It's been a tough year for medium-duty truck sales The numbers compiled by Ward's Communications through just the first eight months of this year are pretty grim, to say the least. Compared to 2001, Class 3 sales are off 14.1%, Class 4 sales are off 30.3% and Class 7 sales 24%. Class 5 and 6 sales have declined the least, but they are still down nonetheless — dropping 5.1% and 4.6%, respectively.

However, there's also a more subtle change taking place that could benefit medium-duty fleets now and for some time to come. Market-share positions have shifted, and as a result we're seeing product changes on a scale we haven't experienced in decades.

Let's look at the market-share rankings using Ward's data for Class 6-7 trucks. In 1997, International Truck & Engine Corp. was the top seller, holding a 40% market share, followed by Ford Motor Co. at 26%, General Motors at 21%, and Freightliner at 13%. Truck sales in those classes by sister companies Peterbilt Motors Co. and Kenworth Truck Co. didn't even register.

Now look at the Class 6-7 market today. International is still on top with 40%, but Freightliner is now number two with a 24% share — which rises to 27% when sales of its Sterling Truck subsidiary are included. GM hangs on at number three with an 18% share, but Ford is the big loser, falling to an 11% share. Peterbilt and Kenworth now have a 2% market share each.

A key consequence of this market-share shift has been an almost wholesale re-design of medium-duty trucks.

Freightliner got the ball rolling in 1991 with the introduction of its Business Class line of medium-duty trucks, and later with the Acterra line developed by its Sterling Truck subsidiary. Now Freightliner is rolling out the new Business Class M2 line.

One reason International remains on top, though, is its nearly $1 billion truck redesign effort that began in 1994. In February of last year it rolled out the first of its new High Performance truck models, introducing the medium-duty configuration first. The HP design proved itself rather dramatically by the end of 2001, as International's Class 6 sales increased 324% to 10,587 units compared to 2000.

It's interesting to note that while International developed a completely new base platform for its trucks, it joined forces with an erstwhile competitor to try and broaden market share. Ford has formed a joint venture with International called Blue Diamond Truck in an effort to revive its sagging medium-duty presence.

Ford has unveiled its new 2004 model F-650 and F-750 Super Duty trucks in an effort to regain lost ground. The Blue Diamond venture is also helping International develop a low-cab forward or cabover Class 3-5 product for 2004 — a cab style it has lacked in the past.

General Motors has also been busy in the medium-duty truck lab. The OEM recently introduced its GMT 560 line of Class 4-8 trucks under the brand names Chevrolet Kodiak and GMC TopKick. The GMT 560 replaces GM's C-Series with a completely new truck platform designed to cover a wider range of market niches and needs, including a 4WD version due out in the next few years.

Finally, Peterbilt and Kenworth plan to introduce medium-duty cabover trucks in the U.S. based on a platform developed by DAF, their European sister company. DAF's Class 5-7 LF cabover, introduced in Europe in 2001, will be brought to the U.S. by the end of this year.

All of this activity adds up to one thing for medium-duty fleets — your choices are a lot better and wider than they've ever been.