Despite soaring gasoline prices and an iffy national economy, both Lincoln and Cadillac both are ready to launch ultra-luxury versions of that blue-collar icon, the pickup truck.
Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln will lead the way with the Blackwood, due in dealerships late this summer. General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac will enter the fray in the first quarter of 2002 with the Escalade EXT.
Executives at Lincoln say they expect to sell about 10,000 a year of the $52,500 Blackwoods. Cadillac has set production of the Escalade EXT at 15,000 a year. Pricing has not been announced, but the Escalade EXT is expected to start at about $55,000.
These are true specialty vehicles -- 12-mile-per-gallon, leather-and-wood-trimmed trucks for people who may never haul a bale of hay or tote an air conditioner home from the appliance store.
Although suburbanites long ago turned the pickup into a family vehicle, some auto experts wonder whether the trucks can successfully make the transition to the luxury market.
The new trucks may be impractical for most people. The Blackwood's molded plastic cargo compartment is carpeted, has brushed stainless steel trim on the inner walls, and is only 4 feet, 8 inches long. The Escalade will require owners to fold away the rear bulkhead to convert the EXT from a five-passenger vehicle with a 5-foot, 3-inch bed into a two-seat pickup with an 8-foot, 1-inch bed--a bit of manual labor few luxury vehicle buyers are likely to put up with. But then, practicality may not be a major factor in the luxury market.
The posh, big-engined pickups are certainly distinctive vehicles. They are quite expensive and may never have the broad-based appeal of today's crossover utility vehicles. And it's no surprise that is important to the buyers whom both brands are hoping to attract.
Sales of luxury vehicles in the $45,000-to-$80,000 range have softened this year, but the limited quantities and new design of the two luxe trucks are likely to make them successes, according to Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA).
As if to prove Taylor's point, Lincoln just sold 50 special-edition Blackwoods at almost $60,000 a copy in a single day through the Neiman Marcus spring catalog.
For the auto makers, the luxe-truck logic is simple: pickups and SUVs have become the industry's profit leaders -- offsetting losses in the passenger car market, in which vehicles are more costly to manufacture and competition is too fierce to allow for much better than break-even performance.
Cadillac is expected to price the Escalade EXT somewhere around $55,000, or about $7,000 more than the base Escalade SUV from which it flows.
Besides being profitable, the trucks are expected to help Lincoln and Cadillac attract younger, more active buyers. Both brands have seen the average age of their buyers rocket upward in the last decade. The average age of Cadillac buyers, except for those drawn to the Escalade SUV, is about 65, while the average Lincoln buyer, except for those attracted by the Navigator and the new LS sport sedan, is 69, according to AutoPacific.
Early signs indicate that the Blackwood should help lower Lincoln's age profile. Cadillac's Escalade brand manager, Susan Docherty, said the Escalade EXT also is expected to draw younger buyers.
At the end of the first quarter of this year, new vehicle buyers were rallying around light trucks. Pickups, minivans and SUVs accounted for nearly half of all passenger vehicle sales for the period. Consumers bought 694,945 full-size pickups during the three-month period, accounting for 13 percent of all vehicle sales.