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Now, here's a more tangible indicator of the health of the American economy: vehicle sales, and more specifically, the sales of pickup trucks. Trucks are tied to what's going on in construction, and last month sales were up 18 percent. As NPR's Sonari Glinton reports, the auto industry is betting big on a real estate rebound.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: You could the argument that the Ford F-150 is the most important vehicle to come out of Detroit since the Model-T, and it's built on the same grounds as the old Model-T in Dearborn, Michigan.
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GLINTON: Standing between two separate assembly lines as long as the city block, the plant manager, Brad Huff, explains how a truck comes together.
BRAD HUFF: The frame's built upside down, and it gives us easy access. So then the frame is built up and is turned over, then it comes down here on this line where we pick up the tire and the wheel. And then we wind up at the marriage station where the body meets the frame.
GLINTON: The Ford F-150 has been the best-selling truck for 36 years in the U.S., and it's been the best-selling automobile of any kind for 31. They build 7,500 F-150s here every week. And there is this crazy statistic - there are almost 600,000 ways you can have this truck outfitted.
HUFF: We got color mixed in. We got moon roof, nine moon roofs. We got 40/60 seats, and it goes right down to different trim levels interior. So I know it's hard to explain that it comes out to 600,000. But when you put all those different combinations together, it comes right down to it.
GLINTON: Now, Ford is rumored to be introducing a new version of its pickup truck. The company had a concept vehicle at the Detroit Auto Show. Doug Scott with Ford won't say exactly when a new truck is coming, but he does say something big is on the way.
DOUG SCOTT: And housing is now coming back. We've seen over the last four, five months improvement in housing starts, house prices, more construction, and all that is a bellwether and a great indicator for the full-size pickup business, so we're really optimistic.
GLINTON: And there's reason why this pickup in the housing industry has Detroit executives smiling. Trucks have much better profit margins than cars.
ALEC GUTIERREZ: For every Ford F-series that's sold, they're making anywhere from six to $8,000 in profit, whereas your average Fusion or Escape or Focus, they might be making 800, maybe $2,000 in profit at most.
GLINTON: Alec Gutierrez is an analyst with Kelley Blue Book. Each of the carmakers is poised to benefit if the housing sector does come roaring back. Chrysler just released a new version of the Ram, General Motors is coming out with two new trucks, and there are all those Ford executives winking about something big in the works. Gutierrez says even small housing gains can mean big money, truck-wise.
GUTIERREZ: Pickup trucks, at the end of the day, are really used for work, for hauling back and forth, for taking things back and forth to the construction sites. So as housing starts to improve and as commercial real estate starts to improve and just construction in general, that's where you really start to see strength in the pickup truck market as small businesses have to get these trucks so they can haul equipment and people back and forth to the job sites.
GLINTON: Before the financial crisis and the auto bailouts, almost all the Big Three's profits came from trucks and SUVs. That's changed, especially for General Motors, but the pressure is still on. GM is relaunching a Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra this spring. Kenn Bakowski is with GM. He says his company's new trucks are the most important product launches in the company's history because, he says, GM has something to prove.
KENN BAKOWSKI: So as you look for a company that's on the rebound, definitely on its way back, this is a big sign that we can be competitive here and that we can win here. That's very important to us.
GLINTON: The Ford F-150 has been eating your lunch quarter after quarter, year after years. It's...
BAKOWSKI: And what's your question? Will we outsell our competitor in terms of full-size pickups? That's our goal. And we did in January.
BAKOWSKI: Are you looking for me to throw down the gauntlet?
BAKOWSKI: I think I just did.
GLINTON: Ford says bring it on. And so the truck war begins. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
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CORNISH: And we want to let you know about a breaking story. President Hugo Chavez has died, that's according to Venezuela's vice president. Chavez was 58 years old. We'll have more on this story later this hour.
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