Despite Toyota Motor Co.'s reputation for impeccable quality and a new, multivalve 4.7L V-8 engine, its Tundra full-size pickup truck enters the market at a time when demand in this highly profitable segment is beginning to slow and competitors are upgrading their offerings.

General Motors Corp. is ramping up production of its 1999 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, powered by its enhanced family of Vortec iron-block V-8's. Ford has redesigned the grilles of its F-series pickup and squeezed 25 more horsepower (up to 260) out of its 5.4L Triton V-8 engine.

Just as in the sport/utility market, the luxury players want a piece of the pickup action.

Lincoln product planners (you are not hallucinating) reportedly are working on a luxury pickup to be called the Blackwood. Rumors are circulating that Cadillac also is exploring a luxury pickup to complement its new Escalade sport/ute.

"Obviously there will be more pricing pressure," says Jim Hall, manager of market analysis for AutoPacific Group Inc. in West Bloomfield, MI. "but, trust me, Toyota will easily do 100,000 units in the first full-year of Tundra production."

Since the trough of the last recession in 1992, full-size pickup sales in the U.S. have zoomed from 1.1 million to just below 1.8 million in 1997 and about the same this year. Much of that growth has been fueled by owners of compact pickups and passenger cars who want more metal, horsepower and hauling capability. That trend may be close to playing itself out.

Even if gasoline prices remain stagnant or drop, some full-size pickup owners already have migrated to full-size sport/utilities. That's why Toyota will begin building a full-size SUV in Indiana within about two years to compete with the likes of Ford Expedition, Chevrolet Tahoe and Dodge Durango.

Edward O'Brien, principal partner of Standard & Poor's DRI North American Light Vehicle Service, says sales of both truck-based sport/utilities and the growing selection of half-car/half-truck crossover vehicles will continue to lure people out of their pickups.

But like those who envisioned the death of the minivan when sport/utility sales soared, anyone writing off the full-size pickup market could end up looking foolish.

DRI projects the segment growing from 1,921,600 units in 1997 to 2,087,800 in 2002, but it counts the Dodge Dakota as full-size, while other studies do not. Backing out the Dakota numbers would change DRI's prediction from 1,789, 600 last year to 1,951,600 in 2002.

Mr. Hall forecasts incremental growth for full-size pickups from the current 1.8-million-a-year level to about 1.9 million in 2003.

Chris Cedergren, president of marketing for consultant Nextrend in Thousand Oaks, CA, is a bit more skeptical.

"We think there will be a peak this year at about 1.8 million and a slight drop off in 1999," Mr. Cedergren says. "You can certainly argue that the large pickup segment offers some of the best values in the industry, but all of the baby boomers who want one have already bought it."

After Toyota cranks up its new truck plant to full production and GM ramps up Silverado and Sierra output at all three of its full-size truck plants, North American capacity for these workhorses on wheels will approach 2.3 million (see chart). There is some export demand in the Middle East, but probably not enough to absorb completely the potential surplus.

Aside from the $750 GM is offering to help clear out its 1998 C/K and Sierra pickups, incentives within the segment so far are limited to low-interest financing.

"Toyota's not going to steal many customers from GM, Ford or Chrysler, but they will make pricing more difficult," says Mr. Cedergren.

Of course, the biggest threat to large pickups and SUVs would be a legislative push to bring the Corporate Average Fuel Economy for light-trucks (currently 20.5 mpg [11.5L/100 km] in line with the 27.5 mpg [8. 5L/100 km] standard for passenger cars).

With President Clinton facing censure at best and impeachment at worst, and Republicans planning to add to their majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate, only the extremely paranoid would worry too much about that.