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Dodge Aims to Muscle Way Into Full-Size Pickup Battle

May 5, 1993

DETROIT (AP) _ When it comes to full-size pickup trucks, Ford and Chevrolet are by far the most common nameplates on construction sites and farms.

The two titans have battled for years, with sometimes vicious advertising attacks and competing customer rebates.

Dodge hopes to join the fray this summer when it starts making its first all-new full-size pickup in 22 years. Parent Chrysler Corp. is counting on its $1.2 billion investment, radical front-end styling and a strong reputation for engines and transmissions to elevate it from bit-player status.

Chevy and Ford admit to worrying about the new competition in the last high-profit area of the U.S. auto business. Unlike the luxury and small sporty car segments, the full-size pickup market is free of dozens of makers fighting for slivers of share.

With the exception of Toyota, Japanese auto companies have left the big pickup business to the U.S. Big Three. Major reasons: a 25 percent tariff on imported trucks and a lack of demand for them back home in Japan.

Toyota’s T100 entry, much ballyhooed last fall as the first assault in the last area of Big Three dominance, has so far fallen flat. Toyota’s V-6 engine is seen by many as underpowered, and its lack of an extended cab version excludes the fastest-growing group of truck buyers.

The strength of the Japanese yen combined with the added cost of the tariff has boosted the sticker several thousand dollars higher than the competition. Even a $2,000 rebate - an incredible giveback for an all-new vehicle - hasn’t helped sales.

Nobody discounts Toyota in the long run, especially if it finds a place to build the T100 in the United States. But in the near-term, Ford and Chevy are more concerned with the Dodge Ram.

Dodge, which sold about 80,000 full-size pickups last year, is projecting 150,000-160,000 in the first full year of production. Its eventual goal is more than 200,000 annual sales once an optional 300-horsepower V-10 engine and an extended cab are available.

The challenge is going from 7 percent of the market to 16 percent in a segment that’s holding at about 1.1 million annual purchases.

″We do have a strong reputation with our small segment in the truck business,″ said Jeffrey Trimmer, general product manager for Jeep-Dodge Truck Business Operations. ″It’s not like we have to say, ‘Hey, forget the old truck. We’ve fixed all of those problems.’ We didn’t have problems to fix.

″We were just 20 years out of date in styling and creature comfort.″

Getting noticed won’t be hard given the radical styling of the Ram’s front end, which intentionally resembles the heavy trucks on the nation’s highways. Dodge clinics with potential truck buyers found that most people either loved or hated the styling.

″I don’t think either of the competitors could think seriously of doing what we’re doing,″ said Craig Winn, an executive engineer on the Ram project. ″We’re not after volume leadership. We can be very successful at a much smaller share of the market than they have to capture to pay the rent on their plants.″

That explains in part why Ford and Chevy are staying in more regular contact with their F-series and C-K truck owners, offering roadside assistance and other customer-coddling programs. Ford and Chevy count on about 70 percent buyer loyalty. The waffling 30 percent is Dodge’s target.

″We do have respect for the folks over at Chrysler,″ said Kurt Ritter, marketing manager for Chevy Trucks. ″Certainly, they’ve had some successes that said if we didn’t take them seriously, we’d be remiss.″