LEADING NATIONAL ADVERTISERS;FULL-SIZE PICKUPS, SUVS PROVE BIGGER IS BETTER;WITH 'FASHION STATEMENT' STATUS, BIG VEHICLES WINNING WOMEN OVER

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When the '97 extended-cab pickups hit the local dealership this year, George Benson liked what he saw.

A longtime pickup driver, the Columbus, N.J., resident viewed himself carrying a pack of grandchildren in the pickup, folding down the back seats to store work gear, groceries and luggage and tossing into the truckbed mulch and tree limbs from his acre-and-a-half yard.

"I drive a charter bus part time, and I know the feel of comfort on the highway," he says. "You sit higher than usual in the [Ford] SuperCab and it has lumbar seats. I've never been more comfortable."

So he bought Ford's F-150 SuperCab.

The F-series, along with six other full-sized pickups in the U.S. market, shares a widening audience. Their segment, with sales of 1.72 million units in 1995, up 3.2%, according to Automotive News, is the largest in unit sales of the six segments compromising the U.S. light-truck market, a category increasingly devoted to sports-utility vehicles and mini-vans.

Sales of full-sized trucks in '95 were the highest since the 1979 model year.

Those trucks are both shaping and being shaped by America's changing tastes. Gone are the rough-and-ready days of pickup suage. Only about a third of Ford's customers report using their trucks in their line of business and only 14% use them primarily for work, says Ross Roberts, VP-general manager of Ford Division.

Instead they drive their pickup trucks to work, and run errands, just like car owners. But pickup owners differ from their car counterparts with their higher mention of recreational uses for their vehicles.

"Pickups are the big sports coupes of the '90s," says James Hall, VP-analysis of the Detroit office of consultancy Auto Pacific Group.

Although still mostly men's wheels, the extended cabs are sure to woo more women, predicts Susan Jacobs, president of Jacobs & Associates, an auto consultancy. In fact, women last year represented 11% of new full-sized pickup buyers.

For its part, F-series pickups rose to 40% of the full-sized truck market, compared with 38.7% in '94 and 17% five years ago. In fact, the F-series has been the nation's top selling vehicle, car or truck, the past 14 years.

F-Series is on track for another best-selling year. It sold nearly 534,932 units through the first eight months of the year, up 15.8%.

Ford is spending an estimated $70 million this year advertising the 1997 F-150 extended cab, a version just a heartbeat behind Chevrolet's 1996 C-K introduced last fall by General Motors Corp.

After the F-150, the C-K series was the nation's second best-selling vehicle through August, followed by the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle. Chrysler's Dodge Ram full-size pickup claimed fourth.

RAMMING AHEAD

The Ram has been nibbling away at GM's market share. The Ram's big-rig-looking front end, first seen as part of the major redesign in the '94 model year, helped push Chrysler's full-sized pickup share to 15.8% at the start of the year from just under 7% in 1993.

"If the big-truck hiccups, it will be caused by the SUV," predicts Mr. Hall. A slew of new SUVs are now hitting the market or coming next year.

That translates into more competition that could spur sales incentives and possibly make SUVs more attractively-priced than full-size pickups.

A major fuel price hike or declines in fuel availability might slow full-size sales as well.

Full-size pickups have "become a fashion statement," says Art Spinella, VP at CNW Marketing/Research, an automotive consultant. The segment has been growing in suburbia, thanks in part to baby boomers.

But fashion statements rely on styling, which is more difficult to maintain in the auto industry than the apparel world.M

-Jean Halliday

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