Going bananas for pickups

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

What is there about a pickup truck - large, midsize, or small - that has captured the eyes and pocketbooks of so many motorists? Versatility and value for the money are major considerations. A pickup can carry the kids to school, a piano lesson, or the playgound, but it can also take the trash to the dump, the lawn mower to the repairman, or a bedroom dresser to Aunt Millie's. You can find ``expanded cab'' versions, too, both in the full-size pickups as well as in the minis, which provide more room inside the cab. And a pickup's often lower sticker price can help a family beat the rising cost of cars.

Whatever their driving terrain, more car buyers are opting for a pickup truck in addition to, or even instead of, a sedan, hatchback, or coupe.

Since 1973, light truck sales have nearly doubled, according to John Schnapp of Temple, Barker & Sloane, Inc., a consulting firm. Roughly half of those sales appear to be passenger-car replacements. The number of pickups registered in the United States rose from 2.5 million in '73 to 4.8 million last year. Of all the pickups sold, ``barely one in five vehicles will be used entirely for commercial purposes,'' notes Mr. Schnapp.

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Last year, Ford beat out every other carmaker by selling 1,381,438 light trucks, compared to Chevrolet's 1,247,594. The Ford F-series was the number one vehicle, with 544,969 deliveries. Ford, in total, sold more trucks in 1986 than cars.

Both Ford and General Motors are investing billions of dollars in new full-size light trucks for 1987 - GM alone some $2.5 billion. Chrysler is waving the banner for its all-new mid-size Dakota truck.

While you can pick up a Japanese-built minitruck for under $6,000, you can pay well up in the teens for a customized pickup with off-road capability and a full tray of optional equipment.

Indeed, a pickup truck can be as carlike as you want to make it, including an abundance of comfort items, a soft or rugged ride, and a stereo sound system.

With the growing popularity of 4x4's, the pickup craze has swiftly moved to the younger set as well. And more and more well-heeled youthful buyers have discovered the customizing market, adapting their pickups to their personalities. The new pickups are more aerodynamic in design, which improves fuel economy while cutting down on wind noise. Pickup trucks also are becoming safer vehicles to drive. Ford has made rear anti-lock brakes standard on its new line of full-size pickups.

Chrysler expects to sell at least 150,000 of its new Dakotas in the model's first year. The Dakota, while smaller than the standard-size pickups such as Ford's new F-Series, has more room than the mini-trucks sold by Ford, GM, Chrysler, and the Japanese.

``It's the industry's first mid-size pickup,'' exults Chrysler chairman Lee A. Iacocca. With a payload of 2,550 pounds and a towing capacity of 5,500 pounds, the Dakota can seat three adults, compared to two in the minis. Actually, in size the Dakota is more like the pickups of the 1940's and '50's before the ``truck stretchers'' seized the design brush.

GM's revamped pickups will officially go on sale in April. They will represent the biggest single truck-model investment in GM history, according to John D. Rock, manager of GMC's truck and coach operation.

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