There’s been a disturbance in the Force. Pickup truck owners are increasingly less satisfied with their purchasing decisions and are more likely to jump ship to a smaller vehicle than ever before. The primary culprit is the astronomical pricing of the average new pickup. And believe it or not, fuel economy is another concern, even as American drivers continue to enjoy relatively cheap gasoline. Should automakers be worried? Maybe.
It’s no secret that new vehicle prices are on the rise. But the idea that current and former truck owners are unhappy with their purchasing decisions and the state of the segment in general is a relatively new revelation, although it’s hardly shocking. It’s been in the zeitgeist recently due to a CarGurus survey that asked truck owners how they felt about their ownership experience. The results aren’t pretty: 68 percent of those polled thought their rides were priced too high.
Their dissatisfaction is understandable. The average transaction price on a modern pickup is about $50,000. And what do buyers get for spending that much? Essentially a mid range model that contains only a fraction of the equipment they’d find on a similarly priced luxury crossover or sedan. Of course it’s well known that the full size pickup is generally offered with substantial discounts, but most truck buyers opt to finance, not lease, which means their monthly payments will be higher.
In addition to current prices, owners expressed concern over the potential price increase of future models. 70 percent would ditch their brand if they raised prices by $10,000. And price is the main reason why owners consider switching to another automaker.
Fuel economy is another area of concern for truck owners. 42 percent of former truck owners cited fuel efficiency as the main reason why they weren’t happy with their vehicle. And 37 percent of them decided to ditch their trucks for a crossover. 35 percent felt a sedan would better suit their needs.
This general discontent with trucks makes 17 percent of current truck owners unwilling to replace their current pickup with another one, regardless of make or model. Reading between the lines, I suspect owners who depend on their trucks for their livelihood are dismayed at the higher prices of the entry level models while drivers who use their pickups as a commuter vehicle dislike their fuel bills. And people who purchased high end pickups may come to regret their decision once they compare their trucks to something like a dedicated luxury vehicle.
Is the collapse of the pickup truck imminent? No. CarGurus collected data from just over 1,000 current and former truck owners but did not divulge any other details about the respondents. That means we have no idea how much they paid for their pickups. We also don’t know how many of those owners were first time buyers. It’s entirely possible that truck newbies disproportionately want to switch to something smaller after they get the experience of owning a pickup out of their system.
With the variability of national incentives and the take home prices of vehicles in general, I’m not going to discuss what exactly you could get for about 50K dollars. Instead I’m going to talk about the fuel economy situation a pickup owner faces when considering a replacement vehicle. The EPA’s official website is a very good tool for this exercise as it lets users personalize different scenarios for comparative purposes. I set this particular comparison to 60 percent highway use with 15,000 miles per year driven. If a loyal Ford owner wants to downsize they obviously have some options. But if they want to get a smaller Ford while retaining some four wheel traction, the fuel economy advantage is basically nil, at least with current gasoline prices. I’m not sure $300 per year is a strong enough reason to switch. Of course, there are other quality of life issues that a Fusion or Escape can solve. But for right now, a Ford loyalist would be wise to wait for the Escape and Explorer 4X4 hybrids that should be at dealerships in decent numbers by the end of the year.
Here’s a different scenario. What if an F-150 driver still wanted a truck like vehicle but wanted something more fuel efficient? The bad news is that there really isn’t anything like that available right now. The Ranger has the most fuel efficient non-diesel powertrain in its class and yet it basically just matches its bigger sibling in fuel efficiency. The Ram, which has a mild hybrid system, is in the same boat. Even the Ridgeline, which is basically a Pilot with a chopped roof on an Accord platform, does not have any sort of advantage in terms of fuel economy. I suspect aerodynamics are the culprit here.
Even something like a Subaru Outback fails to provide substantial savings. A pickup owner making the switch to a Prius could save a lot of money in annual fuel costs. But that would come at the expense of a more capable all wheel drive vehicle since the Toyota has an electronic system that is somewhat limited.
Overall it seems like some type of alternative energy vehicle would be the best replacement for a truck owner who wants to notice a substantially smaller fuel bill at every fill up. The best option for utility would be a Nissan Rogue Hybrid, as it offers a decent amount of fuel savings while retaining a mechanical all wheel drive system. The next best option would be a Tesla, which would significantly diminish any bill for energy consumption, at least when it comes to transportation. And of course there are tons of choices for truck owners who are fine with a two wheel drive vehicle.
Is there a silent majority of truck owners yearning to trade in their rides for something else? Maybe. Should automakers be concerned? That remains to be seen. And this Q1 sales chart from Good Car Bad Car isn’t as bad as it first looks. The only trucks suffering from negative year-over-year growth are models that either haven’t been well received or ones that are overdue for an overhaul. Automakers will most likely retain their pickup customers if they exercise restraint with price increases and if they introduce more fuel efficient pickup variants.
At the very least, this survey is probably a good indicator that there is a market for hybrid crossovers with mechanical all wheel drive systems. It also makes the case for Ford’s future Courier, which will essentially be a pickup based on the Transit Connect.
The overall health of the pickup truck segment depends largely on two things: first time buyers and the retention of current owners. According to the CarGurus survey, it seems like the latter group may be pushed into other types of vehicles if trucks shoot up in price or if gasoline prices increase. As for feature content, I suspect demand at the higher end of the market will continue to resemble the situation that pertains to luxury customers as outlined last month by Doug DeMuro. Basically, customers at the higher end are more concerned with what the car represents than what type of content is contained within. And that will be the status quo until we see the fully electric pickup trucks from Rivian and Ford.
2019 Truck Sentiment Survey – CarGurus
“That Swanky $70,000 Pickup Might Not Be Worth It” – Kyle Stock, Bloomberg
“Pickups are pricing out the average new vehicle buyer” – Jamie L. LaReau, Detroit Free Press