Texas®

The three-way battle for the Heavy Duty segment of the pick up pruck market just got considerably more interesting.

All three domestic players, Ford, Dodge and GM, have, over the last few months, rolled out their big guns. They are all packing new or updated power from big, stump pulling turbo diesel engines.

This is not the segment of the full sized market the others play in. Both Toyota and Nissan, who offer excellent 1/2 ton options, do not have vehicles in the 3/4 ton market and do not offer diesel alternatives in the North American market. It is one of the few arenas in which the domestics do not have Pacific Rim competition.

It has become a hotly contested segment where each is scratching for advantage touting “Better” towing, “Better” interior, “Better” horsepower and trying to parse the most miniscule advantage into a marketing bonanza.

The most coveted of all potential customers is the convert. The convert is one who has always bought a Ford who decides to go against trend and opt to by a Chevy instead. That doesn’t sound that farfetched to most but this is the most loyal consumer in the most loyal market segment in the automotive business.

Especially in Texas, which is the largest market in North America for trucks, where brand loyalty takes on a near religious fervor in some quarters, I have actually witnessed fist fights that began when one’s truck gets insulted. It is the Texan equivalent of telling ‘Yo’ Momma’ slap downs.

The general more than takes this profitable and competitive market seriously and offer both GMC and Chevy truck labels that are essentially the same rolling stock with slight variations on branding theme. The Chevy Silverado 2500 HD 4WD LT provided to Any Driven Sunday is one of the nicest riding large trucks in the market.

Powered by a wonderfully quiet and powerful DuraMax 6.6 V8 Turbo diesel mated to a strong and seamless Allison 6-speed automatic, the Silverado is a fantastic place to either watch highway miles disappear or slowly slip past trees and turf off road. The interior on the test truck was as it should be LOW maintenance, just simple fabric and vinyl – a no muss, no fuss affair.

Not that the Chevy was devoid of options. With the “On the Job” package, it came equipped with bed mounted tie down hooks, rail liner protectors, a slip resistant bed liner, and 18” polished aluminum wheels brightening up the exterior. It is as it should be: a work truck that looks great.

The premium uptick on the diesel for any of these HD trucks is usually a $5-7 grand ticket inflator that keeps all but those who need the power of this tool from experiencing how wonderful going to the pump with the green handle can be. A regular Silverado HD 4×4 with a big gas motor will hit you squarely in the 10-14 MPG area, where the diesel was consistently pulling 18-22 MPG numbers regardless of how hard I was throttling it down the road.

In my mind, the greater fuel economy and more efficient power delivery afforded by a diesel engine is worth the increased price. I know there are ways via tax incentives for Commercial vehicles and especially for “Alternative” fuel vehicles that can help take the sting out of that price jump. However you do it the diesel it the way to go, hands down, in the large truck market.

After all, with a Heavy Duty truck it is not about the show it is about the go and this Chevy goes very well, it handles far more like a car and has a very comfortable and well laid out interior. This is the kind of truck that owners keep for a long time and use the hell out of.

While driving around the Melissa area of North Texas, where the pictures were shot, it became obvious the simple but elegant lines of the Silverado carried well down side roads with minimal drama. The steering is light and the handling, braking and road manners Chevy brings to the table are second to none.

I really liked the Dodge HD 2500 we had a couple of weeks ago it was a great truck, but for the option of heavy duty I found my preference started to shift to Chevy, but alas it had to go home.

Thankfully, my truck fetish will be sated by the Ford Super Duty that has taken its place outside the front door of my home.

Earlier this year as the first 2011 Chevy Suburban’s started rolling down the Arlington, Texas’ General Motors Assembly line, Any Driven Sunday had the chance to sit down with one of the big kahuna’s at the helm of “The New GM” to talk about the longest lasting line of vehicles in the market and the future of GM.

As Global Vice President responsible for Chevrolet’s Domestic Sales and Service in the United States, Allan Batey has quite a daunting task most brave souls would run from as GM has gone through government supervised bankruptcy and Batey is partially responsible for billions of dollars of public bailout money. He and the company are also under the magnifying glass of the press and every politician trying to make a brownie point with frustrated voters.

“Really, it is a great time to have this job,” Batey says with his working class English roots showing in his accent and scrappy attitude, “We have a product line that is better than it has ever been in the history of this company. The reality is, it is a far better product than most people think it is. That is a great thing, now we have to get some seats in our seats to prove it.”

Batey started in the Global GM world with England’s Vauxhall, then. as one of many executives being groomed for higher places, he was sent in to Germany’s Opel operations eventually living and working in seven countries and earning a reputation as a man who can handle complex problems.

Bringing a company through restructuring and out of bankruptcy is no small task, but Batey has a unique bit of experience on his resume. Back in the 90s he was part of the team working for GM Asia dealing with the purchase of the then bankrupt Daewoo Motor Company in Korea.

