DALLAS -- Ten years ago, a big pickup sporting fancy red leather seats would have shocked the boys down at the feed store.
And they flatly would not have believed any truck could "kneel" to allow its driver to enter more easily.
But both features can be found on new luxury pickups from Ford and Ram.
The growing niche of $50,000-plus pickups -- replete with polished wood trim, custom leather interiors and 20-inch wheels -- is becoming increasingly important to automakers.
"We don't know where the top in this segment is," said Fred Diaz, chief executive of the Ram brand.
These high-end, city-slicker pickups -- at least 14 models are now available -- represent far more than just some glitzy industry anomaly. They can generate $15,000 or more in profit, boosting revenue in a segment whose North American sales have dropped more than 25 per cent since 2008, analysts say.
"This is a good example where it's about the quality of the sale, not the quantity," said Rebecca Lindland, director of strategic review at IHS Automotive.
Ford planted the seed for the niche more than a decade ago with its first four-door, crew-cab pickup, which then led to the specialty Harley-Davidson edition of the F-150 in 1999. Crew cabs provided room for a family or five adults, making pickups more practical as well as more car-like. They also opened the door for a vast array of comfort features.
The company's latest bruiser in a tux, the Super Duty Platinum, can easily cost more than $60,000 -- twice the price of a base Super Duty, which includes the F-250 and F-350 models.
Luxury trucks get snapped up by successful contractors who use the plush haulers as offices and want to convey a well-heeled image to potential clients. And then there are the lawyers, doctors, executives and entrepreneurs who trade their BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes for luxury trucks on the weekend so they can tow big boats, classic cars and racing vehicles.
When Ford introduced the Platinum model of its light-duty F-150 pickup in 2009, it expected the truck to account for about three per cent of F-150 sales.
"It's now running at six to eight per cent of our sales, and we've already got more orders for the (larger) Super Duty Platinum than we had anticipated," said Doug Scott, Ford truck group marketing manager.
In fact, pickups that cost more than $40,000 account for half of all Super Duty sales and 30 per cent of F-150 transactions, Scott said.
"I don't personally think there is a top end" to the niche, Scott said. "We saw the need. These were guys who didn't want to compromise on refinement or capability."
The sales indicate how diverse the pickup segment has become. The Ford F-series pickup remains the top-selling vehicle of any kind in the U.S., followed by the Chevrolet Silverado.
Once viewed solely as farm, ranch and work vehicles, trucks became car alternatives in places such as Texas in the 1990s. But after high gas prices and the recession forced most of the "concrete cowboys" out in 2008, total U.S. pickup sales dropped from about 2.4 million to roughly 1.7 million.
"At one point, the style-buyer of pickups appeared to be gone," said analyst Lindland of IHS Automotive. "Now we're thinking maybe not."
Four models of luxury trucks are available from Ram, once viewed as the industry's most blue-collar pickup.
The brand's US$40,000 Laramie offers an air-suspension system that can be lowered two inches into "kneel" mode for easier entry or unloading.
"It's good for the company, it's good for earnings and it's good for consumers," Diaz said. Two years ago, nine per cent of Ram's light-duty truck sales in the U.S. were pickups that cost $40,000 or more, the Ram CEO noted. That jumped to 13 per cent in 2011, a 44-per-cent increase.
"In the old days, everyone thought of trucks as something for work. The trend I see now is for trucks to become family vehicles."
Although Ram has been Ford's most aggressive competitor in the segment, General Motors offers three luxury pickups -- two models of the GMC Sierra Denali and the US$63,000 Cadillac EXT. In addition, sometime after the all-new Chevrolet Silverado arrives next year, Chevy will offer a top-end model with "Western flair and unique leather," according to Automotive News.
"They are a growing piece of a very important market," said Kenn Bakowski, GMC Sierra marketing manager. "We want to resonate with higher-end customers."
-- The Dallas Morning News