A Remodeler and His Truck

The relationship between a remodeler and his or her truck is complex. On the one hand, the vehicle is supposed to be a work truck, a practical vehicle. On the other, like other tools, a person’s truck reflects his or her professional status. To outsiders, it also conveys an image of the business it represents. Parked at a jobsite or lumberyard, it’s a moveable billboard or an eyesore.

“Pickup trucks are a staple for remodelers,” says Richard Miller, regional product manager, trucks and SUVs, product planning, with Franklin, Tenn.-based Nissan North America, although he allows that remodelers in regions that get a lot of rain or inclement weather tend to gravitate toward vans.

“When we look at what [remodelers are] looking for in a vehicle, it’s an extension of their own personality, but also an extension of their company,” Miller says of the focus groups Nissan has conducted. “They want it to look professional, but they also want it to look like it’s capable and individual. Customers will put on their own custom wheels, or they might do a paint job or a wrap.”

Dual-use Vehicles

For a segment of the pickup market, the truck is a dual-use vehicle, serving a business and personal function. “[Those buyers] don’t have the luxury of having a truck dedicated just for work and another for time off. It’s all the same vehicle; this truck has to meet both needs,” Miller says.

In addition, Miller says: “One of the top purchase reasons is the quality of the vehicle. They’re going to use it very hard; they’re going to put a lot of payload in it or they’re going to tow trailers, so they want them to last a long time. They don’t have the luxury of buying a new one every two or three years.

“[Those buyers] are looking for a dual-use truck they can personalize, giving it a more professional and rugged appearance, and they want quality, durability and reliability,” Miller sums.

“Like most commercial customers, contractors are buying a tool that needs to do a job and deliver a return on their investment. Smart buyers are looking beyond the purchase price to consider all the factors that will affect that return: purchase price, resale, fuel efficiency, repair costs, maintenance costs, fees, taxes, insurance, etc.,” says Dan Tigges, product manager for full-size trucks, GM Fleet and Commercial Operations, Warren, Mich.

Towing and Payload

Towing and payload are important considerations, too. Remodelers who use their trucks for personal transportation in addition to moving material will often have a trailer, Miller says. “They can unhook the trailer, take their truck and go,” he says.

“They always want to have reserve towing capacity,” Miller says. “They may have a 9,000-pound trailer, but they’re not comfortable with a half-ton truck with 10,000-pound towing capacity. They’d rather go with a three-quarter-ton vehicle that can tow 14,000 pounds just in case they need the reserve,” he explains.

Payload is a similar story, he continues. “Contractors don’t want to max out the vehicle and show up at the jobsite looking like they’ve overloaded the truck; it just doesn’t look professional.”

GM’s Tigges cautions that remodelers in the market for a new truck look carefully at towing and payload standards when making a buying decision. Old rules of thumb may not be accurate. “For years, each vehicle manufacturer used their own standards to come up with trailer ratings. For the 2013 model year, original equipment manufacturers worked with the Society of Automotive Engineers to create common standards under SAE J2807 [Performance Requirements for Determining Tow-Vehicle Gross Combination Weight Rating and Trailer Weight Rating]. These new standards reflect real-world conditions and establish a common formula and performance criteria that each vehicle must meet, which will allow for a true apples-to-apples comparison,” he says.

“An important factor is the mass of the vehicle. Too much mass will negatively affect payload and trailer ratings. Customers should look beyond the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) to find efficiently designed trucks that provide higher payloads versus the weight of the truck,” he explains.

The choice between capability and fuel economy is a tough one for remodelers “who make money based on driving their trucks to their jobsites; fuel economy hits their bottom line. But they can’t forget the practical reason they have trucks to begin with: to haul tools and materials,” Miller explains.

Miller notes truck makers are studying a variety of fuel-economy measures while striving to meet emission regulations and acceleration standards expected by truck buyers. V-6 engines are now widely accepted in half-ton trucks, he observes, something that would not have been true five years ago. Hybrids are pretty rare in truck circles, and diesel engines are not an option for half-ton trucks, he adds. Transmissions are being expanded to 7, 8 or even 9 speeds to linearize acceleration and save fuel.

“Better designs have allowed powertrains to perform better and deliver improved fuel economy,” Tigges agrees, noting that GM offers a V-8 engine that turns off four of the eight cylinders when they are not needed and is teamed up with a 6-speed transmission.

“Of course, other factors also contribute to fuel economy, such as better aerodynamics, lighter weight and mass management,” Tigges adds.

Looking Good

In the appearance and amenities area, truck buyers are increasingly choosing options, like leather seats. “It shows they’re making money at their business, that they’re not just getting started but are an established businessperson who can afford some amenities in their truck,“ Miller says. “When they have dusty pants on, they can easily wipe leather upholstery down and clean it up, and it doesn’t absorb odors as easily as cloth.”

Cabin configurations of pickup trucks have evolved significantly in recent years. For half-ton trucks, regular or standard cabs with a single row of seats and two doors are down to about 20 percent of the mix and 17 to 20 percent in the full-size truck market. “That’s been pretty flat for eight or nine years,” Miller says.

