Pick­ups vie for off-road supremacy

Hard-core ‘halo ve­hi­cles’ make reg­u­lar-truck coun­ter­parts cooler by as­so­ci­a­tion

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - MONEY - Mark Phe­lan

Like tail­fins in the ’50s and mus­cle cars in the ’60s, off-road pick­ups have be­come im­age-mak­ers for en­tire automotive brands, at­tract­ing pas­sion­ate own­ers, rak­ing in prof­its, and earn­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for rugged­ness and ca­pa­bil­ity that rubs off on other ve­hi­cles.

“Off-road ve­hi­cles are per­for­mance ve­hi­cles,” said Mark Dick­ens, Chevro­let ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of per­for­mance ve­hi­cles and ac­ces­sories. “They’re halo ve­hi­cles. The Ca­maro raised per­cep­tion of Chevro­let’s whole line of cars. Off-road does the same for trucks.”

The Ford F-150 Rap­tor’s Baja-racin­gin­spired 450-horse­power en­gine, Ram 2500 Power Wagon’s 12,000-pound winch and Chevro­let Colorado ZR2 Bi­son’s snorkel ex­haust have re­placed hood scoops and Hurst shifters as brag­ging points for pas­sion­ate car fans.

“Spe­cial-edi­tion off-road trucks are like high-horse­power, lim­ited edi­tions of sports cars. They in­ject en­thu­si­asm into the lineup, build­ing on the fun­da­men­tal ca­pa­bil­i­ties trucks need to do their more mun­dane jobs,” IHS Markit se­nior an­a­lyst Stephanie Brin­ley said.

Nearly ev­ery au­tomaker that sells a pickup has at least one off-road hero model. They’re he­roes on the bal­ance sheet, too. Rap­tor prices start at $50,675. A base Power Wagon will set you back $52,845. Chevy hasn’t an­nounced the Colorado Bi­son’s price yet, but ex­pect it to be well more than dou­ble the $20,500 base price of the mid­size pickup it’s based on.

“Th­ese are halo prod­ucts for the en­tire brand,” Chevy’s Dick­ens said. “The own­ers be­come re­ally big ad­vo­cates of the prod­uct, and they in­flu­ence shop­pers they know.”

Ca­pa­bil­ity is a must: Just like the mus­cle cars kids used to dream about, the kings of off-road com­bine dash­ing looks with brawny en­gi­neer­ing.

“You must make a ve­hi­cle that’s ca­pa­ble. That’s key,” said Ford F-150 and Ranger mar­ket­ing man­ager Brian Bell.

All the off-road mod­els use the struc­ture as the brand’s base pickup. They add every­thing from a snorkel for ford­ing deep wa­ter to elec­tronic throt­tle and trac­tion con­trols for ex­treme ter­rain.

“Not ev­ery truck buyer wants a Chevro­let Colorado ZR2 or Ford Rap­tor in the drive­way, but their truck is a lit­tle cooler for be­ing re­lated,” an­a­lyst Brin­ley said.

The Rap­tor, Power Wagon and Bi­son are all at or near the top of their trucks’ model lines. In con­trast, the new 2019 Ram 1500 and Chevy Sil­ver­ado have of­froad mod­els in the mid­dle of their price ranges in a bid for a broader au­di­ence.

The Sil­ver­ado has two Trail Boss mod­els that come with a 2-inch lift for bet­ter ground clear­ance, lock­ing rear dif­fer­en­tial for trac­tion, and off-road shocks and tires. Prices start at $39,500.

“We use the same phi­los­o­phy for per­for­mance cars and trucks,” Dick­ens said. “We de­fine the per­for­mance needs – what the cus­tomer will do, then make sure we nail it.”

The new Ram 1500’s Rebel off-roader starts at $44,795. Fea­tures in­clude a lock­ing rear dif­fer­en­tial, 1-inch lift and Bil­stein shocks en­gi­neered for the pun­ish­ment of rough ter­rain.

“It’s all about hav­ing the flex­i­bil­ity to go any­where,” Ram 1500 chief en­gi­neer Mike Ray­mond said. “Pick­ups spend more time off-road than any other kind of ve­hi­cle.” Ranger and Scram­bler join bat­tle: Full-size trucks like the F-150, Sil­ver­ado and Ram 1500 get most of the at­ten­tion when peo­ple talk about pick­ups, but mid­size mod­els are ma­jor play­ers in the off-road game too. That’s be­cause mid­size pick­ups’ lesser width and length let them squeeze through nar­row spa­ces that make fa­mous trails like the Ru­bi­con im­pass­able for full-size trucks.

Toy­ota built its rep­u­ta­tion for dura­bil­ity with com­pact pick­ups be­fore its cars be­came best-sell­ers. The mid­size Ta­coma is the best-sell­ing mid­size pickup to­day thanks in no small part to the abil­ity of its TRD off-road model.

Ford will join the Chevy Colorado’s chal­lenge to the Ta­coma when its Ranger mid­size pickup goes on sale in 2019.

It will fea­ture key tech­nolo­gies the big­ger and more ex­pen­sive Rap­tor al­ready uses, in­clud­ing trail con­trol and mul­ti­ple modes for dif­fer­ent ter­rains.

The com­pe­ti­tion will get more in­tense when Jeep’s mid­size pickup, ex­pected to be called Scram­bler, goes on sale, also in 2019.

“The truck is the most im­por­tant part of the owner’s ad­ven­ture gear,” Ford’s Bell said. “It gets them to their fa­vorite spot for fish­ing kayak­ing or camp­ing.”

CHEVRO­LET

2019 Chevro­let Colorado ZR2 Bi­son

FORD MO­TOR CO.

2019 Ford F-150 Rap­tor

FCA US

2018 Ram 2500 Power Wagon Mo­jave Sand

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