Exclusive: Chrysler's Ram pickup may stick with steel through 2020 - sources

DETROIT (Reuters) - Chrysler Group [CHRY.UL] is planning an extensive facelift of its full-size Ram 1500 pickup in spring 2017, but has no firm plans to follow rivals General Motors and Ford Motor Co in replacing steel body panels with aluminum until a complete redesign after 2020, industry sources told Reuters.

A member of the media sends a text message next to a 2012 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck during the first media preview day at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show in Chicago, Illinois February 8, 2012. REUTERS/Frank Polich

While Ford and GM are shifting to lighter aluminum body panels to dramatically reduce the weight of their best-selling full-size pickups - this fall and in the fall of 2018, respectively - Chrysler is planning to stick mainly with steel when it updates the big Ram pickup in 2017, according to two sources familiar with the automakers’ plans.

Chrysler is thereby sidestepping the risk of alienating commercial users, many of which believe steel is more rugged and durable than aluminum, as well as foregoing the additional investment of converting many steel parts to aluminum, as Ford and GM are doing.

The two larger automakers can spread the investment over more vehicles. Ford sells nearly twice as many pickups as Chrysler, which is a unit of Italy’s Fiat SpA.

All three automakers are dependent on big trucks and SUVs for the lion’s share of their profits. At Chrysler, those vehicles account for nearly 100 percent of pretax earnings.

Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne, who also heads Chrysler, told investors in May that the use of weight-saving aluminum at Chrysler “is better suited in other vehicles than pickup trucks.”

At the time, Chrysler confirmed that it would update the light-duty Ram 1500 in 2017. The current Ram 1500 was introduced in late 2008 as a 2009 model and has received several significant upgrades since then.

However, the five-year future product plan shared with investors in May made no mention of when the Ram would receive a full redesign.

Industry sources familiar with the company’s plans said Chrysler is not likely to undertake a full redesign of the Ram before 2021 at the earliest.

Chrysler spokesman Rick Deneau on Thursday said: “We can’t comment beyond what was in the five-year plan.”

Asked as to whether or when Chrysler might incorporate more aluminum in future versions of the Ram, he said “we haven’t made any decisions.”

By electing not to invest as much as its Detroit rivals in aluminum, Chrysler will have to rely on other measures, including improving its engines and transmissions, to meet increasingly stringent U.S. emissions and fuel economy standards for trucks, beginning in 2018.

It is already ahead of the curve, offering versions of the 2014 Ram pickup with such fuel-saving features as a six-cylinder diesel engine, an eight-speed transmission and an automatic stop-start system.

Nonetheless, by putting off a full redesign of the Ram and a shift to more aluminum, the smallest of the Detroit-based automakers risks losing ground to the Big Two after several years of booming pickup sales.

Ford’s F-series remains the most popular truck in the United States, with sales through July up a fraction to 429,065. GM’s Chevrolet Silverado was down 1 percent to 282,776. Chrysler’s Ram was up 19 percent to 239,481.

Chrysler’s Ram Trucks unit, formerly part of the Dodge brand, was created after Fiat acquired control of the U.S. automaker following its 2009 bankruptcy.

Reporting by Bernie Woodall and Paul Lienert in Detroit, editing by G Crosse