By Douglas McColloch
Consumer trends and preferences may change over time, but in the automotive sphere, pickups never really fall out of fashion. They’re the ideal multipurpose vehicles that function equally as daily commuters, job-site workhorses or recreational trail toys. For sheer versatility, nothing compares to them, and that’s probably why the bestselling vehicle in the United States for more than 40 years in a row has been a pickup.
Pickups, Jeeps and off-road vehicles filled the West Hall at the 2022 SEMA Show. Leading products trending from the specialty-equipment market included bed and exterior accessories, wheels and tires, and overlanding gear.
More than half of all vehicles on the road in the United States are either a pickup, an SUV or a crossover CUV. According to the most recent issue of “SEMA Future Trends,” the light-truck segment—which includes pickups, vans, SUVs and CUVs—is forecast to account for close to 80% of all new-vehicle sales by 2027, with pickups alone making up nearly 50% of all new vehicles sold.
Healthy truck and SUV sales generally augur well for the automotive aftermarket. Parts and accessories for pickups alone account for 31% of specialty equipment sales, according to the latest “SEMA Pickup Accessorization Report,” with $16 billion in annual sales. Throw in SUVs, crossovers and vans, and that sales number grows to more than $30 billion yearly. More than half of all late-model pickups on the road have been modified with specialty-equipment parts, with HD models more likely to receive upgrades, and more than a quarter of pickup drivers purchase aftermarket equipment for their trucks each year.
While consumer demand for late-model truck parts remains high, new-truck sales—like new-car sales overall—faced tough sledding in 2022. The combination of persistent semiconductor shortages, COVID-related supply disruptions, spikes in fuel prices for much of the year, and low inventory on dealer lots combined to make new trucks more difficult to obtain and more expensive to operate. While eight of the top-selling vehicles sold in the United States were either pickups or SUVs, nearly all posted sales declines in 2022 over the previous year. Ford’s F-150 was again the nation’s best-selling vehicle but reported sales of 653,000 units, which marked a 10% decline over 2021. Among the top 10, the RAM 1500, Toyota Highlander and Jeep Grand Cherokee all posted double-digit declines, with the Tesla Model Y compact SUV the only top 10 vehicle to log a year-over-year (YOY) sales increase with an impressive 40% YOY gain.
There were still some bright sports. The Ford Bronco, in its first full calendar year on the market, reported 117,000 units sold, a 233% increase over 2021. Similarly, the Ford Maverick compact pickup, also in its first year on the market, logged a whopping 687% sales increase from 2021. Additionally, the midsize Chevrolet Colorado logged a 22% sales increase, and the Jeep Compass compact SUV reported a 14% gain for 2022. Noticing a trend here?
While CUVs continue to gain overall market share in the sector, smaller trucks and compact SUVs are seeing a resurgence in popularity, perhaps reflecting higher fuel costs. Midsize trucks accounted for only 15% of U.S. pickup sales in 2015 but have gained ground since then and are forecast to comprise 30% of U.S. pickup sales by 2025.
But in any event, consumer demand for trucks remains high, and if consumers can’t find them new, they’ll buy them used. According to a January 2023 survey of three-year-old used cars conducted by iSeeCars, eight of the top 10 most used vehicles purchased last year were either a truck, an SUV or a crossover, with F-150, Silverado 1500 and RAM 1500 leading the pack. Depreciation rates plummeted by more than half from 2020 to 2022, according to a report from Wards Auto, suggesting future high resale values for many models.
For this article, we consulted several industry leaders for their perspectives on the overall state of the marketplace. What follows is a summation of their views.
Long anticipated, the Chevrolet Silverado EV is slated to go on sale this year with a claimed range of 400 mi. and a tow capacity of up to 20,000 lbs., depending on trim level. Photo courtesy: Chevrolet
What’s in The Pipeline: New and Notable Vehicles
While supply-chain issues could delay some releases, the following pickups, SUVs and crossover were tentatively scheduled to enter production within the next 18 months at the time this story was published.
Ford: Introduced globally in 2018, the Ranger Raptor comes to the United States with (most likely) a 3.0L EcoBoost V6 and a 10-speed transmission. Full-time four-wheel drive and 33-in. BFG tires are expected to be standard offerings.
