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It’s a pickup truck showdown at the Detroit Auto Show

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Ram versus Chevy Silverado

photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

When I was a teenager, my dad thought it would be a great idea to bring my mom and I along as his guests to the annual Farm Bureau convention. That year it was held in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s hard to find a more authentic urban locale to experience agrarian culture than the land of line dancing. My dad wasn’t a farmer, though he secretly dreamed of being one. Instead, he invented a marketing campaign that allowed him to make friends with farmers all over the country. Every year, as part of Dodge’s sponsorship of the Young Farmers of America, he gave a free Ram pickup truck to one lucky member of the organization that had an award-winning bright idea about the future of agriculture. When it comes to farmers, talking about pickup trucks makes them swoon. Two of my dad’s loves, Chrysler Company — where he worked for 30 plus years — and cowboy boots, had finally come together. He wanted us to come along to share in his delight, and also because farmers tend to be family-friendly people.

Despite my teenager mortification about all things attached to country music culture, I learned a lot about farmers and their trucks watching my dad talk shop at the convention. The farmers circled him for hours, and I soon gained an appreciation for payload, and his ability to persuade Ford and GM customers that his Ram had something to offer as they entertained him with stories about their crops. What I learned still holds true and explains why when it comes to the most consistent customers in the truck market, the details are essential. For farmers, construction workers, artists, surfers, ski bums, and skilled tradespeople, their pickup trucks are essential to their livelihoods. The truck that’s most attuned to their personal needs wins, and serves as a symbol of personal autonomy. The only way to woo pickup truck owners is to convince them that a different truck can make their lives even better.

Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

It’s a tall task, but a psychographic that’s more important than ever to the auto industry in the year 2018.

Last year, the top three vehicles sold in America were pickup trucks. Two out of three of those trucks revealed new generations at the North American International Auto Show — the Chevy Silverado and the Ram. News about the number one selling truck — the F-150 Hybrid and its potential ability to provide electric power to a job site — was teased by Ford. Ford also re-introduced the Ranger, its mid-sized truck offering. While some auto shows focus on sports cars or concepts, the 2018 Detroit show is all about the real cash cow: the pickup truck.

The stakes are high in the lucrative truck market, where company profit margins are flush. If you’re not into trucking, it’s hard to understand what all the hoopla is about. Pickup trucks have exterior cues that make them very similar looking from one generation to the next, and for devotees of the Big Three, those exterior shapes don’t change much. That’s the point. Truck customers tend to be loyal people. But what actual truck customers obsess over are the details that have to do with moving big things that empower their lives.

How much you can tow — the Ram can hoist 2,300 pounds, and tow up to 12,750 pounds — and how much you can carry — the Silverado says its class-leading at 63 cubic feet of volume — is everything to a truck customer. The ability to handle rough terrain and a bed that’s well crafted and functional overall is key. Ram markets this in an off-road package that includes hill-descent control, a one-inch lift, and electronic locking rear axle. Silverado brags that it has improved its high-strength steel bed.

While pickup trucks aren’t known for efficiency, that’s beginning to change as automakers must adhere to fuel-saving regulations. Both Ram and Chevy highlight their new lighter-weight technology which improves on efficiency. The Ram reduces weight by 225 pounds. Chevy sheds 450 pounds compared to the last generation. It’s also important that they reinsure customers that their trucks retain durability, as those materials get lighter, and they both go to great lengths to explain how strong high-strength steel really is.

photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

Pickup truck owners tend to be incredibly specific and particular about the options they seek for their rough and tumble activities. There’s no one-fit transmission or engine option. It’s why there are so many choices on the Silverado in eight different trim packages. If you’re not into pickup trucks it’s hard to see the rationale for so many choices in the number of cargo bins, but these things are critical to serious pickup truck customers. In some ways, tech features introduced on the Ram like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay paired with Uconnect 8.4-inch and 12-inch touchscreens are gravy compared to the functional necessities of trucks. (Silverado already had these features available.) More clever uses of existing tech, like a 360 camera, could resonate with truck customers who are looking for trucks that make getting the job done easier. And for long days on the road, maximum USB ports and the option for the integrated wireless charging pad seem like they’ll be well received.

So which new truck wins the pickup truck war? That’s a personal question that comes down to the savvy truck customer who has a long list of requirements. The battles will take place in the dealerships over the course of this year. Unlike the prospective truck owners, my vote is purely sentimental and not at all based on practicality. We still have my dad’s silver Ram 1500 pickup truck, which was almost new when he died in 2016. When I see that big 1500 Ram standing proud on the floor at the Detroit Auto Show, for a second my heart swoons. I remember many different Rams barreling up our driveway, which always meant my dad was coming home.