Not only are casual-use pickup-truck buyers leaving the segment, but those who actually need the capability of a fullsize pickup are downsizing, says Frank Davis, Ford Motor Co.’s executive director of North American product development.

According to Ford research, the trend is pulling drivers from the F-Series Super Duty lineup to smaller F-150s. F-250 move-downs to F-150s have increased from 5.5% in the first six months of 2007 to 9.0% in like-2008, Ford data suggests.

“We’re seeing people shifting from F-250s down into the F-150 range,” Davis says during a launch event for the '09 F-150. “They’re coming in and looking at value, and the F-150 offers the value. There’s a similar phenomenon going on with F-150 buyers that are moving to (midsize) Rangers. We’re seeing people moving down one size.”

In September, the F-150 accounted for 58.3% of total F-Series sales, compared with 34.2% for the F-250 and F-350, Ward’s data shows. Since the beginning of the year, the F-150 has gained ground on the Super Duty as a percentage of total F-Series sales. In August, F-150 sales were 65.1% of total F-Series deliveries, compared with 28.9% for the F-250 and F-350.

Through September, F-150 sales were down 26.7% to 362,142 units, while Super-Duty deliveries fell 29.1% to 30,556, Ward’s data shows.

Ranger sales have held up considerably well in an overall depressed market, with deliveries through September down a modest 4.6% to 54,815 units, according to Ward’s data.

The trend of pickup-truck customers moving down a size was one of the reasons Ford focused on increased capability with the new F-150, which when equipped with a 3-valve 5.4L V-8 engine can tow 11,300 lbs. (5,126 kg) and haul 3,030 lbs.(1,274 kg).

“People that are coming from the Super Duty still need fullsize-truck capability, and they’re looking for payload and trailer tow,” Davis says.

Core pickup buyers, or those who use their trucks for work purposes, also are changing their driving habits, including reducing their speed and limiting their use of air conditioning, Ford research shows.

Not surprisingly, fuel economy has increased in importance to buyers, Davis says.

“It’s gone from No. 10 to No. 1 on the list of considerations. No matter what type of vehicle you have, (fuel economy) is important in this market.”

The auto maker says fuel economy has been increased an average 8% across the entire F-150 lineup, with a 12% improvement on high-volume 5.4L V-8 models.

Meanwhile, Davis calls the F-150’s main competitor, the '09 Dodge Ram, a “poser” in the eyes of hardcore truck customers and questions Dodge’s strategy of targeting non-core buyers, a part of the segment that is rapidly diminishing due to escalating fuel prices.

“I think Dodge is late to the party. They’re going after the personal use (customers) with the (Ram’s) independent rear suspension,” Davis says of Dodge’s decision to use a rear coil-spring suspension setup, instead of the leaf springs traditionally found on fullsize pickups.

Additionally, the Ram can tow only 7,300 lbs. (3,311 kg), 2 tons (1.8 t) less than the F-150.

“While (Dodge) is a competitor, we don’t have real serious competition there,” says Marc Lapine, product marketing manager for F-150. “There are a lot of things I think, in hindsight, that (Dodge) will think they should have executed better.

“We made a decision that our target customer is where we feel the core of the truck market is and not the target customer they seem to be going after,” he says. “I don’t think (Dodge) tried to hide the fact they won’t be the most capable.”

bpope@wardsauto.com