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U.S. truck makers keeping tabs on Tundra
Domestics lead truck segment in crash safety, but Toyota is building demand in market.
Christine Tierney / The Detroit News
In a market as competitive as the full-size pickup segment, every distinction counts. So Detroit's automakers heaved a sigh of relief when Toyota Motor Corp.'s much-touted new Tundra earned lower frontal crash test scores than domestic rivals such as the Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram.
Toyota, however, can take comfort from early data showing that consumers are paying more for the Tundra, on average, than for leading rivals.
All automakers stand to benefit from indications that the high-stakes contest in the pickup segment is stimulating demand.
The lucrative full-size pickup segment expanded to 14.4 percent of the U.S. auto market last month, when Toyota launched the Tundra, from 12.4 percent in January, according to consulting firm J.D. Power and Associates.
Its Power Information Network division said domestic truck owners remained loyal to U.S. brands, but Toyota retained more of its existing customers by fielding a pickup with capabilities and performance similar to those of the domestic-brand trucks.
"It's still early, and owner loyalty is just one measure of marketplace success, but so far the Tundra seems to be gaining strength in the segment," said Tom Libby, director of industry analysis at the Power Information Network.
But the crash test data from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration underscored the domestics' ability to roll out solid products in the pickup category.
By contrast with their performance in the passenger car market, where they were pushed back by Japanese brands, U.S. automakers have held their own in the truck market. American brands account for more than 90 percent of full-size pickup sales, which totaled 2.2 million units in 2006.
"This is an interesting scenario because the impressive strength of the Toyota juggernaut is being pitted against the domestics' longtime stronghold," Libby said.
In U.S. government frontal crash tests, the Tundra earned four stars for the driver and passenger. While that is a respectable score, it's below the five stars awarded to the Ford F-150, the Dodge Ram and some Chevrolet Silverado models.
In a frontal collision at 35 miles per hour, the driver and front-seat passenger of a vehicle with a five-star rating are judged to have a 10 percent or lower chance of requiring immediate hospitalization. That probability increases to between 11 percent and 20 percent for a four-star-rated vehicle.
Hauling in the most cash
Another indicator closely watched by manufacturers and financial analysts shows the Tundra commanded the highest selling prices among the leading pickups in most regions of the country since its launch in February.
The actual retail transaction prices -- or what an individual customer pays at a dealership -- for a four-door Tundra with an eight-cylinder engine averaged $33,182. That compares with $32,312 for a similar F-150, $31,727 for a Chevy Silverado, $27,664 for a Nissan Titan, and $25,564 for a Dodge Ram 1500, according to Power Information Network.
Toyota is expected to surpass its goal to sell 200,000 new Tundras this year, compared with 124,508 previous-generation Tundras in 2006, said Jeff Schuster, J.D. Power's executive director of automotive intelligence.
With the new truck, Toyota hopes to keep owners of Toyota vehicles such as the smaller Tacoma pickup from straying to other brands when they seek a full-size pickup.
Toyota builds the Tundra at plants in Princeton, Ind., and San Antonio, Texas.
Note: If Toyota can just keep its' car buyers buying their new trucks, they will end up eventually with a good share of the US Market.