General Motors: Long anticipated, the dual-motor Chevy Silverado EV is slated to go on sale later this year. The truck will be available as a base W/T sporting 510 hp, and a top-line RST First Edition that comes with 660-plus hp (and a six-figure price tag). Four-wheel steering will be an option, and the truck is said to offer a 400-mi. range between charges and a tow rating of up to 20,000 lbs. A Trail Boss version of the EV is in the works as well. The GMC Sierra Denali EV, set to launch early next year, will offer a similar cruising range and up to 750-plus hp.
Also new from GMC is the Hummer EV SUV, which has a claimed range of 250–300 mi. Consumers have already made 90,000 reservations for the EV, which has a base MSRP of $84,000.
Jeep: Two new Jeep BEVs are slated to start production within the coming year: The three-row Grand Wagoneer EV and the Recon EV, which will offer a power folding roof and removable doors. (It’s still a Jeep, after all.) Jeep aims to offer the three-row with a 400-mi. range, 600 hp and a 3.5-sec. 0–60 time. Little is known about the Recon at this point, though renderings of the vehicle suggest a strong enthusiast appeal.
Land Rover: The luxury automaker enters the electrification space with the all-new Range Rover EV. The rear-wheel-drive ’Rover is said to accommodate three rows of seating and an all-new chassis architecture that can be adapted to gas, hybrid, or full-electric drive configurations.
Mercedes-Benz: The current rage of the adventure van market, the M-B Sprinter EV will be manufactured and sold in the United States with a claimed range of around 300 mi. and a GVWR of 8,500 lbs.
RAM: Set to arrive in 2024, the 1500 Revolution EV, which debuted at the 2023 Consumer Electronics Show, marks the truckmaker’s first foray into full electrification. The 1500 will utilize the new STLA-dedicated EV chassis architecture that will support both light- and heavy-duty RAM electric pickups; cruising range is a claimed 500 mi. and tow capacity is said to be as much as 10,000 lbs.
RAM also re-enters the already-crowded midsize pickup segment with the introduction of the all-new Dakota. It’s still not clear if the truck will be based off the Jeep Gladiator or RAM 1500 platform, but it will almost certainly be powered by the 3.6L engine that’s ubiquitous across the Stellantis product line; a 3.0L diesel Six is another possibility. Rear-wheel- and four-wheel-drive versions will be offered, and a Dakota Rebel off-road trim package is a likely future option.
Tesla: Long delayed, Tesla’s already-iconic Cybertruck is expected to enter production in the second half of 2023. The truck will be produced in both three-motor and four-motor powertrain configurations that are said to enable 0–60 acceleration in under 3 sec. and tow capabilities of up to 14,000 lbs. Rear steering is said to be an option, and cruising range is a claimed 500 mi. between charges.
Toyota: Unchanged since a 2020 facelift, the fourth generation of the Tacoma midsize pickup is expected to debut in mid-2023 with a choice of powertrain options: a turbocharged 2.4L four-cylinder that’s rated at 265 hp in the current Highlander, or the Hybrid Max gas-electric system found in the all-new Crown sedan that replaces the Avalon in Toyota’s product line. The truck will ride on a modified version of the TNGA-F global chassis architecture and is expected to switch over to a rear coil suspension à la the current fullsize Tundra. Additionally, an all-electric version of the HiLux pickup debuted in Thailand last winter, so a Tacoma EV may be in the offing as well.
Also new from Toyota is the three-row Grand Highlander SUV, which debuted at the 2023 Chicago Auto Show and will be built at Toyota’s Indiana assembly plant. The Grand Highlander is expected to receive the same powertrain options as the Tacoma pickup; a Lexus version of the SUV, known as TX, will also roll out this year to replace the GX. A new midsize electric Toyota SUV, the bZ4X, is available for a base MSRP of $42,000 and with a claimed range of 250 mi. Finally, the boxy, off-road-oriented Compact Cruiser EV will look to compete against the Ford Bronco Sport in the compact off-road segment.
Volkswagen: While not a truck or SUV per se, the ’24 ID. Buzz microbus presents an intriguing platform for the evolving overlanding market. (Volkswagen must think so, too; the company plans to roll out a Campmobile version, dubbed “ID. California,” the following year, though it isn’t clear if the vehicle will be sold in the United States) Riding on the same MEB platform shared with the other BEVs in the ID series, the retro-styled, rear-wheel-drive Buzz uses a 150kWh battery that produces some 200 hp.
Overall, the members of our industry panel were generally upbeat about the current condition of the marketplace, with some notable caveats. Specifically, the microchip shortage that has repeatedly sidelined production at OE assembly plants for the past two years has exerted a ripple effect on the specialty-equipment market.
