You’ll rarely see a Ford F-450 in the front of a showroom. A Chevrolet Silverado HD or Ram 3500 won’t get a high-profile celebrity endorsement.
But the heavy-duty pickups are ubiquitous at construction sites and in commercial fleets. They haul concrete, plow snow and rake in major profits.
Ford says its commercial vehicle business — which also includes its Transit and Transit Connect vans — earned $10 billion in 2017 on $72 billion in revenue, for a profit margin of 14 percent. If it were a standalone company, it would be a Fortune 40 business bigger than Procter & Gamble.
The big bucks spent in the heavy-duty segment have created a heavyweight brawl as the Detroit 3 race to gain a competitive edge by boosting their trucks’ capabilities and adding technology once reserved for luxury brands.
Ford, the dominant player, showed a freshened Super Duty at the Chicago Auto Show that features advanced driver-assistance technology and new powertrains it claims will make the model its most powerful. GM, eager to eat into Ford’s lead, is adding trims and options to its redesigned Silverado HD and GMC Sierra HD lineups. And Fiat Chrysler Automobiles promised 1,000 pound-feet of torque along with lush interiors on its redesigned Ram 2500 and 3500 HD trucks that debuted at last month’s Detroit auto show.
“These are kind of the unsung heroes of our portfolio,” Kumar Galhotra, Ford’s president of North America, said during a media briefing on the freshened Super Duty. “They don’t get as many headlines, but they’re really strong in terms of growth, in terms of market share, in terms of revenue generation and, most importantly, in terms of profitability.”
Ford’s Super Duty pickups — which include the F-250, F-350 and F-450 — have been steadily updated since their introduction in 1999.
The freshened 2020 model will debut the third-generation 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel alongside a new 7.3-liter V-8 engine and updated 6.2-liter V-8.
A new 10-speed transmission, which replaces a six-speed, is better for towing, Ford said, adding that the Super Duty will be the only vehicle in the segment to offer live-drive power takeoff, which allows the operator to engage snowplows and other equipment while driving.
Although executives declined to offer specific figures, they said the new powertrains will improve power, payload and towing capability, critical stats for the companies that most use the brawny pickups.
In the last 10 years, Ford’s maximum towing capability has jumped roughly 10,000 pounds, a spokesman said. The 2019 F-450 can tow up to 35,000 pounds with its diesel engine. Ford would not get into specifics on the 2020 Super Duty, saying only that the rating would increase.
Rivals are just catching up to Ford’s towing figure.
GM’s redesigned heavy-duty pickups, when equipped with an optional 6.6-liter diesel V-8 rated at 445 hp and 910 pound-feet of torque, will be able to tow up to 35,500 pounds — an increase of more than 50 percent from the outgoing models.
The redesigned Ram, meanwhile, can tow up to 35,100 pounds.
GM’s heavy-duty pickups will offer a 6.6-liter gasoline V-8 with direct injection producing 401 hp and 464 pound-feet of torque. That’s 11 percent more horsepower and a 22 percent increase in peak torque, resulting in 18 percent more towing capability — 17,400 pounds — according to GM. It replaces a 6.0-liter gasoline V-8 that delivered 360 hp and 380 pound-feet of torque.
The Silverado models, when they arrive in showrooms midyear, will be available in five trim levels, including the loaded-up LTZ and High Country versions, across 22 cab, bed, chassis and driveline configurations. The Sierra HD lineup includes the high-end Denali and the AT4 version targeting off-roaders. Both vehicles will be offered in dual-rear-wheel and single-rear-wheel configurations.
Ram, meanwhile, is hanging its hat on its four-digit torque figure. The 1,000 pound-feet for the Ram 3500’s new 6.7-liter Cummins turbodiesel engine is a milestone for the segment that bests GM’s upcoming 910 pound-feet.
Although Ford has not revealed the 2020 model’s torque rating, Ram for the moment edges Ford’s outgoing Power Stroke diesel V-8, which has a torque rating of 935 pound-feet.
In addition to capability, technology enhancements and interior improvements have made Detroit’s heavy-duty pickups nearly as luxurious as some premium brands — and nearly as pricey.
The trend began in the early 2000s when Ford added a leather-laced King Ranch trim to the Super Duty lineup.
Ram has followed suit, adding ample leather and wood to its latest models, as well as a 12-inch touch screen option.
Ford’s newest Super Duty pickups will come with an optional pro-trailer backup assist feature that is used on the smaller F-150. The class-exclusive feature lets drivers steer a trailer via a reverse camera that can handle all styles, including fifth wheels and goosenecks.
They also get lane-keep assist, emergency braking with pedestrian detection and blind-spot monitoring technology. The features are standard on XLT and higher trims and were designed specifically for vehicles meant to haul heavy loads.
Ford also added new drive modes, including Eco, Slippery and Sand/Mud. The trucks come with an embedded 4G LTE modem and Wi-Fi.
“Driver assistance technology is probably more relevant to our commercial customers than anyone else,” said Mike Pruitt, Super Duty’s chief engineer. “When your truck is your livelihood, its not just yourself you’re protecting, it’s your assets.”
Vince Bond Jr. and Michael Wayland contributed to this report.