Trucks

Posted Friday, Jul. 18, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Recently our esteemed media competitor in the eastern part of the Metroplex wrote a column about Toyota’s decision to move to the Metroplex. Its thrust was that witnessing how many pickup trucks there are in North Texas and how our citizens use them might change the way Toyota’s executives view their Tundra. Once here, when those executives see for themselves that trucks are as much a lifestyle vehicle as a mobile tool for working Texans, some believe they will demand changes to make their truck more competitive.

The lifestyle part is true enough. Some Texas drivers have owned pickup trucks for years and have never once put anything into the bed.

It is equally true that most domestic auto manufacturers love full-sized trucks and large SUVs simply because those vehicles produce their best profit margins. Then again, the seeds of the auto industry’s next crisis will be the same ones that grew into its last two crises: Detroit depends almost completely on sales of large trucks and SUVs for its profits, often struggling to turn any sort of meaningful profit on the outstanding cars all of its automakers now sell.

Meanwhile, even if Toyota had never introduced its exceptional Tundra pickup truck, it would still be the most profitable automobile manufacturer in the world. After all, Toyota earned almost double the operating profit of the Ford Motor Company in 2013 by selling just shy of 10 million vehicles, of which only 113,000 were Tundras. Ford, in contrast, sold upwards of three quarters of a million F Series trucks, but they accounted for more than 30 percent of Ford’s North American sales and the majority of their profits.

We all know what happens to truck and large SUV sales every time there’s a major hiccup in energy costs.

California Has Ranchers, Too

What always tickles me is how so many Texans and car dealers love to point out how completely different our state is from California in terms of the car buying experience. In the case of the Tundra, it’s claimed, being located in California skews the vision of Toyota’s decision makers as to what the Tundra should be; coming to our state will instantly realign their clouded view.

Of course, our mistaken impression of that state is more than understandable. Because California as outsiders know it is really only a sliver of the real state; that narrow band runs 25 – 50 miles inland from Highway 1, starting in San Diego and following the Pacific Coast northward to Oregon. California to us is San Diego, Oceanside, Laguna Beach, LA, Malibu, Carmel and San Francisco. It’s beautiful and full of overpriced homes. And, because gasoline often sells there for upwards of $4 a gallon, it’s a state where for years the Toyota Prius was the best selling car before the new Honda Accord took the top spot this year.

But follow Highway 33 north of Ventura, through Ojai and across the Los Padres National Forest, and you’ll come into Taft. Suddenly, you’ll believe that somehow during that 87-mile drive you have been magically transported to somewhere in West Texas. Further confusing the casual vacationer to that state, 36 miles east of Taft lies Bakersfield. That city is known for its chicken-fried steak and Dr. Pepper joints, and its innumerable Baptist churches, all remnants of the last major migration west during the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl days.

East of Bakersfield lie Death Valley and the Mojave Desert and some of the cruelest landscapes in America. But driving northwest to Sacramento stretches the state’s agricultural region – which, again, looks nothing like the West Coast vacations so many of us have taken with our families. And it’s in that wide strip of California’s interior, between the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the east and Highway 101 on the west, that one finds California’s real working people, people with whom all of us in Texas can easily relate.

Unsurprisingly, that’s a region of the state that loves pickup trucks and large SUVs as much as we do. But this number may surprise you: Last year Californians purchased 649,142 light trucks, or 37.9 percent of all new vehicles sold in that state. This year, according to the state’s new car dealer association, Californians may well purchase right at 700,000 new vehicles categorized as light trucks. That’s right, geographically – and in choice of ride – most of California is not all that different from most of us.

Accessorized Élan

Now, what is different is that trucks and large SUVs are not status symbols to Californians, the way they are around here. A good friend of mine from Tyler, Texas, was once our assistant news director at Fox Four. Fox moved him to St. Louis, then to Philadelphia and finally gave him the news department at the Fox TV affiliate in Los Angeles. He called me before his move west about purchasing a new Tahoe in LA, and I had GM make the arrangements for him.

Not long after he got there he called again, this time to ask my advice on a Porsche 911 convertible he’d found off lease. Seems that if one had a nice bungalow in Santa Monica, a Porsche convertible in the driveway just seemed to make more sense as a fashion statement. I reminded him that Ray-Ban® Aviators were out and that the 4141 Wayfarer retro design was in. Californians’ accessories must have sufficient cachet to complement their new Porsches.

Too much is being made of pickup trucks today, in spite of the fact that they have become some of the most enjoyable vehicles to drive. Even today’s 1-ton Dodge Ram Dually with a Cummins diesel engine drives and handles better than some full-sized sedans from just 15 years ago. As for the California truck and SUV car market’s being so much different from that of Texas, so far this year the manufacturer with the greatest sales growth out West is Jeep, up by 56.9 percent.

Big, Strong, – and Vulnerable

I have sometimes had fun just listening to people who actually live off California’s Highway 1 on the Pacific Ocean express their bias against trucks and SUVs. Some 14 years ago, when I attended a banquet for winners of the Loeb Award for Business Journalism from UCLA, I ended up in a small group where the discussion was anti-truck and anti-SUV because those vehicles wasted incredible amounts of gasoline. Ed Leamer, who authored the school’s annual report on California’s economy, was leading the discussion. At some point I asked what he drove as his personal vehicle, imagining that he might own a compact Honda or Toyota. But no, he had a Jaguar with a V-8 engine. I simply smiled and said, “You know Ed, that Jag gets worse mileage than a Chevrolet Suburban.” Needless to say, that particular discussion stopped cold.

But don’t be misled. In California almost four out of 10 vehicles sold are classified as light trucks. And in that respect they aren’t so different from us after all.

Still, if history is any guide, truck and SUV sales are the most vulnerable to energy price swings. But fuel prices don’t affect those who use them as work vehicles much in their next buying decision; those who purchase them as a lifestyle or image choice tend to think twice before their next purchase. Toyota knows that; Detroit has already forgotten it.

© Ed Wallace 2014

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net; read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com

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