Business

How trucks became America's new luxury status symbol

Morgan Korn, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Isaac Marchionna had always been a loyal SUV owner until he upgraded his Toyota 4Runner to a Ford F-150 Raptor, a massive truck with 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque, three years ago.

Marchionna, who lives in Oregon, originally bought the $72,000 pickup to go off-roading in the Baja California desert. He soon realized that the Raptor had all the creature comforts he sought in a daily driver.

“It’s aggressive and can bomb through a desert … but drives like a big car, handles very easily and is a very plush ride,” he told ABC News. “Just a pleasant driving experience around town.”

Trucks have definitely become the “it” vehicle in the U.S., according to Ivan Drury, a senior manager at Edmunds. They now come equipped with features that once made luxury vehicles stand out. Plus, towing capabilities and bed size have increased in the latest generations.

“Automakers are adding everything — heated and ventilated seats in the front and rear, 360-degree cameras, adaptive cruise control,” Drury told ABC News. “Trucks make your life easier and are more practical than an SUV.”

Sales of trucks have exploded in recent years. They account for 20% of the U.S. automotive market, up from 13% in 2012, according to Edmunds data. Prices have also skyrocketed: the average transaction price of a truck in 2005 was $29,390. Today, consumers are spending $54,564 on average, though trucks can easily top out at — or exceed — six figures.

“I used to think spending $50K or $60K on a truck was outrageous. Now there are $100K pickups,” Tony Quiroga, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver, told ABC News. “Automakers keep producing models that are more and more expensive and there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the appetite.”

When General Motors opened reservations for its $112,595 GMC Edition 1 Hummer EV pickup last October, all units were sold out within 10 minutes, the company said. The muscular EV, a modern take on the former gas-guzzling ute, still commands attention from motorists with its bold, athletic exterior design. The Hummer’s three electric motors and battery pack produce 1,000 hp and 1,200 lb-ft of torque. The truck’s engineers and designers, however, paid as much attention to the interior and ride quality as the insane performance numbers.

Inside are crisp graphics on two large screens and multiple storage cubbies to hold items. GM said 70% of drivers who made a reservation are new to EVs.

“The way we’ve executed this truck … anyone could drive this,” Brian Malczewski, lead exterior designer of the Hummer EV, told ABC News. “All my friends and family just loved it, regardless of gender.”

Automakers have made trucks so attractive to nontraditional owners — roomy cabins, massage seats, 14-inch screens — that a growing number of families and women are choosing them over SUVs as their primary vehicle, said Andre Smirnov, managing editor at TFLtruck.com. Trucks are no longer utilitarian vehicles with two doors and a flatbed, he pointed out.

“They’re more capable off-road, more maneuverable … and some have noise cancellation,” Smirnov told ABC News. “A truck 20 years ago would rattle and be loud. Now it’s as quiet as a whisper inside.”

He added, “A pickup truck lets a person or family have the ability to do anything or go anywhere. Trucks can absolutely be a status symbol.”

Trucks have an average mpg of 17, according to government data. Quiroga sees America’s fascination with them screeching to a halt if fuel prices keep climbing higher.

“With gas at $4 to $7 a gallon, I don’t know how long the demand will last,” he conceded. “When you add the cost of gasoline to the monthly payment, a truck is outrageously expensive.”

Smirnov said high fuel prices may push some wannabe truck owners toward electrics like the Hummer, Rivian R1T, Ford F-150 Lightning or smaller pickups with hybrid powertrains.

The Ram 1500 TRX — a beast of a truck with 35-inch tires, 702 hp, 650 lb-ft of torque and a 6.2L supercharged Hemi V8 engine — can launch from 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds or cruise comfortably at legal speeds like a family hauler. The $72,390 truck can easily hit $100,000 with added options and towing packages and gets a combined 12 mpg rating from the EPA.

“Demand for the TRX has never been higher — it’s in incredible demand,” Brant Combs, senior manager for Ram 1500, told ABC News. “More people want a TRX than ever before.”

The TRX’s “wild” performance numbers may be a draw for some drivers, Combs acknowledged. It’s the truck’s everyday abilities, however, that really sell the TRX, he said: the prodigious storage space, multiple USB adapters, rear reclining seats and premium leather, to name a few.

“It has the comfort and safety features … a great truck for suburban daily use,” Combs said.

Toyota and Chevrolet recently launched two new trucks to get a bigger piece of the red-hot market. The revamped Tundra, available in seven trim levels, has a starting price of $35,950. Customers can opt for the fully loaded Capstone model ($74,230) that features 22-inch machine-finish alloy wheels, walnut wood trim, acoustic glass on the front door and leather trimmed 10-way power-adjustable front seats.

“We’re thrilled with the response from customers on Tundra. We have sold every Tundra that has been built so far,” a Toyota spokesperson told ABC News.

Chevrolet’s formidable Silverado Crew 1500 ZR2, with its naturally aspirated 6.2L V8 engine (420 hp, 460 lb-ft of torque), starts at $71,000 and has many of the perks drivers are requesting: four-wheel drive, head-up display, a rear camera mirror, adaptive cruise control and a 13.4-inch infotainment system that’s compatible with Amazon Alexa.

Ford, which started the high-performance truck craze a decade ago with the F-150 Raptor, confirmed that a Raptor R version with even more power and torque will soon go into production.

Demand for trucks has even been rising in suburbs and cities like San Francisco, pockets of the country that have long preferred EVs and SUVs to brawny work-type vehicles, Drury said. On his commute to Edmunds’ office in Santa Monica, California, Drury recalled one residence that had a Rolls-Royce parked next to an F-150 Raptor.

“The number of lifestyle truck owners is up across the board,” Drury said. “A lot of it is bragging rights. This is an expanding market — not a contracting one.”

Drury himself joined the truck bandwagon in 2020, selling his SUV for one. He recently convinced his brother to trade in his Toyota Camry for a Raptor.

“The stigma is gone. Trucks ride so much better than they used to,” he said. “Once you purchase a pickup, it’s very difficult to go back. I am 100% a truck guy now.”

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