Extended-cab trucks, with an extra space behind the main seat have declined to around 20 to 25 percent as well, Miller points out. Crew- or dual-cab trucks, however, with two seats and two full-sized doors on either side have soared in popularity to occupy almost 50 percent of the market.

“Even a hard-core truck guy knows he’s going to have to haul family around sometimes and likes to have a crew-cab truck that can accommodate his kids, family and even his parents, yet still have a bed to haul his gear in,” Miller says.

Crew cabs, therefore, are popular with younger buyers with families. “An empty nester who doesn’t have to haul as many people,” Miller says, “starts thinking maybe he’d rather have an extended cab with a bigger bed.” The person who buys a standard cab truck generally just uses his truck to haul things, not people, and, Miller says, is generally older.

Pickup Alternatives

Pickup trucks are just one part of the truck market that remodelers may want to consider. If a remodeler wants something with a small footprint, fuel economy and maybe a lot of security for tools and materials, Mike Levine, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. truck communications manager, suggests his company’s Transit Connect van, which debuted in 2010 in the small van market.

“It depends on needs, but if remodelers are looking for something that offers a secure enclosure without having to go out and purchase an aftermarket cap for a pickup, then they certainly get that flexibility with Transit Connect because you’ve got all that space in the back,” Levine says, noting the small van has a payload rating of 1,600 pounds, “and that’s greater than some half-ton pickups out there.”

On the subject of vans, Levine reveals Ford’s full-sized E-Series vans will be replaced in 2013 by a new van called the Ford Transit, not to be confused with the smaller Transit Connect. The new Transit is based on Ford vans that have been built and sold in Europe and other markets around the world since 1965. The new, heavy-duty version will be assembled in Kansas City, Mo., the same plant where Ford’s F-150 pickups are produced, Levine says.

The rear-wheel drive van will get 25 percent better fuel economy than a comparable E-Series van, he says, and will use the same V-6, 3.5-liter engine used in the F-150.

Isuzu has exited the pickup market in the U.S. entirely, concentrating on its low cab forward (LCF) vehicles in Class 3 to Class 5 categories. (The Class 3 truck GVWR ranges from 10,001 to 14,000 pounds.) In addition, Isuzu has launched a new walk-in van.

“Ultimately, our truck is a work truck,” says Brian Tabel, retail marketing manager for Anaheim, Calif.-based Isuzu Commercial Truck of America. “The key thing is dependability, getting from point A to point B and back without downtime.”

The typical market for the LCF trucks tends to be larger businesses that find pickups just don’t fit every area of their enterprise. Contractors can select a van body or a chassis cab configuration and add a custom cargo container. Other manufacturers offer similar chassis cab choices with conventional engine/cab configurations.

In keeping with its commercial emphasis and the priorities of those who buy this class of trucks, all Isuzu N-Series diesel engines carry a B10 durability rating of 310,000 miles, meaning 90 percent of these engines should reach that mileage before requiring an overhaul, Tabel explains.

Diesel versus gasoline engines are a significant choice facing remodelers in the market for a new truck. “It’s a question of need,” Ford’s Levine says. “You have to need that diesel engine to justify it. It’s going to most suit the person who is towing heavy trailers. You’ll get better off-the-line performance and better towing performance because of the greater torque.

“Keep in mind there is a price premium for a diesel engine, although you are getting better fuel economy relative to a gas engine, especially when you’re towing,” Levine says. The price premium comes about, he explains, because the construction of a diesel engine must be more robust to handle the compression ratios and because of emissions hardware that is not required on a gasoline engine.

Beyond diesel and gasoline, especially for fleet owners, is compressed natural gas (CNG), which is quite a bit cheaper than gasoline, Levine says. Engines in most of Ford’s vehicles can be prepped with hardened valves and seats to accommodate CNG, and the full powertrain warranty would be honored. Access to a CNG fueling infrastructure, of course, is essential.

At the March National Truck Equipment Association show in Indianapolis, GM unveiled an extended-cab Bi-fuel CNG pickup, which will operate on CNG or gasoline. Orders are being taken and deliveries are expected in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Technology Options

Remodeling contractors frequently find themselves using their trucks as offices, so power outlets for laptops and other devices are often popular, Levine says. He also suggests an option that allows fleet owners to keep tabs on where drivers are and what they’re doing. “Fleet operators have been able to reduce operating costs by up to 20 percent,” he says.

Tigges agrees many commercial customers use their truck as a mobile office, noting GM offers a modem that can make the vehicle a mobile WiFi hot spot. Not only can drivers use their laptops and smartphones inside the vehicle but also within 150 feet of it. “It’s a simple one-wire installation,” he says, “so you can move it to another vehicle if the vehicle is sold or out of service for any reason.”

Vanity and appearance options are important, too. Of particular interest are vinyl wraps that add graphics and text to a vehicle without the need to paint the truck and which can be removed if the truck is sold.

Trucks are more user-friendly, as well. Ford, for example, offers a tailgate step that pops out so drivers don’t have to put a knee on the tailgate to climb into the box. “Let’s say you’ve been remodeling for 20 or 30 years; not everyone wants to drag themselves into the back of the cargo box,” Levine explains.

For remodelers, trucks of one sort or another will always be tools of their trade, and choosing just the right one is not a small task.

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