Channel | Auto Industry News

Pickups Emerging as Leaders in Quality

On a list of today’s best-built vehicles, you might expect to find a sleek Mercedes sedan or an iconic Porsche convertible. Even a fuel-sipping minivan from Toyota — despite the automaker’s recent troubles with recalls.

But a pickup? Probably not.

Yet these workhorses are now among the highest-quality vehicles on the road, earning better marks in key quality studies than many cars, including some luxury models, The Detroit News reported.

Leading the way are American brands, determined to keep their Japanese rivals at bay.

In the latest J.D. Power and Associates’ initial quality rankings, pickups widened their lead over other light vehicles for 2010 models: Problems per 100 vehicles reported during the first three months of ownership totaled 95, compared with the industry average of 109. Leading the pack were General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Avalanche and GMC Sierra.

At stake is more than just bragging rights: Even amid the worst industry downturn in decades, Detroit’s Big Three sold more than 1 million of the 1.14 million full-size pickups bought in the United States last year, underscoring how critical the truck market is to domestic automakers.

“Pickups likely will remain in the forefront of quality because they are profitable vehicles automakers can’t afford to lose,” said Mike Levine, editor of PickupTrucks.com in Santa Monica, Calif., an editorial site devoted to coverage of the pickup industry.

Today’s pickup buyers are finding fewer problems because buyers demanded and got more creature comforts and Detroit’s automakers drew a line in the sand vowing not to relinquish the quintessentially American segment to the Japanese.

“Pickups used to lag,” said Dave Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research for J.D. Power in Troy. “Now they’re pretty much the highest-quality vehicles.

“Twenty years ago, the pickup was essentially a work tool with no focus on the interior at all, only whether it was washable and could you fit a bunch of guys in there.”

The pickup segment is unique in that Detroit-made pickups collectively score better than average, while the Japanese entries fall below the median. In many other segments, imports are the quality leaders.

The best of the best in the large pickup class, the Avalanche and Sierra, tied for the fewest problems with 81, followed by the Ford F-150 at 85.

Quality engenders loyalty, said Rick Spina, GM line executive for trucks.

“Happy customers don’t move. It is up to the Big Three to not disappoint,” he said.

“It has been one of the strongest stands, one of the only spots where key Japanese competitors made a good hard run at it and have not been successful.”

The pickup has come a long way from the spartan regular cab of the ’90s with a bench front seat and few amenities, said Bob Hegbloom, Chrysler’s head of truck, SUV and commercial vehicle product planning. “They didn’t ride well. They were a tool.”

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