- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

DETROIT (AP) — General Motors Corp. yesterday introduced two redesigned pickups, which the automaker plans to speed to showrooms ahead of their scheduled debuts as it rushes to generate cash and show investors its turnaround plan is working.

The new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra initially were scheduled to go on sale next year. But GM, which is fighting to rebound from a $10.6 billion loss last year, moved the debut up by 13 weeks — a change that should boost 2006 results. Light-duty models now are scheduled to go on sale in the fall, while heavy-duty models will hit showrooms in the winter.

The trucks feature completely revamped exteriors and interiors, as well as new powertrain, chassis and safety systems. It is the first time they have been redesigned since 1999.

Though sales of trucks have slumped this year, they continue to be a key part of the lineup for U.S. automakers. Including sport utility vehicles, trucks account for the vast majority of vehicles sold by U.S. automakers and have far higher margins than cars.

Although Ford Motor Co. has the top-selling pickup with the F-Series, the combined sales of the Silverado and Sierra are greater. Last year, GM sold more than 935,000 of them.

Ford said yesterday that it has lowered the suggested retail prices for its F-150 pickup-truck product line by as much as $1,400.

The move underscores the pressure on Ford’s position as the pickup-truck leader, with segment sales softening from high gas prices and competitors offering new products.

Ford is trying to repeat its performance from last year, when it sold 900,000 F-Series pickup trucks. But the automaker is behind that pace this year, with F-Series sales down 12.3 percent through July, at 469,159. Ford executives have acknowledged that goal will be a challenge because of high gasoline prices and other economic factors, such as high interest rates, weighing on consumers.

GM is touting the new designs as “sleeker and more aerodynamic,” with reduced wind noise and more storage space.

“While power, pulling and payload used to define the full-size truck segment, today that’s the price of entry, and consumers demand more,” said Gary White, GM North America vice president and vehicle line executive for full-size trucks.

The new trucks are important because pickups are “bread-and-butter, margin-producing, huge-loyalty” vehicles for U.S. automakers, said Jim Sanfilippo, senior industry analyst for Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. “They are as American as you can get.”

But the segment is getting tougher. High gas prices are pushing down truck sales this year, and Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group are facing increasing competition from Asian manufacturers. The Nissan Titan, for example, has gotten high marks among large pickups, and GM’s new models will be facing off with a redesigned Toyota Tundra, which goes on sale early next year.

GM is in talks with Nissan Motor Co. of Japan and Renault SA of France about the possibility of joining their global alliance.

The idea to join the alliance came from billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, who holds a 9.9 percent stake in GM. The proposal has fueled speculation that Mr. Kerkorian is dissatisfied with the pace of the turnaround under Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner and wants to carve out a role for Nissan and Renault Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn, a turnaround specialist in the industry.

But last week, GM released an earnings report that blew away Wall Street and bolstered management’s claim that the turnaround is working.

Nissan, on the other hand, acknowledged during its quarterly earnings report last week that it was selling fewer vehicles around the world because of a dearth of new models.

Some have been skeptical about what Nissan may have to gain from taking on GM at a time when Nissan needs to focus on its own difficulties. Nissan shares have dipped since the talks with GM surfaced, underlining such doubts.

GM shares rose 31 cents to close at $31.61 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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