Rising Pickup Sales -- A Possible Sign of Economic Recovery

Last Updated Apr 5, 2010 6:00 PM EDT

A pickup-truck war isn't what used to be, before $4 gasoline drove people to buy smaller cars and crossovers. Still, there's one shaping up now among Ford (F), General Motors, Chrysler and Toyota (TM) as the automakers try to catch the first breeze of a possible economic recovery.

According to AutoData, U.S. sales of full-size pickups improved about 25 percent in March from the year-ago month. Year to date, full-size pickups gained 9.1 percent from the year-ago quarter.

Granted, that's relative to poor sales for the last few years in a row, thanks to the spike in gas prices in 2008 and the ongoing switch from pickups and SUVs to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Changing tastes mean casual buyers -- "Urban Cowboys" who didn't really need a big pickup when push came to shove - are mostly out of the pickup market. The bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and 2008 also killed a lot of pickup sales to small businesses and construction crews.

Word last week that pickup sales improved could indicate that business fleets are starting to replace those pickups they didn't replace in the last couple of years. Auto sales, including cars and trucks, jumped 24 percent in March. Record-high incentives from Toyota started a more general price war with other Asian makes.

The gain in the pickup segment catches the biggest players at different points in their new-product cycles. Ford and Chrysler each launched all-new full-size pickups in late 2008, the Ford F-150 pickup and the Dodge Ram. They each landed with a thud, considering gas prices at the time and the state of the economy.

The Ford pickup kept its crown as the biggest selling vehicle in the United States for the 28th year in a row in 2009, but by a smaller margin than ever ahead of the biggest-selling car, the Toyota Camry.

The Toyota Tundra is the next-newest major competitor in the full-size pickup segment. Built in a new factory in Texas, the Tundra was launched in early 2007, but hasn't come anywhere close to selling as many pickups as Ford and GM.

For now, General Motors is hanging on in the full-size pickup segment, despite having the oldest truck among the major competitors. It's not due to replace the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra until around 2012. The two GM models ride on the same platform. Combined, they at least come close to selling as many trucks as the Ford F-150.

If the U.S. economic recovery goes slowly enough, GM could find itself in the catbird seat, with new trucks just in time. If the recovery comes quicker than that, having the oldest truck could start to hurt GM competitively, when demand picks up.

That could spell lower market share in pickups, and/or bigger incentives to keep customers interested. If the economy comes back faster, and sales of its other models start to pick up, GM would probably take that deal.