Chrysler and Ford are testing the limits of truck buyers' appetite for pickups loaded with leather, chrome and heated seats at price tags that can top $50,000. It took just three days for dealers to snap up the full year's allotment of Chrysler's new luxury-trim Ram Laramie Limited pickups, brand President Fred Diaz says. And Ford, whose F-Series has been the top-selling vehicle line in the U.S. for 30 years, is adding a Limited luxury model later this year.
"I don't know if you can put enough bells and whistles on trucks," says Hayden Elder, the owner of a Chrysler dealership in Athens, Texas, 75 miles southeast of Dallas. "In my mind, I never have enough high-end trucks."
The interest in luxury pickups suggests underlying strength in the U.S. auto market. There had been concern that putting too much emphasis on higher-profit trucks could backfire if sales deteriorated, according to Itay Michaeli, an analyst at Citigroup. While light trucks have lost 1.6 percentage points of U.S. share this year, used-pickup pricing has remained stable, and the number of long-lasting trucks on U.S. roads continues to climb, he says.
"Automakers are warming up to the view that there is potentially far more pent-up demand for pickups than commonly believed," says Michaeli.
Chrysler began production of the Ram 1500 Laramie Limited in June. With a heated steering wheel, ventilated front seats and heated rear seats, it displaces the Laramie Longhorn as Chrysler's most expensive truck.
Equipped with extra chrome and cowboy-boot-inspired leather stitching, the Longhorn helped boost Chrysler's pricing last year. About 13 percent of light-duty Ram pickups sold for at least $40,000, up from 9 percent in 2010. Among heavy-duty Rams, 29 percent sold for at least $50,000 in 2011, up from 22 percent a year earlier.
"That gave us the rationale and a business case to build Limited," says Diaz, the brand chief. "There are guys in New York, in Florida, in the Midwest and in the Northwest who aren't exactly into that cowboy, Southwestern, barbed-wire feel."
With all of the Laramie Limited trucks scheduled to be built this year already spoken for by dealers across the country, Chrysler is working with parts suppliers to try to boost production, Diaz says.
Chrysler says the Laramie Limited is a "Platinum fighter," a reference to Ford's F-Series Platinum, which has heated and cooled power front seats in black or pecan leather, along with Ford's SYNC voice-controlled infotainment system. Later this year, Ford plans to add a fancier model called the Limited, with rain-sensing windshield wipers, 22-inch wheels and red-and-black interior leather seats.
When Ford introduced the Platinum for the 2009 model year, the company expected it would account for about 3 percent of F-150 sales, says Doug Scott, marketing manager for Ford truck. Platinum has more than doubled the company's forecast by consistently making up at least 6 percent of the F-150 mix, he says.
A $40,000-plus King Ranch edition of the F-Series caters to Texas tastes with its 8-inch touch screen, SYNC infotainment hub and dual USB ports amid the black interior with woodgrain appliqués. More interested in snakeskin leather accents? Check out the Ford Harley-Davidson F-150, which starts around $50,000.
"The truck market, maybe a little less so today but in general over this last three- or four-year period," Scott says, "has been made up of a higher mix of more-affluent people."