2013 Car Market: The Year of the Pickup

It is too early to declare the final winners in terms of 2013 U.S. car and light vehicle sales. That will change shortly, as December and full-year data are released by the manufacturers that have shares of the American market. So far, most analysts have pointed to luxury imports as the leaders in terms of growth. That analysis is naive. The real victors in the U.S. industry are heavy pickup trucks, particularly those made by the Big Three.

As a concession to the strong numbers posted, particularly German luxury car makers, Mercedes sales will rise nearly 13% this year, BMW’s sales will rise more than 11% and Audi’s by over 13%. But the leader, BMW, will be fortunate to sell 300,000 cars.

The heavy pickups built by Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F), General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) and Chrysler — under the Ram brand — will reach 1.5 million in sales for 2013. That will be more than 10% of the entire market.

Ford is the clear winner among the three companies. Sales of its F-Series pickups will reach more than 725,000 this year. The product has been the top-selling car or light truck seller for most of the past three decades. Without it, Ford would be the number three car company in the United States, behind Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM).

GM’s Chevy Silverado will sell 460,000 units this year. Chevrolet has been chasing Ford in the category without success. That does not mean that the Silverado is not critical to GM. It is still the top U.S. car company’s best-selling product. Sales of GM’s next best-selling vehicle — the Equinox — will be fewer than 250,000 units.

The Ram Dodge Ram pickup is Chrysler’s flagship, despite the push the company continues to make for its Jeep brand and the Chrysler 300. Not a single Chrysler model is among the top 20 selling cars and light trucks in America. Jeep’s Grand Cherokee is at the bottom of that list and will have fewer than 175,000 unit sales for 2013.

The main argument for the success of the pickup is its versatility. It is a mix of business workhorse and family car. However, the reasons for the high sales of these vehicles are academic, at least insofar as what they bring in for the three companies in dollars.