By Doron Levin, contributors
FORTUNE — When General Motors executives fall to their knees to pray for the success of a single model among the scores the company sells worldwide, they are surely bowing their heads for the Chevrolet Silverado full-size pickup. Not only is the truck the show horse of GM’s lineup, it is the automaker’s single most important moneymaker.
The new 2014 Silverado, last redesigned for 2006, must be able to haul of a ton of expectations, because GM (GM) executives expect it to stand up to — and surpass — Ford Motor Co.’s (F) F-Series pickup, the current industry leader. Expect the advertising war to be spirited, especially as the new vehicle begins to reach Chevrolet and GMC showrooms late in the first quarter.
Previous generations of pickups were sold mostly on their toughness and strength, their ability to carry big cargo loads and tow heavy trailers. The latest version is being touted for superior fuel efficiency, though GM isn’t ready yet to release specifics. “The story of this vehicle is about fuel efficiency and torque,” says Alan Batey, head of GM’s U.S. sales at the debut of the Silverado and its twin, the GMC Sierra last week in Pontiac, Michigan. “Towing is a huge requirement, and fuel efficiency is an important preference of buyers.”
The Silverado and Sierra will be sold in regular and crew cab (four-door) versions, with the option of three new engines: a 4.6-liter V6, 5.3-liter V8 and a 6.2-liter V8. The engines embody several fuel-saving technologies, including cylinder deactivation when the vehicle needs less power and torque.
GM’s two new pickups have been restyled inside and out — but the cosmetic particulars may not matter much except to the most hardcore buyers of this type of vehicle. Mainly they’re bought for their durability and capability in work situations.
Ford’s F-Series trucks are equipped with turbocharging, an engine technology that can lead to drivers burning more fuel than they anticipated from federal efficiency ratings, according to Ken Zino, an analyst with AutoInformed. “Turbos also are relatively costly as a way to increase the power of a smaller engine,” he says. GM hopes to gain a cost advantage over Ford for its engine, as well a fuel efficiency rating that will attract those customers deciding between the two.
Batey says he believes the U.S. pickup market is poised to grow, and not just because the agriculture, energy and housing sectors have shown signs of recovery. The average age of all pickups on the road is about 10 years, he says, meaning many are nearing the end of their useful life.
The U.S. pickup market fell to a trough of 1.1 million vehicles in 2009; GM expects the recovery to reach 1.6 million vehicles this year. Through the first 11 months of 2012, the F-Series led with category with sales of 576,529. GM’s Silverado and Sierra totaled 506,088, while Chrysler’s Dodge Ram stood at 263,152.
Significantly, the most luxurious versions of GM’s new trucks will be available with the same advanced safety devices as its cars, including forward collision alert and lane departure warning. As leading-edge safety features proliferate and become more common, experts say automakers may soon be able to build a car that needs little or no input from the driver.
But until that day, GM is relying on longstanding driver loyalties to the Silverado and Sierra to stimulate most of the sales of its new model — the balance coming from those drivers GM can persuade to forego their old Fords and Dodges.