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Battle of the trucks

Automakers introduce next generation of pickups at Detroit auto show

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DETROIT -- The truck wars heated up at the recent Detroit auto show as Ford countered GM's recently revealed pickups with a concept model expected to herald its next-generation F-150.

The Atlas Concept has styling and features you'll likely see in Ford's 2015 model, including the evolution of its tailgate step, which can now be extended to act as a cargo cradle for extra-long items such as lumber or ladders.

Particular attention has been paid to improving aerodynamics to help reduce fuel consumption. The enhancements include active grille shutters and active wheel shutters, which deploy at highway speeds to reduce drag. The truck's front spoiler also drops down at higher speeds to limit airflow under the truck, but retracts at lower speeds to improve ground clearance. The running boards are also power-assisted, dropping down for occupant entry and exit, then tucking away once the truck gets moving.

The Atlas is powered by a next-generation engine from Ford's EcoBoost lineup, paired with a six-speed automatic transmission with an auto stop-start system. The concept, stretched over a 3,810-mm wheelbase, rides on LT325/50R22 all-terrain tires and 22-inch alloy wheels.

Ford is also stepping up its commercial vehicle lineup, introducing a new version of its popular Transit Connect compact van with 2,000-pound (907-kilogram) towing capacity and 1,600-lb (726-kg) payload. A choice of either a 1.6-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder or a 2.5 L four will be offered.

Commercial vehicles account for 29 per cent of all global sales, and that number continues to grow. In North America, Ford dominates the segment with 47 per cent of the market and is keen to grow its share.

So, in addition to its new compact van, the company has also introduced a new large Transit van. It will be offered with a choice of two wheelbases, three lengths and three heights. It will also be available in a cab-only configuration ideal for conversion applications, such as motor homes and ambulances.

General Motors

When Jeff Luke says he's a truck guy, it's not simply corporate speak. Luke is General Motors' global vehicle chief engineer responsible for full-size trucks, but his passion for pickups was fuelled while growing up in Oshawa.

As part of his introduction during a media preview of the 2014 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra last month in Pontiac, Mich., a photo of Luke was flashed on the big screen. The young man was standing proudly beside a new brown and beige 1985 Silverado he'd helped his dad purchase -- the beginning of a long love affair with pickups.

"Dad let me spec out the truck," Luke recalled as he oversaw the public introduction of the latest GM pickups at the Detroit auto show. "I remember he let me tick off the AM/FM/cassette radio on the order sheet, which I thought was pretty cool."

Dad said thumbs-down to air conditioning, however. "He did let me order a sliding rear window, though."

Luke said the '85 Chevy was worked hard. "Dad had a 100-acre farm at Tyrone and we used to go up there on weekends and chop wood, then haul it back home to Oshawa."

Those days helped Luke learn what's important to truck buyers, and now, as head of GM's truck team, he makes sure those needs are answered in the pickups he builds. Subtle touches, for example, such as the LED light in the cargo bed.

"Most owners have a tonneau cover over their bed and the back light on the cab isn't much use when you're trying to find something under the cover," he said. His bed light solves that problem.

The latest trend in the full-size pickup segment is a shift to crew cabs, so Luke pushed for improvements in the rear seat area of GM's 2014 iterations.

Compared to the current models, there are now 100 more millimetres of foot swing area, making entry and exiting from the back seat far easier, especially for big men in work gear. There are also 50 more millimetres of leg room, as well as a five-per-cent improvement in foot area under the front seats -- handy for occupants with big feet and their Kodiak boots.

It's also awareness of what truck owners need that has prompted GM to only offer naturally aspirated engines, while its prime competitor in the segment -- Ford -- is opting for turbocharging to help achieve the fuel economy so critical in today's market.

Luke said his lineup of all-new engines -- a 4.3-litre V6, the 5.3L V8 and a 6.2L monster borrowed from the new Corvette -- all deliver improved fuel efficiency when under load, compared to the turbocharged engines which consume more fuel when they're working hard.

GM's official fuel ratings won't be announced until closer to the launch date in a few months, but Luke said GM's estimates indicate "they will definitely be competitive."

Ram

Chrysler got a big boost here when its Ram 1500 pickup was named 2013 North American Truck of the Year.

Ram brand president Fred Diaz said the honour "ranks as one of the proudest days in our history." The Ram previously won the award just once -- in 1994, the program's inaugural year.

The Ram features an eight-speed automatic transmission, a stop-start system, thermal management system, pulse-width modulation and active aerodynamics, including grille shutters and active air suspension -- all segment-first technologies.

For 2013, the Ram was redesigned inside and out, with a new frame, fresh interiors and more efficient engines that deliver up fuel efficiency to 7.8 litres/100 km.

Via

Former GM boss Bob Lutz has a new role: promoting a Utah-based firm that is developing all-electric trucks, SUVs and cargo vans.

Via Motors, to be known in Canada as Vtrux to avoid confusion with our national rail passenger service, is using a powertrain that combines a gas engine with Via's own electric motor. The system is similar in concept to GM's Volt powertrain, which Lutz helped spearhead during his days with that company.

Via's motor is a compact unit, just 279 mm by 279 mm and weighs 49 kg, yet it generates 402 horsepower. It connects with a 5.3L V8 engine supplied by GM. As in the Volt, the gas engine drives a generator, not the wheels. So when the 75-kilowatt, lithium-ion battery needs refreshing, the gas engine kicks in to generate juice. Range on electric power alone is up to 64 kilometres, with a range of 483 kilometres on combined power.

Via vice-president Mark Budge said his company has already received enquiries from Canadian fleet operators and is working with Kent Rathwell and his Saskatoon-based firm, Sun Country Highway, to establish itself north of the border.

Budge said U.S. experts say Canada is more receptive to electric vehicles than our American neighbours, predicting they will outpace the U.S. in EV purchases on a per-capita basis.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2013 F2

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