Fight over pickup bragging rights reveals Detroit's fuzzy payload math

No vehicles mean more to Detroit's automakers than their pickups, which have been the most popular models sold by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler for decades. And while the three tend to avoid getting in each other's grilles in most segments, the billions of dollars at stake in the pickup market leads to more aggressive moves.

It was one of those occasional spats over bragging rights this week that led to revelations about how the automakers measure and market their trucks' capabilities — and a deep-seated dispute over whether some of those choices go to far.

As unearthed by Automotive News, the fight began with sparring between Ford and Chrysler's Ram division over which built the heavy-duty truck with the greatest towing capacity. Ram contends its Ram 3500 deserves the title; Ford says it's F-450 has a higher figure and threatened to take Ram to court to halt its ads. Ram replied that the F-450 was actually a commercial-grade vehicle — Class 4 in the technical term — that Ford had written down on paper only, in a bid to deny Ram the superlative.


All of this wouldn't matter outside of a corporate boardroom, but the dispute brought to light just how Ford and GM tally the payload capacity of their trucks. Every truck has a "gross vehicle weight rating" — the maximum load it can carry. The payload rating is the gross weight minus the truck's curb weight; every pound of additional mass built into a pickup typically lowers its payload.

2014 Ram Power Wagon
2014 Ram Power Wagon

Ram says it takes the lightest base model including all necessary fluids and deems that as the curb weight for payload calculations. But Ford and GM do it differently; they delete some everyday items from their base pickups to reduce their weight and thereby boost their payload ratings.

In Ford's case, it says it calculates a minimum weight for its F-Series Super Duty pickups by removing the spare tires, on-board jack, radio and center console and switching to lighter wheels, saving about 150 lbs. GM says it removes the back bumper and spare tire on both its heavy-duty and 2015 versions of the light-duty Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra before measuring payload, for an unspecified weight loss.

2015 Ford F-150
2015 Ford F-150

Ford says it's transparent with Super Duty customers about the payload ratings in those pickups, providing a worksheet that dealers and buyers can use to show how adding or deleting different features will change the vehicle's weight. (In theory, a F-350 buyer could order a truck without a pickup bed, gaining 588 lbs. in payload but losing the ability to put it on the truck.)

"Some customers prefer to delete equipment that is not needed to put toward max payload or to get money back," said Ford spokesman Mike Levine. "Other customers might want to replace equipment with something that isn’t job specific. We’re giving our customers the flexibility and information they need to maximize payload."

While Ford had said earlier this week that it used a similar process for the best-selling F-150, it now says that's not the case, and that the F-150's payloads are calculated with a base, unmodified truck. GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson says the automaker deletes the bumper and spare in measuring payload for both light and heavy-duty trucks because customers ask for such changes, especially commercial buyers.

"Like Ford, we calculate minimum curb weight by looking at the lightest truck a customer can order," Wilkinson said.

2015 GMC Sierra HD
2015 GMC Sierra HD

But Ford and GM appear to be alone in this approach. Ram, Toyota and Nissan confirmed they do not delete any items from their half-ton trucks for payload ratings. "Ram Truck Engineering calculates the base weight and does not change the weight with 'delete-able options,'" said spokesman Nick Cappa.

And adding to the confusion is the adoption of an industry standard — SAEJ2807 —for measuring how much a truck can tow, which is separate from its payload rating. That standard, which Ford, GM and Ram will adopt for 2015, requires automakers to weigh the pickup with all the options sold on at least 33 percent of those models. That change will lower some towing capacity numbers and also create some odd effects; a GM light-duty truck will have one curb weight on paper when it's not towing, and a heavier one (beyond the weight of the trailer) when it is.

While payload ratings matter less to light-duty pickup owners than commercial users who haul goods daily, they can come into play when owners push their trucks to the limit; all truck makers warn their warranties are void if a truck hauls more than its payload rating. And it's one of those levers that truck dealers can't help but pull when trying to close a deal — although as this debate shows, customers should make sure they fully understand just what they're buying.