Throughout much of the second half of this year, the automotive industry has watched light-duty vehicle sales climb slowly but smoothly, driven by pent-up demand, better access to financing, and, most recently, a possible flicker of improvement in small business confidence. By the end of October, forecasters like LMC Automotive and PricewaterhouseCoopers were predicting that U.S. light vehicle sales would hit 14.4 million or even 14.5 million units, respectively. Hints of “upside potential” for 2013 are also being heard in the hallways.Light-duty trucks (Class 1 vehicles of 6,000 lbs. GVW or less and Class 2 vehicles of 6,001 to 10,000 lbs. GVW) are finding ever more work to do in the commercial sector, and truck OEMs are adding options to make it easier than ever to find the right vehicle for the job at hand now.

There are so many light-duty truck models available to buyers today that the choices can be daunting. Online shopping guides can be a place to begin kicking virtual tires, but when you are talking trucks for commercial applications, it is important to have a list of non-negotiable capabilities and features at the ready, including load requirements (both cargo and people), duty cycle, routes and road conditions, legal restrictions, additional chassis-mounted equipment to be accommodated, operating cost expectations, comfort, and communications capabilities.

At www.edmunds.com, for example, truck shoppers can search by manufacturer, price, or features as well as read reviews and recommendations. The site www.pickuptrucks.com offers similar capabilities. The new light-duty pickup report developed by Utilimarc and offered at no charge to NAFA members, however, may be the best guide yet for true work-truck buyers who need more comparative information about specs and performance than consumer-focused tools are intended to provide.

According to NAFA, the new report includes “data on the total average annual cost for light-duty pickups; operating costs per mile (net fuel); average annual internal technician labor-hours per 1,000 mi. driven; average annual miles driven; and more.”

“NAFA is proud to be able to offer such valuable information to our members,” said NAFA’s executive director Phillip E. Russo, CAE. “Utilimarc’s in-depth benchmarking databases and services meet all of the criteria and guidelines set by NAFA. Their information is invaluable and provides excellent insights into the industry.”

COMING RIGHT UP For 2013, the breadth and depth of options for light-duty commercial customers is slowly growing, although the biggest changes are almost certainly yet to come:

  • Ford is planning to gradually phase out its light-duty commercial E-Series vans and replace them with an all-new Transit van platform, which will be introduced with a diesel engine option for the 2013 model year.
  • General Motors will offer a factory-built bi-fuel system for both its Chevrolet and GMC extended cab heavy-duty pickup trucks.
  • International’s eStar Class 2c-3 all-electric truck will remain the same for the 2013 model year; however, it is expected to be central to a broader strategy to bring electrified commercial vehicles to urban centers across the U.S. The truck is built by the Navistar-Modec EV Alliance.
  • Mercedes-Benz USA, a division of Germany’s Daimler AG, has not announced any major changes for its Sprinter vans in 2013.
  • Nissan’s commercial vehicle division is intending to introduce the Nissan NV200 compact cargo van, designed for cargo van and small pickup fleets looking for improved fuel efficiency.
  • Chrysler’s Ram Trucks division has updated the Ram 1500 pickup for the 2013 model year. The company is offering two retooled engines connected to a new 8-spd. automatic transmission.
  • Toyota said it plans to remain focused on offering the simplified option packages for the Tundra full-sized 2013 model year pickup that it first rolled out for the 2012 model year. A “work truck” configuration is among those options.

AND YET….. If the additions and changes to light-duty truck and van models do not currently reflect sweeping product line shifts, that does not necessarily mean that seismic market events are not taking place below the surface. According to Lux Research, for instance, market-altering moves are occurring globally right now that will determine the winners and losers in tomorrow’s light-duty arena.

“Innovations driven by megatrends are breaking the traditional automotive ecosystem,” noted Kevin See, Lux research analyst and the lead author of a new Lux report, Under the Hood: Mapping Automotive Innovations to Megatrends, in a recent news release. “OEMs need to evolve their partnership webs to succeed; however, we find different OEMs have dramatically different approaches. Their strategies today will change the shape of the auto industry in decades to come.”

Lux specifically identified three, so-called megatrends: sustainability, materials and urbanization. Among the Lux research findings:

  • General Motors leads the partnership race. “GM boasts the highest activity in both materials and sustainability megatrends, while Toyota leads in urbanization. Each resides in an expansive ecosystem, forming a large number of partnerships across diverse technologies.”
  • Volkswagen, Toyota and Daimler look outside their continents for 77% of their partnerships, but BMW— like GM and Ford—keeps over half of its partnerships within Europe.
  • Entrepreneurs from emerging-market countries are challenging established automakers for the mass market.

For fleets that have delayed replacing older equipment, watching these long-term trends may absolutely have to take a backseat to making decisions about how to meet more urgent, capacity-now needs. When it comes to longer-term planning, however, it may make sense to train your sights just past the horizon line.