Pickups vie for off-road supremacy
Hard-core ‘halo vehicles’ make regular-truck counterparts cooler by association
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.”
2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison
2019 Ford F-150 Raptor
2018 Ram 2500 Power Wagon Mojave Sand