DETROIT – Just as Roy Roberts took the wheel at General Motors’ GMC Truck division last October, his competitors stepped on the accelerator for him.
Chrysler’s Jeep Grand Cherokee began to come into its own in the sport utility market and Toyota released its T100 pickup that experts say has the quality to steal sales from Detroit’s Big Three.
To make the race even tighter, Chrysler’s Dodge division unveiled a new full-size pickup this week at the 1993 North American International Auto Show. The truck is aimed directly at Chevrolet, Ford and GMC customers.
But Roberts, a former top executive at GM’s Cadillac division, is undaunted by what is becoming a burgeoning field of competitors in a truck market that once was viewed as strictly American and largely for the commercial customer.
“It’s a crowded marketplace,” said Roberts. “There are more and more entries every day. But we don’t turn our back on that.
“I think good competition can make you great. We really feel good about what’s happening to us. We have moved from 6.9 percent of the market to 7.4 percent, and we think we’ll do even better this year.”
Roberts can be thankful that GM did not put him in the race with an empty fuel tank.
With all its products combined, GMC sold 359,000 units in 1992, posting its third best year ever in a year when most in the industry struggled for survival.
Even though its parent GM found itself awash in red ink, GMC Truck turned a profit, contributing positive cash flow to the company’s beleaguered balance sheet, Roberts said.
GMC Truck’s sales jumped 18 percent in 1992, with sales of its Jimmy sport utility improving 60 percent and sales of its flagship Suburban improving 180 percent.
Full-size truck sales were up 21 percent for the year at GMC.
Analysts say the task for Roberts and other pickup truck and sport utility makers in the future will be to differentiate themselves from the crowded field of competitors.
While Ford, Chevy and GMC once ruled in full-size trucks, entries from Dodge and Toyota will fuel competition and maybe even force other companies to enter the battle.
But Roberts has seen this kind of competition before.
At Cadillac, he was part of an executive team that found itself under fire from Japan and Europe and had to come up with products that could outgun BMW, Infiniti and Lexus.
Cadillac’s Seville and Eldorado met the challenge.
On the horizon at GMC are a new compact pickup for 1994 and a new sport utility for 1995 based on the new C/K pickups GM released a year ago.
Roberts can’t talk about the content of the new sport utility for competitive reasons, but it’s expected to contain the latest driving and safety enhancements GM has in its arsenal.
In fact, many of the features may be those developed at Roberts’ old employer Cadillac, such as the sophisticated traction control, antilock brakes and speed-sensitive steering systems found on the Allante and other Cadillac entries.
“We’re looking at every feature that you might find on a passenger car for application on a truck,” he said. “We’re going to design a truck that the customers say makes sense.”
GMC sees the sport utility market expanding well past the 1 million ceiling some analysts have projected it to achieve in 1995.
Ray Rota, GMC sales manager, says sport utility vehicles will continue to grow in popularity as long as people see advantages to their design when compared with station wagons and minivans.
Analysts have said that sport utilities, or SUVs, appeal mainly to an affluent buyer who desires either off-road capability or a more rugged station wagon package that doesn’t denote a “married with children” image.
The more than 1 million visitors expected at this year’s auto show in Detroit will see a concept truck GMC calls the Sante Fe, a half-ton full-size pickup with the popular combination of extended cab and sportside box.
The truck’s exterior is a rounded and muscular design that flows into the cab with an integrated one-piece running board extending the length of the truck on both sides.
A one-piece fiberglass tonneau cover is uniquely attached to the sportside box by hinges for easier access.
Side mirrors incorporate turn signals on mirror glass visible to rear traffic. The Sante Fe has an integrated brush grille and the front bumper fascia include projector road lamps, tow hooks and a winch tunneled into the design.
The concept truck is powered by a 5.7 liter V8 that produces 210 horsepower.
Roberts said a truck with some of the ideas expressed on the Sante Fe would help set GMC products apart from its competition and from Chevrolet.
He added that the popular rumor at this year’s show – that GM would supply Toyota with a V8 for its T100 pickup – had no basis in fact.
“Let me put it to you this way,” he said. “If you and I get in a fight and I have two sticks and you don’t have any, I’m not going to give you one of mine.”
Jan 12, 1993
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
CREDIT: Towle, Michael D.