For decades, Chevrolet's Silverado pickup has carried the load for General Motors Co., most recently providing needed cash and loyal buyers through the automaker's bailout and bankruptcy.
Truck sales remain central to GM's North American strategy, even as it has uncharacteristic success with new car models including the small Cruze sedan and the Chevy Equinox crossover. That's largely because GM makes $9,000 to $11,000 from each pickup sale, compared with about $5,000 for a passenger car, according to Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays Research.
But now, with a new generation of Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks introduced Thursday, the automaker is driving into rugged terrain. The models now in dealerships, the oldest of the major offerings in the full-size pickup market, have lost market share as rivals from Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group have surpassed GM trucks in fuel economy and other features.
GM's truck inventory has ballooned to 110 days despite hefty sales incentives designed to move the vehicles off dealer lots. Analysts worry that slack sales could set off a profit-sucking price war in the industry if GM were to pile on incentives to fire-sale current models before the redesigned trucks hit dealerships in the second quarter of 2013.
Still, the Silverado notches nearly double the annual sales of the Cruze, GM's next-best-selling vehicle.
"GM's profits in North America still ride in the bed of pickup trucks," Johnson said.
Financially, GM has surged since the dark days of bankruptcy. It has logged 10 consecutive profitable quarters for the first time in more than a decade, including a $1.5 billion gain in the second quarter. Fueled in large part by sales of pickups and large SUVs, GM's North American operations earned $2 billion in the latest quarter. Although pickups account for about 24 percent of GM's U.S. sales, they make up a third of the automaker's profit in the region, Johnson estimated.
The company's shares closed Thursday at $25.12, up more than 20 percent so far this year. But that's still about half the price needed for the U.S. government to sell its roughly 32 percent stake in the company and recoup its bailout money.
GM has yielded market share in the U.S. as Toyota and Honda have rebounded from inventory shortages caused by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year and as Ford and Chrysler have captured double-digit truck sales growth this year.
Combined, the Chevrolet Silverado and its sister GMC Sierra make up 34.7 percent of the full-size truck market through the first 11 months of this year, according to MotorIntelligence.com. That's down from a 40.3 percent share in 2008, before the company's bankruptcy reorganization.
Meanwhile, Ford's F-series has captured 39.6 percent of the market this year, up from 32.8 percent in 2008. Chrysler's Dodge Ram is at 18.1 percent, up from 15.6 percent in 2008.
Ford has effectively pitched the V-6 turbocharged engine in its F-series, which buyers like because its fuel economy is slightly better than the GM offerings and it has more power, Johnson said. Meanwhile, Chrysler has taken a more focused approach marketing its Dodge Ram trucks, refreshing the interior and adding an eight-speed transmission to boost the fuel economy of its V-6 model.
To keep up, the new offerings from GM need better fuel economy, updated cabins with more creature comforts and infotainment systems that better sync with smartphones, said Alec Gutierrez, an analyst with auto information company Kelley Blue Book.
"The power and towing capacity has to be there," Gutierrez said. "That ultimately will be what a truck buyer looks at: the best package of fuel efficiency coupled with torque, horsepower and towing capacity. GM's new trucks need to push each of those benchmarks without sacrificing any one of the four."
GM says that's exactly what it did with its trucks, which make their formal debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month.
The new trucks will have more horsepower, more torque and better fuel economy than the comparable engine in the current lineup, said Tom Wilkinson, a GM spokesman. The company did not release exact figures pending the completion of testing.
"The strategy is more in keeping with the way truck customers look at trucks. These are tools to get a job done," Wilkinson said.
The redesigned trucks will offer a choice of three new engines, all featuring fuel-saving technologies including cylinder deactivation -- which involves knocking the engine's operation down to just four of the cylinders when more aren't needed -- and direct fuel injection.
Such features give truck buyers, increasingly conscious of fuel economy, an alternative to Ford's EcoBoost turbocharged engine and Ram's V-6 and eight-speed transmission combination.
The base engine will remain a 4.3-liter V-6, targeting budget-minded truck buyers and fleet sales, with a six-speed automatic transmission to replace the outgoing four-speed. A 5.3-liter V-8 probably will be GM's big seller and be paired to a six-speed automatic transmission.
Finally, GM will offer a 6.2-liter V-8 that it says will be the "most capable" of any in a light-duty pickup truck. That means it would have to beat Ford's 6.2-liter V-8, which boasts 411 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque.
The trucks will be available in two trim levels, LT and LTZ, with an additional Z71 off-road package available on both. GM says its new trucks will have options that include a lane-departure warning system and forward collision warning. The more up-market GMC trucks will feature LED accent lighting in the headlights and real-aluminum trim inside the cabin.
GM also is adding more of the safety features buyers of vehicles in the $30,000 neighborhood expect, including a lane departure warning system that triggers a noise or seat vibration when the driver wanders from a lane and front park assist, a sensor in the bumper that chimes as the truck nears an object.
All of this should help bolster GM's business, even as it pushes hard into sales of passenger cars and crossovers, Gutierrez said.
"We have seen a shift to more fuel-efficient sedans and crossovers, but the full-size pickup driver will remain a sizable portion of the market," he said.