“Right now, it’s very difficult trying to get vehicles,” said Karl Harr, director of sales and marketing for Liquid Spring. “That’s probably been the biggest issue that we’ve had—just getting the truck or chassis to build on. Clients have been waiting up to a year for a vehicle.”
“We’re seeing low inventory at dealerships,” said Rachel Deere, outside sales—light-truck products for Merritt Products, “so it’s a little bit slower just trying to get some of our accessories to our dealers.”
“We also had an issue getting new vehicles,” said Mike Hallmark, marketing and international sales manager for Hellwig Products, “but with production picking back up, we’re seeing more brand-new ’23s on the lots.”
While the limited supply of the late-model trucks continues to pose difficulties, the old-school classic-truck market, by contrast, has seen a surge in popularity in recent years.
“It’s booming,” said Jay McFarland, director of business development for Holley, who also noted that the number of build platforms in the ‘classic-truck’ segment continues to expand. “The ’67–’72 Chevrolet/GMC trucks have always been really popular, but it seems like there’s a shift going on to the square-body ’73–’87 trucks, and now, even the ’88–’98s. I’ve seen the values of those trucks just skyrocket lately.”
D. Brian Smith, marketing copywriter for Classic Industries, concurred. “I don’t know that we’ve seen the boom as big for classic trucks for so long. We’ve been supporting the ’73–’87 trucks for at least 10 years now, and similarly for the ’88–’98 trucks, so we were already had our foot in that market before interest grew. But we’ve definitely seen a major uptick in interest and sales.”
At the grassroots shop level, what are enthusiasts building?
“The ’90s vibe is coming back,” said Theresa Contreras, president of LGE-CTS Motorsports at a recent SEMA Education seminar. “We’re seeing a lot of the ’90s Chevy trucks, and all the phone calls I’ve been getting lately from customers are saying ‘I want to bag and body-drop
“It’s come full circle to the point that vehicles that were in the early ’90s are on their third owner now, and the ones that weren’t modified are now coming back,” added Sean Holman, co-host of “The Truck Show” podcast. For veteran builders, “If you wait long enough and things become popular again, you might be the only person who can service the vehicle if you’ve done that in the past.”
According to Matt Dinelli, owner of Attitude Performance, modern-day truck builds seem to fall into one of two categories: mild or massive. “What we’re seeing at our shop right now,” he says, “is either a basic lift and 35-in. tires, no matter what the platform is, or an absolutely over-the-top, astronomical, down-to-the-frame, motor swap, 1-ton axles and coilovers. Our jobs are either small lift kits and leveling kits, or stuff that’s at the shop for six months. There’s not really a middle ground anymore.”
As the segment expands and more newbies enter the accessorization space, hands-on education at the shop and retail level becomes an important part of customer outreach. “One of our biggest sales tactics is to educate people about the product that they want to purchase and let them make the choice on which brand they end up going with,” said Contreras. “Whenever something leaves our shop, one of our salespeople will go over the vehicle and show the owner how to disconnect the sway bars or how to engage four-wheel drive. There are a lot of people who just don’t know.”
Dinelli concurs, suggesting that shops consider tailoring education sessions to specific audiences. “We’ve had women education classes at our shop where they don’t want to ask their boyfriend, they don’t want to ask their significant other—they want to learn about their vehicle because it is their vehicle and they want to know what you have to do after you drive through water and what have you.” On the other hand, “A lot of our customers are male, and they don’t want to listen to anybody else because they think they already know it.”
All of our sources stressed the importance of maintaining a robust multi-platform digital media presence, with Instagram and YouTube most commonly cited as generating the most user engagement. “Right now, it’s people going on social and just trying to find a very specific thing for their truck,” said Stewart Webb, vice president of marketing at PRYNT Digital. “If you can post whatever you’re building and do it consistently, you’re able to speak to a broader audience and able to bring in more customers as well.”
Targeted search is another viable outreach tool for manufacturers looking to connect with a niche buyer demographic. “We do quite a bit of Google search,” said Cort Charles, western regional sales manager for Auto Meter. “When we’re trying to push specific product lines, we have a lot of targeted ads that are in place. Because some of our newer products are platform-specific and vehicle-specific, it allows us to hone in on a specific group.”
In any event, companies are well advised to invest as heavily as possible in new media. “We have a full digital media department,” said Holley’s McFarland. “We’ve got a social-media department, a department that deals specifically with just videography, and a department that specializes specifically on email and things like that. You’ve got to make that commitment. Otherwise, you’re going to be left behind.”
