The domestics have made considerable progress in developing and marketing cars and crossovers. But their bottom lines remain intimately linked to the sales of big pickup trucks.
Just how crucial those highly profitable, full-size pickups are was underscored by Chris Perry, vice president for Chevrolet global marketing, at a recent regional preview of Chevy's all-new big pickup, the 2014 Silverado.
"We'll have 13 all-new or significantly redesigned vehicles coming out this year," Perry told me. "That means a lot of important launches. But this is the most important to Chevrolet - and GM."
The stats bear that out. The 418,312 Silverados sold in 2012 represented 24.3 percent of Chevy's U.S. sales and 25.2 percent of the big pickup market, the country's fourth-largest vehicle segment. That segment share grew to 26.3 percent in the first four months of 2013, according to Perry, and should get even bigger, given the market's pent-up demand and the fact that Chevrolet is about to start selling a significantly improved 2014 Silverado at 2013 prices.
Indeed, this new truck comes out of hood-to-hitch surgery quieter, better riding, better handling, and more fuel-efficient than its predecessor. The 2014 innovations include three new, all-aluminum engines - two V-8s and a V-6 - each of them fitted with direct injection, variable valve timing, and cylinder deactivation, which saves gas by allowing the engine to run on four cylinders instead of six or eight when in lower-load situations like cruising on a level road.
There will also be a new "double cab" Silverado that replaces the extended-cab model. Fitted with four conventional doors, it amounts to a crew cab model with a bit less rear seat space and a $3,000 reduction in price.
The new Silverado, to start at about $24,000 for a rear-drive, regular cab model, will be offered initially as a crew cab with a 5.3-liter, 355-horsepower V-8. (Launching the crew cab first makes sense, since it represents 59 percent of pickup sales.) These guys will be in the showroom around the end of the month.
The crew cab, which starts at $31,715, will be joined this summer by the regular and double cab models. Summer will also see the advent of Silverados equipped with the new 285-horse V-6. Late in the year, we'll see the debut of the new 6.2-liter V-8. This engine's power rating is on a need-to-know basis, and so far only James Bond and Jeff Luke, Chevy's chief truck engineer, need to know.
A late 2013 debut is also planned for a new, high-end version of the crew cab called, reasonably enough, the High Country.
The upgraded engines give Chevy a few bragging rights. The 5.3-liter V-8 delivers an EPA highway rating of 23 m.p.g., which beats any pickup V-8 as well as Ford's vaunted EcoBoost V-6. The Silverado V-6's numbers, unannounced as yet, should be even better.
The V-6 and the 5.3-liter V-8 also win the towing sweepstakes with capacities of 7,200 and 11,500 pounds, respectively.
I towed a two-horse trailer with a V-8 crew cab tester, then took a highway cruise in a V-6 pulling a 27-foot camper. Neither vehicle seemed to mind the load.
Driving the V-8 crew cab proved quite pleasant. The myriad ways the engineers strengthened and quieted the body paid off. In addition to the quietude, the crew cab rode and handled exceptionally well.
The interior was comfortable, straightforward, and useful.
"This is the largest console known to man," said a smiling Chris Hilts, Chevy's creative design manager for full-size trucks.
Other nice features included steps built into the corners of the back bumper, and a tailgate that gradually lowered itself.