Daewoo was once the value leader, darling of the super hot South Asian market, but like cross-town rival Kia, Daewood was decimated by dealings with Tommy Suharto, the son of the onetime Indonesian strongman. Tommy was largely responsible as the straw that broke the Asian economy’s back, plunging Korea’s small car rivals both into a death spiral. Kia ended up being folded into Hyundai and Daewoo became one of the asset rich prizes being pursued by both Ford and GM. GM won and Batey was part of the team tasked with sorting out the collected mess.

“Daewoo was a very unique challenge,’ explains Batey, “We had to be exceptionally careful of which assets we took on. The company had a global influence and has become the basis of many of our best selling cars throughout Asia and in particular in china where we sell a number of cars based out of the Daewoo operations.”

The reason Batey was in Dallas was the launch of the 2011 Chevrolet Suburban and he brought along a couple of things. One was a 1935 Chevrolet Suburban Carryall wagon the other was multiple NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion, Jimmy Johnson.

While most of the local media was clamoring for Johnson’s attention, Alan Batey sat down with Any Driven Sunday to talk about the bumpy road GM has endured and the tremendous opportunities the New GM had in front of it.

Even after emerging from bankruptcy GM is still one of the largest corporate entities in the world with global commitments and challenges.

The Suburban is very much the ideal vehicle to illustrate one of the more complex challenges ahead. It is the big boy on the street both figuratively and literally defining the Super Sized SUV market that grew up around it and siblings Tahoe, Yukon, Denali and Escalade. All are built in Arlington Texas, at a plant that has had to compete with other plants across the country to hold on to production and the millions of dollars of primary, secondary and tertiary jobs associated with it.

Dodge never really entered the Premium super sized SUV market and Ford all but abandoned it when they killed the Excursion leaving the Suburban alone with a 75 year heritage and a reputation for being one of the rally flags of conspicuous consumption uniting the environmental movement of all things wrong with the world.

The newest Suburban’s are still larger than most Manhattan apartments but are now available with “Flex Fuel” technology and most importantly 2-mode Hybrid options. These options make a huge difference in the “Carbon Footprint” of a vehicle that has become not just the choice of families but also has become a commercial staple.

In movies and in reality the altered Suburban chassis is probably the most modified vehicle in service today. Thousands of “Civilian Contractors” Secret Service and military operators have been driving Armored Surburbans in some of the harshest places for vehicles and human cargo. The big truck frame and heavy-duty construction are modified by companies like San Antonio’s Texas Armoring Corporation (www.texasarmoring.com) for use in Iraq, Afghanistan and other dangerous places around the world.

GM has a unique struggle on its hands trying to reintroduce and in some cases introduce its product line to a consumer who for years has a preconception of what the General is. Prior to the bailout, Bankruptcy and restructuring Federal Auto Czar Steve Rattner’s assessment of the company was right on the money when he said on PBS’s Charlie Rose show, “It has a product line that is far better than anyone knew it was and a corporate culture that was simply the most dysfunctional thing I have ever seen.”

Even before the removal of Rick Waggoner as CEO, the shift to change that corporate culture had begun.

At the same time as GM tries to get people to try their product, which really is equal to the challenge, they can’t completely walk away from their heritage. Over 100 years of car building creates some great linage but more than a few black eyes to go with it. GM is trying to capture the good, like the new Corvette Grand Sport’s homage to the glory days of racing, and hope people can forget the lost generations of the 70’s 80’s and 90’s dreadful designs (Aztek) and monumental build quality and labor issues of the Roger Smith era.

The Suburban is one of those vehicles that came out of the mess GM brought upon itself stronger than you might think. Sitting alone in the market with a restructured and reenergized corporation behind it the GMC/Chevy product line is positioned to win back customers who seem willing and hopeful the General really is better.

There are very few vehicles out there that I would rather take, along with all my possessions for an extended voyage. The Suburban’s long wheelbase, solid frame, and seamless transmission make the journey effortless as long as you have the resources to stomach the 14/19 MPG. Dropping $5 in the gas tank is like spitting in a swimming pool and coming up to the cash register at $60,500.00 it is not a lightweight in price or 5835 pound curb weight.

“People who are in the car business want to build great cars, that is why you are in the business. I’m a third generation guy and I am in the car business because I love it,” Batey enthusiastically points out the challenges are great but at a time where the product is so strong he knows the New GM will rise from the last year much stronger, “The one thing that will trip us up is if we somehow become complacent and start to believe our own press and our own propaganda. We absolutely have to keep pushing forward, get results on the board, and get results that do not have to be explained. If we do that the brand will move very fast.”

It will be interesting to see if GM can follow through and continue to develop this new found entrepreneurial spirit into lasting success. Scrappy, experienced executives like Batey seem ready for the fight and the challenge of making a truly massive global company act like a small responsive underdog.