through the first 11 months of 2012, according to MotorIntelligence.com. That's down from a 40.3 percent share in 2008, before the company's bankruptcy reorganization.
Meanwhile, Ford's F-series has captured 39.6 percent of the market this year, up from 32.8 percent in 2008. Chrysler's Dodge Ram is at 18.1 percent, up from 15.6 percent in 2008.
Ford has effectively pitched the V-6 turbocharged engine in its F-series, which buyers like because its fuel economy is slightly better than the GM offerings and it has more power, Johnson said. Meanwhile, Chrysler has taken a more focused approach marketing its Dodge Ram trucks, refreshing the interior and adding an eight-speed transmission to boost the fuel economy of its V-6 model.
To keep up, the new offerings from GM need better fuel economy, updated cabins with more creature comforts and infotainment systems that better sync with smartphones, said Alec Gutierrez, an analyst with auto information company Kelley Blue Book.
"The power and towing capacity has to be there," Gutierrez said. "That ultimately will be what a truck buyer looks at: the best package of fuel efficiency coupled with torque, horsepower and towing capacity.
"GM's new trucks need to push each of those benchmarks without sacrificing any one of the four."
GM says that's exactly what it did with its trucks.
The new trucks will have more horsepower, more torque and better fuel economy than the comparable engine in the current lineup, said Tom Wilkinson, a GM spokesman.
"The strategy is more in keeping with the way truck customers look at trucks," Wilkinson said.