Automakers play up pickups at Texas State Fair

— -- In the world of $2-a-gallon gas, pickups ruled. But even as automakers now tout their new fuel-efficient cars more than trucks, the rugged vehicles are clawing their way back.

Just how far will be on display today at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, a big annual event for truck makers in the USA's biggest state truck market. This year, pickup makers plan a series of announcements that underscore how interest in tough cargo-haulers is recovering.

Sales of all pickups increased 8.5% in the first eight months of the year compared with the same period a year ago, Autodata reports.

Sales are being helped by slightly lower gas prices and a slightly improving economy for commercial buyers, although sales still are being held down by the downturn in housing. Contractors and builders are traditionally a critical market for pickups.

"Image" buyers, the ones who bought the fanciest, most option-loaded pickups a decade ago to cruise drive-ins — and rarely hauled anything heftier than a holiday tree — are long gone.

"If you aren't looking at a truck to work or a truck to tow, you'll probably look at another (vehicle) segment," says Alec Gutierrez, manager of vehicle evaluation for Kelley Blue Book.

Yet, if there was any doubt about the renewed health of the pickup market, look no further than the announcements expected to come out of the Texas fair today:

•Ford Motor. The super-macho Ford Raptor, a go-anywhere off-road version of the F-Series, will get a front-view camera to help the driver see obstacles as they crawl over rocks and other obstacles in rugged terrain.

At the other, black-tie extreme, Ford is giving a dressed-up look to the F-150 with a new FX appearance package. And all EcoBoost turbocharged V-6 versions will get a bigger, 36-gallon gas tank to extend range up to 756 miles.

•General Motors. For the key Texas pickup market, Chevrolet will create a Texas edition of its heavy-duty pickup. It already has one for the regular lighter-duty Silverado. Creating such special versions for Texas is a tradition for pickup makers.

The new HD truck includes such fancy perks as running boards and Texas-edition badges on the sides. The fancy fixings are just for Texas, but most of the truck's feature package will be available in other markets.

•Chrysler Group. Ram, the company's truck division, will announce that its popular Ram Box — storage boxes built into the walls of the truck bed — will be available in a longer-bed, 6-foot, 4-inch version and for its Ram Heavy Duty pickups. Ram also is cutting the price for the optional boxes by 32% to $1,295.

•Toyota. To help burnish the brand's reputation for off-road capability, Toyota is unveiling a limited-edition off-road version of its Tacoma midsize pickup. "It's for image leadership," says Kevin Higgins, Toyota's corporate manager for trucks and SUVs.

Though they're considered conservative, pickup buyers haven't wholly resisted changes in the products to meet the times. Even Ford executives have been surprised that its EcoBoost V-6 is conquering diehard V-8 truck fans. Some 42% of the pickups sold in September were bought with the more fuel-efficient engine, says Doug Scott, Ford's group marketing manager.

Makers say the truck market will really take off when the economy does, and pull in buyers waiting on the sidelines.

"There is pent-up demand," says Brian Maki, GM's south-central field manager.