Ram pickups, powered by the redesigned 2019 Ram 1500 full-size model, dramatically closed the gap last year with the Chevrolet Silverado in a mission toward becoming the nation’s No. 2 best-selling vehicle.
The Ford F-Series, recording its highest sales since 2004, remains firmly ensconced at the top of the heap.
For years, Ford has held the top slot, while Chevrolet has been a solid second and Ram has placed third.
“It seems the ‘F-150 versus Silverado’ battle may need to be the ‘F-150 versus Silverado versus Ram 1500’ battle,” said Akshay Anand, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “Ram sold nearly as many as Silverado during the 2018 calendar year, suggesting major pressure from one of the hottest brands of recent years. The bottom line is that the truck segment continues to remain strong and will continue to do so with new entrants and continued consumer demand for capable vehicles.”
Based on 2018 sales data released by the carmakers on Thursday, 2 million U.S. consumers gravitated to three major pickup brands:
909,330 Ford F-Series
585,581 Chevy Silverados
536,980 Ram Trucks
The appetite for trucks grew slightly from 2017, when consumers purchased:
The three trucks are the top three sellers of any vehicle in the United States. In 2018, the race went better than expected for Ram maker Fiat Chrysler.
Fiat Chrysler's late CEO, Sergio Marchionne, in June unveiled a five-year plan for the company that included Ram overtaking Silverado for the No. 2 spot. Under the leadership of his successor Michael Manley after Marchionne's death in July, Fiat Chrysler closed the 2017 gap between the two by 57 percent.
“We have seen Ram gaining on Silverado in our shopping data in recent years, even before the most recent redesigns,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader. “With the new designs, Ram has been winning awards and critical acclaim above the Silverado.”
But Silverado shouldn’t be underestimated, said Jeremy Acevedo, data strategist at Edmunds.
“The Silverado has been making a slow transition to the 2019 model year,” Acevedo said. “Once full production gets online in the starting months of 2019, we'll get a better idea of the Silverado's market presence.”
What's in store in 2019?
This year, with a full sales year for both trucks, will perhaps be a truer test.
For now, trucks continue to be a lifeline for car companies in North America.
Ram sales helped push Fiat Chrysler's sales up 8.5 percent for the year, making it one of the few gainers among automakers in 2018.
Despite strong truck sales, both Ford and General Motors saw overall sales declines; down 3.5 percent for Ford and 1.6 percent for General Motors.
“I don't think this is a huge concern for GM at this point,” Acevedo said. “Ram has had the largest market share growth, but they rolled out their redesign earlier in 2018 and reaped the benefits of having their new product in market for longer than the Silverado. Ram also coupled the redesign launch with extremely generous incentive offers that has helped them win market share.”
He added, “For the Silverado, last year's decline in sales goes along with having older inventory and a redesign that was still trickling onto dealer lots. We expect the wider availability of 2019 model year Silverados to bring out loyalists and new buyers for GM. In 2019, the largest burden will actually fall on the class-leading F-150 as it stays largely unchanged alongside revamped competition.”
For now, Ford is happy.
The F-series outsold Silverado by 323,749 vehicles in 2018. That's the widest margin between the nation's top two pickup brands since Ford took (and held) the lead — when Jimmy Carter was president.
And despite not having a fancy redesign, Ford emphasizes that F-Series saw its best year since 2004, with 909,330 sales.
Strong sales of big-ticket items are a “testimony of strength and loyalty of customers,” said Mark LaNeve, Ford vice president, U.S. marketing, sales and service.
The F-Series, he said, “is the backbone of our franchise.”
A new F-150 is expected in 2020, Ford said.
If Ford stripped out all of its luxury pickup trucks, the Dearborn-based company would still be the No. 1 selling pickup in America.
“We anticipated a truck war in 2018 and we got it,” Krebs said. “Ford endured a major hiccup in truck production due to a fire at a supplier plant, but still managed to increase sales.”
Jim Cain, U.S. sales analyst for GM, said, "We're just starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible. We feel really good about our performance in pickups. We’re really bullish about 2019."
He added, "Ford has the oldest trucks in the business, or they will when GM and Ram complete their launches."
Jon Gabrielsen, a market economist who advises automakers and auto suppliers, said, "The full-sized pickup truck share wars are fought in tenths of percents, and any automaker would kill for a few tenths. So it is very impressive that Ram has managed to scratch and claw that much in a year. But that gain by Ram will not be ignored by GM or Ford, and it would not surprise me if they claw a lot of that back.”
All companies plan more new trucks for 2019, as gas prices hover below $2 a gallon.
Looking ahead, analysts said they expect the truck wars to continue with Ram and GM in full production of their new full-size models while Ford launches the all-new Ranger and Jeep the all-new Gladiator.
Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Phoebe Wall Howard on Twitter @phoebesaid
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ford F-150 is still America's best-selling pickup, but Ram is gaining on Chevy Silverado