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End of an Era: Death of the U.S. Pickup Truck

Jesse Toprak, an auto industry analyst for car-shopping Web site TrueCar.com, said "clearly, higher gas prices are an issue and the uncertainty over the economy" are reasons for the change in sales trends. Still, the sales decrease of trucks and SUVs stems from consumers' newfound fiscal conservatism.

"We see changed buyer behavior" in that the impulse buyer is gone, replaced by one seeking value, he said.

The excitement, or what car dealers used to call "the sizzle," of new-car buying has disappeared, especially for gas-guzzlers, he added.

Pickup trucks made up about 12% of industry sales in 2010 and have hovered around that share this year, although Ford and General Motors (GM - Get Report) both saw sales tumble 10% in May on the spike in fuel prices. Chrysler's Dodge Ram sales were up 38% in May, but that was from a very weak base last year when the company was operating in bankruptcy.

Tom Henderson, a GM spokesman, said "we think the underlying demand fundamentals still remain for the business-use buyers," and the industry forecast is for pickup sales to make up about 11% of total vehicle sales in the second half of this year, due in great part to pent-up demand from the business buyer.

As for consumers' shift away from big pickups, Henderson said GM is seeing the "personal use" buyer now opting for mid-sized "crossover" vehicles such as the Chevy Traverse and Equinox or the Buick Enclave, which have big cargo and passenger capacities, but are smaller and more fuel-efficient. They get about 24 miles per gallon, about 50% more than that of pickups.

Analysts don't expect total vehicle sales to be down this year at the Big 3. In fact, it will be a decent year if the economic recovery holds and gas prices moderate.

But pickups' market share isn't expected to rebound as in previous economic cycles, and that leaves a hole in companies' earnings, given pickups' fat profit margins.

Visnic said pickups and SUVs had up to 30% profit margins, compared with 6% to 7% for a company's total product line. "That (loss) is not easy to make up."

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