If this rendering is any guide, the all-new Jeep Recon EV aims to compete against the Ford Bronco Sport in the compact off-road segment. Old-school removable doors are said to be a standard feature. Photo courtesy: Jeep/Stellantis
Overlanding: Still Trending Upward
Nearly all of our experts agreed that the future of overlanding—which has gone from a fringe marketplace to a major industry player in slightly more than a decade—continues to look bright.
“That’s where we have seen a lot of growth,” said Harr. “We do a lot of what we call the ‘habitat builds’ on the Ford F-550 and RAM 5500, and now it’s pushed us into the smaller truck market in the overland space. Right now, we’re also looking at developing product for Mercedes Sprinters and the Ford Transit.”
“I don’t think we’ve hit the plateau yet,” said Steven Shearer, senior marketing manager, communications for Toyo Tire. “There are still manufacturers in the aftermarket space creating product to support that market, and the OE manufacturers are still creating vehicles that are specific to that segment.”
The exact size of the overlanding market, in terms of sales, remains elusive, but the outdoor recreation segment of which it is a component continues to see robust growth. New data released by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) shows that outdoor recreation generated $454 billion in economic output and supported in excess of four million jobs in 2021. According to the BEA report, inflation-adjusted GDP for the sector increased 21% over the previous year.
While overlanders, in the aggregate, tend to be older and more affluent than other automotive consumer bases, several of our experts saw growth opportunity among a younger demographic.
“For the foreseeable future, there will still be upward growth, especially among the younger generation that’s big on traveling outdoors,” said Hannah DeWeese, brand leader for Terra Rover. “Some of these people are adopting it as a new hobby, so it will just keep going as the years go by.
“Our primary target market is Gen X and Millennials,” DeWeese continued. “People who have established incomes that allow them to invest in a nicer trailer for longer trips. They might also have kids, so they’re looking for something bigger. That’s who we’re targeting.”
Some of our experts pointed toward all-wheel-drive crossovers as a future growth segment, particularly to younger “weekend warrior” enthusiasts with limited build budgets.
“RAV4 adventurers seem to be the newest entry,” Holman noted. “I’ve seen so many of those things out in places they shouldn’t be.” Contreras similarly mentioned Kia SUVs such as the Telluride as a source of potential new aftermarket sales. “We get a ton of customer calls because we do stuff with Kia,” she says.
Companies that previously hadn’t catered to the overlanding market have taken notice of the segment’s resiliency and are adjusting their business models accordingly.
“We started in the heavy-duty commercial world,” said Rachel Deere. “We’ve been in the accessories world for years and years, with heavy-duty products, but a lot of our products—ladder racks, headache racks and side boxes—are applicable to overlanding, so in the next year or so, we’re going to be launching new products for that market.”
“Bed accessories are huge right now,” Holman agreed, “and cargo systems such as racks, slides, and things to support rooftop tents and light bars.”
“We’re seeing a slowdown on the side of rooftop tent sales,” Contreras observes, “but the rack systems and multipurpose cargo stuff that make your vehicle more versatile for everything that you do is becoming way more popular, especially for people who want to use the truck for work.”
DeWeese sees additional growth opportunities among the traditional “outdoor lifestyle” sector of recreationalists.
“Another market that hasn’t been mentioned, which we would look to capitalize on, would be the hunting or outdoor sector—people who aren’t just traveling for leisure, but who are going to do something specific. They need storage, and they may need a trailer to be able to get there.”
The increased popularity of overlanding, and other forms of off-road recreation, comes at a potential cost. Public lands saw a surge in visitations in the wake of the COVID pandemic, and the increase in vehicle use poses numerous possible threats to the integrity of fragile ecosystems—and with it, continued access to public lands. To ensure public lands stay accessible, therefore, our experts agreed that newer users need to be educated on the proper principles of off-road etiquette and responsible sustainability practices.
“Education is what changes actions and attitudes, and that’s really where we need to get to,” said Matt Caldwell,” president of Tread Lightly!. “And I think the industry can do that by making sure people understand what their equipment is capable of—both good and, sometimes, bad. Make sure that people understand that just because their vehicle can go anywhere, it’s not supposed to go everywhere.
Also long awaited, the retro-styled Volkswagen ID. Buzz offers an intriguing potential overland build platform with a particular appeal to younger Millennial and Gen Z buyers. Photo courtesy: Volkswagen AG
“There’s a lot of discussion about performance, and performance is great, but focusing on positive performance rather than those things that are going to cause issues down the line—this is where the industry can support us.
