Saturday, April 02, 2005

 

Keys To GM's Truck Success

Without a doubt, GM's upcoming launch of their GMT900 full-size trucks and SUVs will be critical to their short-term success (the recent news that their pickup sales are still strong must be encouraging). So what's needed to ensure that these vehicles contribute to GM's bottom line? I'm going to aim my comments more at the pickup trucks, since frankly I'm out of touch with the needs of a modern SUV buyer.

Before getting into the features that I think could help GM's trucks in the marketplace, it needs to be said that the launch of these new vehicles needs to go off absolutely perfect. I wish that this could just be assumed, but I know better. I hope there's not some basic little detail that goes unaddressed.

OK, let's start with powertrains. It's already been rumored that the Atlas-series 4.2 L inline-6 from the GMT360 won't be making it into the full-size line, supposedly because it's too expensive. That's too bad, since it's a great engine. If I were in charge of the truck line, I'd want to look very hard at making this the base engine, replacing the 4.3 L which is, frankly, outdated.

Moving to the optional powerplants, I don't personally like the displacements offered in the current line-up. Since the wonderful 6.0 L isn't offered in the half-ton trucks, that leaves the 4.8 and 5.3 L. In my opinion, there's simply not enough difference between those two in terms of power or fuel economy to justify the existance of both, and the 5.3 L isn't competitive in the market with only 295 HP (although it should be noted that 20 years ago, a 165 HP 350 was big enough to tow most travel trailers, and the 454 was only rated at 245 HP). I'd like to see two options - a 5.0 L and the 6.0 L - and offer both in the half-tons as well as the heavy-duty pickups.

Next, as fuel economy becomes more important, I think that there will be a desire for unique engine options for half-ton applications (this requirement is already fulfilled by the Duramax diesel in the HD trucks). I see two options to compliment the upcoming hybrids - diesel, and forced-induction. GM's relationship with Isuzu was supposed to bring a variety of diesel engines into the fold - so where's a mini Duramax; say, a nice V6? Otherwise, I'd like to see a turbocharged or supercharged version of the I5 or I6 that would serve many customer's needs (real or perceived) better than a big V8.

The 6-speed autos can't get here soon enough. The 4L60E isn't strong enough for modern powerplants and has poor gear spacing, and the 4L80E is probably too heavy and inefficient for light-truck use. Placing durability above all else would give GM a huge advantage in the marketplace, since I'm universally underwhelmed by the limited life of light-truck automatics currently on the market. Offering one that lasts as long as the engine would be a huge selling point.

Seeing as how ride quality continues to be a selling point for light-duty trucks, I don't think it'd be unreasonable to think that the current Tahoe coil-spring rear suspension would be quite popular if made standard on the half-tons (at least on the 2WD versions).

Going in the opposite direction, I think that it'd be appropriate to offer a solid front axle as an option on 4WD HD trucks. The current IFS setup is fine for on-road use and probably the best choice for most consumers, but frankly a good solid-axle setup works better for severe commercial duty (plowing, farming, etc.).

GM already does a pretty good job with suspension tuning, and they're only getting better. They just need to make sure that the beancounters don't put an end to this practice.

Styling is a personal issue. I think the '03-up frontend is truly ugly - a poor attempt to emulate the sort of look that Dodge pulls off with ease. Either stick to the same sort of basic styling that allowed the '88-'02 trucks to age so gracefully, or find a way to pull off the SSR's styling in a slightly more mainstream fashion.

For the interiors, I'd be satisfied with something along the lines of GM's most-recent product offerings. The Cobalt makes uses of utilitarian materials that at least appear to be durable - I'd be satified with that, as anything much fancier just doesn't appeal to me in a truck (as beautiful as a Ford King Ranch interior may be, I wouldn't want to track manure into one). Make a nav system standard, since that'd be a useful item in a pickup truck. And don't delay in implementing new technology like Bluetooth, because by the time these vehicles launch, that sort of thing will surely be standard in cell phones and PDAs.

So there we go - at least the start of a decent list. I'll probably be adding more ideas as I think of them.

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