By Ben Klayman
PONTIAC, Michigan (Reuters) - General Motors Co is counting on muscled-up, more refined versions of its lucrative Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickup trucks to show investors and car buyers that the No. 1 U.S. automaker is back on track.
The 2014 model-year trucks are the most critical launch for the Detroit company since its bankruptcy and $50 billion U.S. taxpayer-funded bailout in 2009. The trucks are also a linchpin in GM's ongoing battle with No. 2 U.S. carmaker Ford Motor Co, whose F-150 truck is the industry's top-selling vehicle.
GM showed off the new full-size pickups in Pontiac, Michigan, on Thursday, and executives are touting the benefits of the vehicles, which will initially be offered in the most popular four-door, "crew cab" version in the second quarter of next year.
"There's nothing more core to our business than our trucks," GM North American President Mark Reuss said at the introduction at a movie studio north of Detroit.
"Our competitors may think that they have smooth sailing ahead, but let me tell you the weather is about to change," he said, adding the goal was to beat Ford's F-Series.
GM better hope so. Analysts estimated the company has invested $3 billion to $4 billion on developing the new trucks and related engines, as well revamping the plants where they are built.
Their reception on Wall Street will also be closely watched by officials at the U.S. Treasury, which still owns about 26 percent of GM. The fate of that stake has been the subject of much speculation, with analysts suggesting divestiture might occur closer to the trucks' launch next year.
This week, Treasury sold the rest of its position in American International Group Inc, which also received a federal bailout.
The current versions of the big trucks and related SUVs generate profit of $12,000 or more per vehicle and account for about 60 percent of GM's global profit, analysts said. Citi has estimated the new models could bring the automaker more than $1 billion in additional operating earnings in 2013 and 2014.
That would be welcome, since the last major redesign of the trucks was in 2006, and delays caused by GM's bankruptcy in 2009 have put it at a competitive disadvantage in a segment that accounts for about 11 percent of the market, analysts said.
GM noted that the average age of big pickups on U.S. roads is more than 10-1/2 years, and the need to replace aging vehicles means plenty of room for sales growth.
GM's Reuss did not provide sales projections for the new trucks, but said they would attract new buyers and that demand would be there as the U.S. housing market improves. "We're timing this very, very well in terms of construction and growth in the economy."
GM's inventory of the current large pickups surged in November as it was caught off guard by aggressive deals by rivals.
AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan said the new trucks simply allow GM to catch up to rivals. As a result, he said the automaker will likely need the next redesign much faster than normal once Ford comes out with its next F-150 design, due in 2014.
"For the traditional pickup truck buyer, they're going to love this truck," Sullivan said of the new GM trucks. "It's a simple and well-engineered vehicle, but it appears not to leapfrog any of the competition."
GM's U.S. dealers are champing at the bit for the new trucks, saying the interior design is a big step forward from the current models. They say the new design will make the automaker more of a player, especially at the top end of the market, where prices approach $60,000 and margins are high.
"Us having a class-leading truck is critically important to the success of Chevrolet," said Jason Brickl, chief executive of Ballweg Chevrolet in Wisconsin, whose two dealerships in the Madison area derive about one-quarter of sales from the Silverado.
GM said its 2014 trucks will be new "from hood to hitch," including a trio of new V6 and V8 engines meant to improve power, torque and efficiency. GM also touted a quieter, more comfortable cab; improved steering, suspension and brakes; and the use of more high-strength steel. New safety features will include forward collision alert, lane departure warning, and front and rear parking assist.
The company said horsepower, torque and EPA fuel economy estimates will not be available until early next year, but said the new trucks will outperform the current models.
Analysts said GM's comments about strategy indicated the new trucks' mileage would not likely challenge the 22 miles per gallon on the highway achieved by the Ford F-150 equipped with the turbocharged Ecoboost engine. GM executives on Thursday questioned whether small displacement turbocharged engines are the best technology for large pickups.
GM has not announced pricing for the new trucks.
The current Silverado has a starting price of about $24,000, rising to almost $44,000, and the price tag of the most expensive Sierra is around $57,000. Ford's F-150 starts under $24,000 and runs to almost $54,000.
GM's big trucks and SUVs - Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade - remain top draws at dealerships. Their combined U.S. sales rose 11 percent last year to more than 799,000 vehicles.
The redesigned SUVs will debut in 2014, followed by new versions of the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon midsized pickups in late 2014, Reuss said.
GM's pickup truck sales fell in November, with the automaker blaming aggressive discounting by rivals Ford, Chrysler and Nissan Motor Co Ltd. GM has added new incentives for the trucks for December, and executives indicated they will cut production to reduce supplies.
Reuss said pickup truck sales were "much better" so far this month, and that inventory would end the year close to company targets. GM ended November with 139 days' worth of pickups and had said it would miss its year-end target of having U.S. inventory of no more than 220,000 pickup trucks, or 85 days of supply.
In a positive sign for the truck market, however, Citi analyst Itay Michaeli expects U.S. demand for full-size trucks to meaningfully outperform the overall industry in the next 12 to 18 months as consumers move to replacing aging vehicles.
LMC Automotive expects total U.S. sales of full-size pickup trucks this year to rise 8.4 percent to more than 1.62 million vehicles and hit more than 1.8 million in 2019. It sees GM's combined pickup sales topping Ford's next year and holding that lead through 2019.
Officials at Ford said the company is happy with F-150's lead over Silverado. The F-150 was last redesigned in 2008.
"We're very pleased with the performance of our pickup truck over the years," Ford U.S. sales analyst Erich Merkle said. "It's been the best-selling pickup in America for 35 years straight."
Meanwhile, GM will stick with its strategy of offering both full-size and midsized pickups as a way to satisfy more consumers. Ford and Chrysler have discontinued their midsized trucks.
(Additional reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; editing by David Gregorio, Jeffrey Benkoe and Matthew Lewis)