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US pickup trucks pick up speed in a race with imports

The US automobile industry has declared war on import trucks.

In its first 60 days on the road, Chevrolet has sold and delivered more than 12,000 S-10 compact pickups and has 25,000 orders in the bank. ''It's the fastest start for a new truck in Chevrolet history,'' according to Thomas A. Staudt, marketing manager for Chevrolet.

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Chrysler is in hot pursuit of the Japanese with its front-drive, Omni-derived Dodge Rampage; and Ford Motor Company's front-drive Ranger hits the showroom in March as an '83.

Altogether, the domestic automotive trio hopes to make a big dent in the Japanese minitruck business, a market the Japanese have had almost entirely to themselves since they launched it back in the 1960s.

While Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors have bought into several Japanese car companies over the years and begun selling their cars and lightweight trucks , the American companies now want to stamp their own names on the truck boom in their continued search for profitability.

All the US carmakers are bullish on the outlook, but none more so than William Barnes, light-truck sales manager for Ford.

Ford, he says, looks for about 660,000 minitruck sales in calendar year 1982, or 27.2 percent of all truck sales for the year. Fewer than half a million minitrucks were sold in '81. Ultimately, Mr. Barnes expects about half of all truck sales in the United States to be compacts and smaller.

Ford has its eye on the personal-use buyers who, in the late 1970s, were picking up pickups as if they were going out of style, using them as second and third vehicles in lieu of cars. But with the steadily rising price for gas at the time, the trend fell flat.

''Those trucks weren't the most fuel-efficient vehicles in the world,'' Barnes admits, ''and many of them were traded in on small cars. We now think that with high technology and high m.p.g. in the US-made trucks, we can lure some of those personal-use buyers back.''

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Chevrolet's Mr. Staudt sees what he calls a battle royal in the compact-truck market over the next few years.

''The imports are after us,'' he asserts, ''and they're using all their muscle.'' They have dealer-allowance programs and are spending more money for promotion and advertising, for example.

''The word is out in Japan that they need to do something about their ability to take on the S-10,'' says Staudt, speaking of Chevrolet's new compact pickup.

Indeed, no one is taking anything for granted in the forthcoming truck war.

The Ford Ranger, which goes into production this week, comes in two wheelbases (108 and 114 inches) and two box lengths (73.7 and 89.8 inches), and has a payload running from 1,200 to 1,600 pounds, depending on the suspension. It has double-wall box construction, as do all the new US-built super-lightweight trucks, and has all the features that have made Ford Motor Company's pickup trucks such big sellers over the years.

In 1982, Ford will build - and sell, it hopes - about 275,000 Rangers.

Ford has outpaced rival GM in truck sales for the last few years and beat Chevrolet in trucks in model-year 1981 by 62,202 units and calendar-year '81 by 45,000 units. GM isn't giving an inch in 1982, however.

The Chevrolet S-10 comes with two wheelbases, 108 and 118 inches, and two box lengths, 73.7 and 89.8 inches. Payload runs from half a ton up to 1,500 pounds, the heavier weight the more popular at this time. The Japanese-built Chevrolet LUV, also built with two bed lengths, has a payload starting at 1,175 and runs up to 1,680, with an optional stiffer suspension.

The Chevrolet-built S-10 (and the S-15 built by GMC) comes with both a 4 -cylinder engine and a V-6, the only super-light truck with an engine of this size. Highway mileage tops 30 with the automatic-transmission V-6 and nearly 40 with the 4-cylinder manual, according to Staudt of Chevrolet. City-type mileage is in the 20s with both.

S-10 prices start at $6,600 for the short wheelbase and $6,750 for the longer wheelbase.

Chrysler's new front-drive small truck, the Dodge Rampage, base-priced at $6, 698, has a wheelbase of 104.2 inches and an 1,140-pound payload.

All three US-built light trucks will vie head on with the Japanese as well as with the Volkswagen Rabbit pickup. A departure from its competitors, the front-drive Volkswagen pickup truck has a cargo box that is integral with the body and not bolted on, as with all other pickups.

A free-for-all, no-holds-barred battle looms, especially if the auto market turns around later in the year as is expected at this time.

Speaking of the Ranger, Barnes says it ''does just about what the full-size pickups do, and it's a lot more fuel-efficient.'' That, he says, means sales.

Last year the minitrucks took more than 20 percent of the total truck market in the US and, expectedly, the Japanese supplied at least 90 percent of it, including the super-light vehicles sold through the US manufacturers. The rest of it was met by VW and the Jeep division of American Motors.

To help maintain its hold on the minitruck market in the US, Nissan (Datsun) is building an assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., near Nashville.

In 1982, Ford looks for about 660,000 minitruck sales, or 27.2 percent of all anticipated '82 truck sales. As truck sales increase in an ultimately revived motor-vehicle market, the domestic industry expects about half of all truck sales to go to the compacts and minis.

The American public is highly skeptical of what Detroit has to say these days. Perceived quality is low, despite the efforts of carmakers to boost their image.

In fact, the industry has long been attacked for not being at the right place at the right time with its new products. ''If anything,'' Barnes insists, ''we think we are in the right place at the right time this time around.''

While Ranger prices will start at $6,203, Ford expects most of the bamtamweights to go out the door at between $7,400 and $8,800. Wary of loading up the vehicles at a price the public won't pay, proved in the case of Chrysler's K-cars more than a year ago as well as GM's J-cars last spring, Barnes says that a buyer can still get an option-free Ranger at the base price, plus taxes and shipping costs.

''Some of our dealers will order base vehicles because that is what their customers want,'' Barnes stresses. And can they get them? ''Absolutely,'' he insists.

Ranger output starts this week in Louisville at a rate of 75 vehicles an hour in two shifts, about double the normal output. Despite the higher production rate, Barnes claims the quality will be competitive with the imports because of automation. ''That's putting your money where your mouth is,'' he declares.

What about the Japanese-built minitrucks now being sold by Detroit?

''We're going to let the marketplace tell us what happens to the Courier,'' Barnes remarks. ''We'll have it for the foreseeable future.'' Ford expects to offer a diesel engine with the '83-model Courier due out next fall, something the Japanese-built Chevrolet LUV already has.

GM plans to drop the gasoline-engine LUV and stick with the diesel for now.

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