In Detroit they have a name for the assembly plant that builds the highest profit vehicles: the Money Plant. In recent years, the title has moved around. In the 1980s, it was Ford's Wixom, Mich. plant that was turning out Thunderbirds and Lincoln Town Cars and Continentals. In the '90s, the honor passed to Michigan Truck outside Detroit, home of the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator.
These days, Ford's Dearborn Truck is the money plant, and it isn't likely to give up that title anytime soon. Along with plants in Kansas City and Louisville, it is turning out thousands of thousands of F-series pickups, America's most popular vehicle, and demand is rebounding strongly. In the first quarter, it built 93,948 F-series trucks, all of them with four doors, and the cash is rolling in. Some 30% of all truck buyers spend more than $40,000 on their hardware, and analysts say that when you eliminate development and engineering costs, each truck sold returns a profit to the manufacturer of up to $10,000.
Spurred by the housing boom and demand from builders, truck sales are sizzling. For the first four months of the year, Ford (f) sold 227,873 F-series -- more than one a minute and up 19.1% from the year before. Other makers are feasting too. Chevrolet and Ram (formerly Dodge) both reported sales gains for their full-size pickups of 23% and more this year. Import brands don't resonate with domestic buyers, but both Toyota and Nissan are redoubling their efforts to get larger slices of this lucrative market.
With so much money at stake, manufacturers are pouring resources into trucks, in particular top-end models that can cost more than $50,000. Especially popular are Western-themed motifs that enable every owner to feel at home on the range. General Motors (gm) brings out new Chevy and GMC models with cowboy iconography later this year, and Toyota (tm) is jumping in with Texas Tundras. Along with the Ram Laramie Longhorn, they will be challenging Ford's long-running F-series King Ranch edition.
Cowpoke or tenderfoot, buyers have never had so many modern pickups to choose from. By 2015, every truck on the market will be redesigned. Here's a look at what's selling today -- and what auto manufacturers will be using to fight truck wars tomorrow.
1. 2013 Ford F-series
Ford pioneered the idea of high-end models with cowboy themes in 2001, and the King Ranch now accounts for nearly one-third of its sales. There are enough cowhide seat coverings, ranch logos, and cattle brands decorating the interior to make the passengers think they are riding in a bunkhouse. Eight other less-aspirational trim levels are available, beginning with a bare-bones work truck that starts at $20,000, enabling F-series to keep a comfortable lead on the competition.
2. 2013 Chevrolet Silverado 1500
Since GM's pickup sales are split between nearly-identical Chevrolet and GMC models, the Silverado has never achieved the prominence of the F-series. High-end versions have also suffered because GM was late to the up-model game and failed to establish a personality for the LTZ. Voted truck of the year when it was introduced back in 2007, today's Silverado is ancient by competitive standards, but thanks to discounts, it still ranks as the U.S.'s second most popular truck. Nearly 40,000 were sold in April.
3. 2013 Ram Trucks
Chrysler has jumped into the luxury truck business with its own Western-themed upscale pickup: the Ram Laramie Longhorn Edition. Buyers love it -- Car & Driver called it "a limousine that can handle mulch" -- and Ram has doubled its percentage of high-end sales from five years ago. For 2013, Ram got a new front end, an all-new interior, and a new V6 engine, and the glitzy redo helped push its sales up nearly 50% in April for the biggest gain of any manufacturer.
4. 2013 GMC Sierra 1500
GMC almost got the ax during GM's bankruptcy until bankers discovered how much money it made sharing truck engineering and parts with Chevrolet -- and selling them for higher prices with its upscale "professional grade" positioning. Like Silverado, Sierra is idling until a new model arrives later this year, but it still ranks as the fourth-bestselling truck.
5. 2013 Toyota Tundra
The Texas-built second-generation Tundra, introduced in 2007, is reaching the end of the line. Sales peaked in its first year on the market, and since then it has been selling at half the rate Toyota had planned -- and at just one-seventh of Ford's F-series. More appealing to sport truck buyers than a work truck, Tundra was hit hard when personal-use shoppers deserted the market during the recession. Toyota is trying to engineer a revival.
6. 2013 Nissan Titan
Further evidence that American buyers prefer American trucks is the indifferent reception accorded the Titan. It doesn't help that this built-in-Mississippi truck hasn't been fully redesigned since its introduction nine years ago, and the lack of attention has driven sales down 80%. A thoroughly refreshed 2015 model due next spring will try to take up the slack. Nissan hopes to get back to a market share in the mid-single digits, up from this year's miserable 1.1%.
7. 2014 Chevrolet Silverado
All-new 2014 Chevy trucks begin rolling out this spring, with the bejeweled High Country model joining them in the fall. If you live in Texas, where one in six pickups are sold, you can qualify for a Texas Edition Silverado, with special wheels, mirrors, and door handles. Critics are already complaining that the new trucks look too much like the old trucks and don't produce significantly higher mileage. GM's answer: If you want better fuel economy, buy one of our mid-size trucks, the Chevy Colorado.
8. 2014 GMC Sierra
The Sierra gets a new front end to further distinguish it from its Chevrolet stablemate, but much else is the same. Both get a weight-saving aluminum hood, an upgraded interior, and Cadillac-level electronics and infotainment to provide a quieter, more comfortable, and safer ride. Like upscale passenger cars, the Sierra is available with driver alert systems such as lane-departure and forward-collision warning.
9. 2014 Toyota Tundra
Not to be left behind, Tundra greets the 2014 model year with a beefier, hard-edged body with a higher hood and an in-your-face grille, along with an all-new interior. For cowboy customers (vicarious and otherwise) comes the "1794 edition. " It is named after the ranch in San Antonio established in that year that is now the site of Toyota's Tundra assembly plant and comes with saddle brown leather, special wheels, and prominent "1794" badges.
10. 2015 Ford F-series
The Atlas concept provides a preview of the attention-getting styling that is expected in the totally reengineered 2015 F-series trucks. With launch of the new pickups still 18 months away, details about design and features are sketchy. But Ford is promising to boost fuel economy 20% compared to the current version, first by using more aluminum to cut weight by 700 pounds, and second by deploying more small displacement engines. If it succeeds, Ford will have opened a new front in the battle for supremacy in the truck wars.