By Mike Colias 

General Motors Co. in 2020 dethroned rival Ford Motor Co. in Detroit's closely watched "truck wars," securing the top slot in the lucrative market for large pickup trucks.

For the first time since 2016, GM outsold Ford in large pickup trucks, a category that generates the bulk of global profits for each auto maker.

U.S. sales of GM's two pickup models -- the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra -- rose 3.9% last year, to 839,691 trucks, even as industrywide sales sank nearly 15% amid disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic. Ford's F Series line, which includes its F-150 truck as well as the larger Super Duty, fell 12%, to 787,422, the company said Wednesday.

The rivalry among GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's Ram brand -- which combined dominate the U.S. market for large pickups -- has become more intense as that category has grown as a share of the overall vehicle market. Large pickups accounted for 16.7% of overall sales last year, up from 12.5% in 2015.

The trend has bolstered the bottom lines of the Detroit auto makers, helping to fuel a prolonged period of prosperity that only recently was disrupted by the Covid-19 health crisis.

Ford said its F-Series sales were hurt last year by tight inventories due to pandemic-related factory shutdowns in the spring and efforts to overhaul plants to build a new version of its top-selling F-150 model.

Pickup-truck sales historically have accounted for around 70% of Ford's global profit and about half for GM, Barclays estimated in 2019. Large SUVs such as the Chevy Suburban and Cadillac Escalade -- which have the same mechanical guts as trucks -- contribute nearly another quarter of GM's bottom line, the bank estimated.

GM's overall results also outpaced Ford's last year. GM said its U.S. vehicle sales fell 11.8%, while Ford's sales declined 15.8%. Overall, U.S. auto industry's sales dropped 14.6%, to 14.6 million vehicles, according to data provided Wednesday by Motor Intelligence.

While the Covid-19 pandemic crimped overall demand, American buyers dug deeper into their pockets when purchasing new wheels -- especially pickups. The average price paid for a light-duty full-size pickup truck rose 9% last year, to about $45,800, according to J.D. Power.

Ford's F Series line has been the top-selling pickup truck in the U.S. for more than 40 years. GM's trucks are sold under two brands, Chevy and GMC. GM's pickup sales under those two brands have eclipsed total F Series sales in some years historically.

The pecking order in the pickup-truck battle often ebbs and flows with the freshness of the companies' truck lineups.

Ford in recent weeks began rolling out its first redesigned F-150 in about six years. The new model includes a fold-flat, airplane-style front passenger seat and other creature comforts that Ford executives have said will appeal to buyers as people spend more time in their vehicles.

But factory work needed to prepare assembly lines to manufacture the new truck, at plants in Dearborn, Mich., and Kansas City, has limited supplies in recent months, crimping sales, Ford executives have said.

Meanwhile, GM rolled out revamped versions of its Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra in 2019. The company cleared more factory capacity to make larger, pricier versions and a broader selection of distinct models, such as an off-road-specific truck, moves that have boosted sales, executives have said.

The Detroit competitors have long sparred over bragging rights in pickup trucks.

In 2012, Ford threatened to sue after GM aired a Super Bowl commercial that suggested GM's pickup trucks would survive an apocalypse while Ford's wouldn't. This fall, when GM touted a revamped heavy-duty pickup truck as having "best in class" towing capability, Ford publicly disputed the claim.

Fiat Chrysler's Ram brand also has emerged as a more-formidable rival in the truck market.

In 2019, Ram outsold the Chevy Silverado line for the first time (including when the company's pickups were sold under the Dodge name). Silverado sales moved back ahead of Ram's in 2020.

Write to Mike Colias at Mike.Colias@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 06, 2021 13:28 ET (18:28 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.