AP NEWS

Pickups still rule, though electric vehicles look to make inroads in Houston

January 25, 2019

As soon as the Houston Auto show opened its doors, Miguel Alejandro made a beeline for the Jeep Gladiator exhibited toward the back of NRG Center.

The 28-year-old Houston resident was eager to check out Jeep’s first pickup truck offering in more than three decades. Although pricing has yet to be announced, Alejandro said he plans to purchase the Jeep truck when it arrives on dealer lots this summer -- whatever the cost may be.

“I’ve made up my mind,” he said. “I have no budget, not for this one.”

SUVs and trucks such as the Jeep Gladiator took the spotlight at the 36th annual expo, where some 40 automakers are exhibiting nearly 800 vehicles through Sunday. The auto show, organized by the Houston Automobile Dealers Association, comes as manufacturers are shifting away from sedans, for decades a fixture in the driveways of the American middle-class.

Ford, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors last year announced they would phase out most of their sedan models to focus on their more popular truck, SUV and crossover lines. In 2017, Toyota for the first time sold more Rav-4 SUVs in the U.S. than its Camry sedan, the Japanese automaker’s top-selling vehicle for decades.

Families are flocking toward SUVs and trucks, which are seen as a roomier, safer and more practical alternative to the sedan, said Dan McDowell, president of InfoNation, a Sugar Land-based automotive data firm.

“Trucks and SUVs continue to drive the market,” McDowell said. “They’re the new family car.”

Manufacturers in particular were eager to show off their latest truck offerings at the Houston show. Fiat Chrysler unveiled its Ram 1500 Heavy Duty Laramie Longhorn edition, Chevy showcased its new Silverado Trail Boss and Nissan rolled out the Titan Rocky Ridge Stealth.

The emphasis on trucks came as no surprise in Texas, where the pickup reigns supreme. More trucks are sold in Texas than in any other state; more are sold in Houston than in any other market.

In the Houston area, automakers sold nearly 159,000 new trucks and SUVs in 2018, an 11 percent increase over the previous year and accounting for 75 percent of the new vehicle market. By contrast, sales of new sedans plunged 10 percent between 2017 and 2018, according InfoNation’s TexAuto Facts Report.

Ram, which introduced an all-new Laramie Longhorn pickup at last year’s auto show, sold 118,000 trucks in Texas last year, a 21 percent increase from the previous year. Pickups represent about 80 to 85 percent of Ram’s overall sales.

“So goes Texas, so goes Ram,” said Jim Morrison, who heads the brand in North America.

The Jeep Gladiator, the first pickup from the iconic SUV manufacturer since it ended production of the Comanche in 1992, made its Texas debut this week at the Houston Auto Show. The mid-sized truck combines Jeep’s rugged off-road capability with the utility of a five-foot steel truck bed that can hold 1,600 pounds and tow up to 7,500 pounds. Pricing details will be announced later this year.

“It’s 100 percent truck and 100 percent Jeep,” Jeep brand representative Brandon Girmus. “It’s the perfect Jeep for Texas. We anticipate very high demand for this truck.”

Although trucks were front and center at the auto show, a small but growing crop of all-electric vehicles is trying to make inroads in the robust market for pickups in the so-called energy capital of the world.

Chevy touted the new Bolt next to its Silverado and Colorado pickup trucks, Audi displayed its e-tron GT concept and Jaguar offered a ride-and-drive experience inside its all new luxury electric sports car, the i-Pace. The Bolt, which starts from the mid-$30,000s, has a range of 238 miles on a single charge and the i-Pace, which starts around $70,000, has a range of about 234 miles. Tesla, possibly the most prominent electric vehicle manufacturer, was not present at the auto show since the company doesn’t sell its vehicles through dealerships.

Electric vehicle adoption in Texas has been slow amid cheap fuel and the popularity of Texas-sized trucks and SUVs, whose fuel efficiency has improved in recent years. But a coalition of city and business leaders from utilities such as CenterPoint Energy are hoping to change that.

EVolve Houston, led by Mayor Sylvester Turner, is studying ways to expand the number of electric vehicle charging stations across the city. Details are scant, but Turner is planning to announce his plans on Earth Day in April.

Houston City Councilman David Robinson stopped by the Auto Show on Wednesday to encourage automakers and dealers to offer more electric vehicles as city leaders work to improve its electric vehicle infrastructure. Robinson, who drives a pickup truck, said he understood the challenges of mass adoption, but said he was encouraged by the popularity of electric vehicles such as the Chevy Bolt and Teslas.

“We’d like for dealers and manufacturers to send more electric vehicles to Houston because we have the demand,” Robinson said. “We’re committed to the adoption of EVs.”

paul.takahashi@chron.com

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