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full-size pickups like Dodge's Ram Club Cab flying out of showroom doors. PICKUPS GATHER MOMENTUM AS STATUS SYMBOLS;FULL-SIZE TRUCKS FROM FORD, CHEVY AND DODGE ARE TOP OVERALL SELLERS

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Full-size pickup trucks from Detroit's Big 3 automakers are hotter than last year.

The three full-size models were among the four best-selling vehicles-cars and trucks-from January through May 1996. (Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle is the outsider, but it's a truck offspring.) The automakers have upped pickup production and are selling virtually every one they build.

Sales are being fueled by the arrival of larger cabs, which can carry more people, three doors for more convenience and more creature comforts, such as compact disc players and leather seats.

GROWING APPEAL

But they also have more appeal to personal-use buyers, who like the new styling and technical innovations, said Susan Jacobs, president of Jacobs & Associates, a consultancy specializing in auto forecasts and analysis.

It's no longer unfashionable to drive a full-size pickup, agreed David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "You can take it almost anywhere and it's almost viewed as a status symbol. It isn't a view that people driving these things are clods, but risk takers."

Ford sold nearly 346,000 of its F-Series trucks during the first five months, up 22% from the same period a year ago; it's poised to retain its perennial crown as the nation's best-selling vehicle, car or truck-a title it has held for the past 14 years.

General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet C-K is in second place, with sales of almost 238,000, up 5.7%. Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge Ram full-size pickup sold 170,500 units, up 65.2%. Dodge Ram comes in fourth behind the Ford Explorer, according to Automotive News, a sister publication of Advertising Age.

"Total [increased] volume is growing the segment," said Paul Morel, brand manager for the F-Series pickup. Also boosting the segment, he said, are the new third door and larger cabs.

PASSENGER CARS LOSE

Gains by the full-size pickups have taken a bite out of passenger car sales. Mr. Morel estimated 25% of the buyers were cars owners, while traditionally more than half of F-Series purchases are repeat buyers.

About 22% of the buyers of the swanky F-Series Lariat model already own luxury cars, Mr. Morel said. "There's a fundamental change going on in the segment right now," he said.

He declined to say what percentage was sold to commercial users or small businesses, but about a third of Dodge Ram customers are commercial buyers or small businesses.

HISTORIC LAUNCH

Ford started selling its 1997 F-Series 150 model in February with the biggest truck launch in corporate history, including a spot starring actor Jack Palance during the Super Bowl from agency J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit.

Ford is selling the '97s side-by-side with the '96 models, but customers are snapping up the bigger, newer models, with the added door and extended cabs, called "supercabs," Mr. Morel said.

Ford miscalculated the demand for the newer, bigger pickups with upscale options, Mr. Morel admitted.

"We underestimated the off-road package, for example-how many people would order 17-inch tires. We're still short," he said. "Sales are being fueled by new buyers coming out of other markets, like cars and sport-utility vehicles, and you can't forecast that kind of demand."

Dodge upped capacity and plans to manufacture 425,000 Rams this year, said Charlie Hudson, manager of Dodge truck's marketing group.

RAM'S SALES SUCCESS

"The Ram has been sold out since we launched it in the 1994 model year," he said. "Everyone is selling every one they can build right now, so there's no fight going on."

That's not the way Ms. Jacobs sees it. Chrysler has been taking market share from GM, she said.

Chrysler's share of the 1.7 million-unit full-size pickup category jumped 5.5 points between this year and last, to 20.6%, while GM's slipped by 6.2 points to 37.2%. In 1993, the year Chrysler launched the brand new '94 model Ram, GM had a nearly 52% share of the segment, while Chrysler had only 6.9%, Ms. Jacobs said.

In 1993, Ford's share was 39.5%; it has grown to 40.6%.

Full-size pickups are still a man's domain, Dodge's Mr. Hudson said. Only about 9% are sold to women.

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