Pickups, perennial best-sellers, will be showing off tech and other tricks at the Chicago Auto Show

Chicago Tribune

News Flash: Pickup trucks were the three best selling vehicles of 2018. Well, that’s not exactly news as this has been the case for many years. A large portion of sales have been for commercial use, so pickups used to be basic utilitarian vehicles without a lot of choices. The ever-increasing personal use market has led to an expanding array of sizes, and is a showcase of engineering and technology.

The bookends of what you can buy in a pickup are spreading wider this year, starting with a renewed taste for smaller trucks. The mid-size market began lapsing into obscurity earlier this century when Ford, (Dodge) Ram and Honda pulled out. Perennial sales leader Toyota Tacoma has kept carrying the midsize torch as has the obsolescing Nisan Frontier. Left with few choices, segment sales slipped. Things perked up when General Motors redesigned its aging mid-size offerings for 2015, releasing the competitive Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. Tacoma was redone for 2016 and Honda also brought back a car-based Ridgeline in 2017 after a hiatus. Now the midsize Ford Ranger is the next one to have returned, as the "garageable" pickup becomes a thing.

As if Jeep sales could get any hotter, Jeep finally debuted its greatly anticipated pickup at the Los Angeles Auto Show last fall. The reboot of the Gladiator name comes based on the popular Wrangler instead of a half-ton job as it once was. This has created buzz about a mid-size Ram pickup coming built on the same platform. Could this be the return of the Dakota nameplate? The latest company line from CEO Mike Manley to reporters at last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit: “… we’re working on it.”

Even Hyundai and Volkswagen have been testing the waters with car-based pickup concepts. At the Detroit show, Volkswagen just announced a new partnership with Ford that could bring a VW-badged pickup with Ford’s truck expertise.

Meanwhile, as the half-ton pickup grows seating and loses cargo space, morphing into the new family car, for those who need maximum towing and hauling heavy duty trucks go more extreme. Check out Chevrolet’s recently unveiled Silverado HDs, physically larger and more distinct from the 1500. With Ram’s 2019 all-new 2500 and 3500 HD debut in Detroit, the ante was upped with 1000 pound-feet of torque available on the diesel model.

While diesel engines are a popular choice for heavy duty pickups, they were rare in a half-ton truck until Ram introduced the 3.0-liter V-6 EcoDiesel to take the pickup truck fuel mileage crown. The motor was not available at the launch of the all-new Ram 1500 pickup for 2019, but will return to the new and Classic Ram 1500s during this year. Three liters is the magic size as Ford also introduced a 3.0-liter V-6 diesel with an up to 30 miles per gallon highway rating (depending on configuration). Chevrolet and GMC are following up with their own 3.0-liter diesel, an inline six-cylinder.

Gasoline-powered half-ton trucks have seen an array of fuel-saving strategies using cutting-edge powertrain tech. Ford was first to the party with smaller-displacement engines with turbochargers. Since a lot of people drive their trucks empty much of the time, the theory is you get the efficiency of a small engine, with power on tap when you need it. Remember how they kept saying six-cylinder motors would replace eights? That day is here — one of Ford’s EcoBoost 3.5-liter engines is the top performance engine in the F-150, outpowering the more traditional 5.0-liter V-8. A differently tuned 3.5 and a 2.7-liter V-6 are also offered for different needs and budgets.

Chevrolet has taken this idea to the next level by bringing a four-cylinder into a full-size truck. A 2.7-liter turbo four-cylinder engine is available in the new 2019 Silverado 1500. Remember when they would say four-cylinders would replace sixes? This one has 310 horsepower. Couple this with weight saved in the engine and in the redesigned body and it’s a compelling package.

Hybrids haven’t had much of a foothold in pickup trucks, but Ram incorporates a mild hybrid with both their 3.6-liter V-6 and 5.7-liter V-8 engines for 2019. It can’t drive solely on electric power, but offers additional electric motor torque and stop/start capability to help save gas. Regenerative braking captures energy from slowing the truck down to recharge the augmented batteries.

The smaller dimensions of mid-size trucks is ripe for fuel-saving technology. The GMC Canyon and Chevy Colorado offer a 2.8-liter diesel for best mileage. The Jeep Gladiator will have a diesel option as well. Toyota Tacoma’s V-6 uses a simulated Atkinson cycle, which changes how long the intake valves stay open to save fuel under light throttle and load conditions.

Along with leather-lined interiors rivaling some luxury cars, now pickups are getting the latest high-tech features you'd expect in a high-end sedan. You can find systems that help keep you from wandering out of your lane, park for you, see pedestrians in your path and automatically brake in an imminent collision. Cameras that show the 360-degree view around the vehicle have come to trucks, with settings to view your trailer or load, and hook up the hitch by yourself. Many of the newer tech features adapted specifically for trucks include blind spot monitoring adjustable for different length trailers, and trailer tire pressure monitoring. Trailering apps can track your trailer trip, trailer brake adjustment and the angle of your trailer to make sure the load is properly distributed. Ford even has a system with an intuitive knob to help steer your trailer in reverse.

Once hot-selling utility vehicles transitioned from truck-based SUVs to truck-inspired crossovers, it revealed that Americans miss their trucks. Work trucks will still be available for business needs, but the manufacturers are capitalizing on consumer desires, making pickup trucks one the most diverse product lines out there.

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