The Pickup is Growing Up

Given Detroit's history with the pickup, the fact that the North American International Auto Show 2018 was dominated by trucks probably wasn't much of a surprise. All the same, it's telling that these weren't the rough and ready workhorses of pickup tradition. Consumer demand, more stringent regulations, and an undeniable appetite for raising sticker prices on the forecourt have all forced the unthinkable: the pickup truck is growing up.

Exactly where the evolution started is uncertain, though I suspect the latest-generation of Ford's F-150 played no small part in it. America's best-selling vehicle had many iterations in which to demonstrate its workhorse-like talents and general ruggedness, but it was with the 2015 model year and Ford's huge transition to aluminum that the F-150 broadened its ambitions from trucks to further afield.

Though the decision to replace key steel sections of the thirteenth generation F-150 with lighter aluminum was certainly the most controversial aspect of the pickup's launch, what was going on inside the cabin was arguably equally important. Certainly, what you'd need for work duties was there – the differentials, the off-road modes, and the trailer controls – but they shared space with a dashboard that felt a whole lot like it had been pulled from a Ford car, or at least inspired heavily by that. Factor in luxuries like massage seats, a more advanced touchscreen infotainment system than the FM/AM radio you might expect, and suddenly the F-150 was feeling a lot more grown-up.

It worked, too. From the 2015 F-150 on, the idea of a "luxury pickup" was no longer a misnomer. Since then, we've seen legitimate high-end brands like Mercedes-Benz weigh in with luxe-trucks of their own – though Mercedes' X-Class, a collaboration with Renault-Nissan, isn't available in the US presently – as the segment as a whole raises its game. Towing talent and bed capacity are no longer the only metrics buyers care about.

The new 2019 Ranger, for example, not only follows its bigger F-150 sibling in having a more upscale interior, but Ford is also positioning it at the sort of adventure-loving (and expensive lease signing) millennials and Gen-Xers that might currently be looking at crossovers and small SUVs. That even includes avoiding the entry-level single cab configurations that would be more appealing to traditional pickup buyers.

It's not just Ford, of course. Chevrolet's new 2019 Silverado billed its cabin technology, ride comfort, and family flexibility just as high as its towing capacity and engine torque when it was revealed at the Detroit Auto Show 2018 last week. The 2019 Ram 1500's interior offers a vast touchscreen dashboard option, bigger and more flexible than you'd find in most luxury sedans.

What's coming down the line, though, underscores even further the fact that pickups are at a tipping point. Given the uncertainty – and outright ire – from truck traditionalists when automakers dared put turbochargers under the hoods instead of naturally-aspirated engines, the idea of a hybrid or all-electric pickup might seem a non-starter. However that's just what's in the pipeline.

That Tesla is looking to go all-electric with its planned pickup probably doesn't come as much of a surprise. Elon Musk has been vocal about wanting to challenge the status-quo in work vehicles for some years now, as the Tesla Semi illustrates. The instantaneous torque of a battery-electric drivetrain would be just as appealing for truck duties like towing, but what's undoubtedly going to be a high-tech interior combined with the general quiet and refinement of an EV will help single the Tesla pickup out.

It's not just 21st century upstarts like Tesla, mind. Ford has confirmed that it's working on a hybrid F-150 and, though critics might call that a halfway measure given it'll still demand gasoline, it's no small step given the number of trucks the automaker sells each year. Ram has pipped Ford to the post, indeed, with hybrid versions of both the V6 and V8 RAM 1500 set to arrive on forecourts this year.

In short, tough emissions regulations, increasingly advanced electrification systems, and a buying audience more comfortable – and more demanding – about what fuel their vehicle runs on and how it cossets them inside are all adding up to a perfect pickup storm. As automakers old and new workshop America's workhorse for a new generation of drivers, the last category of cars you might have expected to see embrace the future is finally catching up.