“Look at it an organization like Overland Expo. They have a very strong educational component. We need to continue to get people to attend events like these so that we can educate them appropriately. We need to be proactive and make sure that people understand that, ‘Hey, this is land that we’ve worked and fought for for years.’ We need to make sure that we’re continuing that and share the kinds of information that the new person on the trail might not know.”
The Outlook Ahead
Several of our experts expressed concerns about fuel prices and rising interest rates as potential hindrances to growth in 2023.
“Inflation is going to be one of the biggest things,” said Deere, “so we’re probably looking at a little less [consumer] spending.”
The trend toward electrification was cited by several experts as both a potential short-term challenge and a promising long-term opportunity.
“We are broadening our offerings and going into EV platforms,” said Hallmark. “We just released a sway bar for the Tesla Model 3 and Model Y, and we’re looking at the Rivian and any other electric platforms that are there. We’re releasing a front swaybar for the F-150 Lightning as well, so we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve for the adaptations and changes that are coming to the market with EVs.”
On the other hand, electric drivetrains raise compatibility issues for certain specialty-equipment manufacturers, as Auto Meter’s Charles explains: “When you talk about our instrumentation, unless there’s some additional data that their computer is not going to provide, it’s going to be tough for us to find a way to get in there and be a part of it.”
Still, the consensus among our experts was that ICE engines would continue to be the powertrain of choice for the vast majority of truck and SUV owners for the foreseeable future.
“You can’t run the Baja 1000 on an electric vehicle,” said Ben Anderson, product development manager for Mickey Thompson Tires & Wheels. “Gas vehicles are going to be around for quite a while—in the United States, anyway.”
A number of our sources pointed to overseas markets as growth opportunities, with the Middle East and Australia being repeatedly singled out. “They’re our two strongest,” said Hellwig’s Hallmark, “the main reason being is that we’ve seen an influx in USDM [U.S domestic manufacturer] left-hand drive vehicles being sold there. It’s a platform that we’re used to.”
“What’s kind of neat about the international markets is they have a number of applications that we don’t have here in the States, but which may be shared across various countries,” said Ben Anderson, “so globally we can we can cover a lot of area.”
Despite potential economic headwinds, most of our insiders expressed optimism for the future, primarily due to strong consumer demand. “As far as the growth of the industry goes, people are still going to want their accessories,” Deere said. “People really do like that and they like their vehicles, so they’re always looking at the opportunity to upgrade.”
The near-term outlook for overlanding in particular appears to be especially promising. “You know, COVID has been around for more than three years now,” DeWeese concluded, “and the market doesn’t seem to be declining, only growing. It’s definitely not a passing fad.”
About the Truck & Off-Road Alliance
Members of the Truck & Off-Road Alliance (TORA) represent the collective interest of its members through a single, powerful voice that can play a significant role in shaping the industry. They are joined together to form a potent coalition whose mission is to determine the shape and future of the truck and off-road accessory industry. TORA is a SEMA council whose member companies manufacture, distribute, sell and/or install accessories for off-road vehicles, light-duty pickups, ATVs or provide services to the off-road or truck accessory industry. To learn more about TORA and SEMA’s other industry councils, visit www.sema.org/get-involved.
About Tread Lightly!
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 saw a surge in motorized vehicle traffic on public lands as outdoor enthusiasts sought their own forms of “social distancing.” The U.S Forest Service alone logged some 168 million visits, while the Bureau of Land Management recorded more than 73 million more. With public lands being subjected to more intensive use than ever, and a generation of new and inexperienced recreationalists entering the sector via overlanding and adventure vans, the need for educational outreach—to provide guidance in the proper stewardship of our natural resources for future generations—has never been greater.
Enter Tread Lightly! Founded in 1985 as a division of the U.S. Forest Service, the organization now functions as a member-based nonprofit working in cooperation with private-sector partners in the outdoor industry on nationwide initiatives to protect and enhance recreational access and opportunities by promoting outdoor ethics to increase individual awareness and understanding.
Tread Lightly!’s goal is to balance the needs of the people who enjoy outdoor recreation with the need to maintain healthy ecosystems and thriving populations of fish and wildlife. The scope of Tread Lightly!’s work includes both land and water and represents most popular forms of outdoor recreation such as hunting, recreational shooting, fishing, and boating. Promoting safe and responsible use of motorized and mechanized vehicles in the outdoors remains a top priority.