By Paul Lienert and Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co has pushed forward the launch of its next-generation full-size pickups by about nine months to fall 2018, hoping to narrow rival Ford Motor Co's still-sizable lead in meeting future U.S. fuel-economy standards, supplier sources said on Monday.
Redesigned versions of GM's full-size sport-utility vehicles are expected to follow about a year later, the two sources said.
GM officials declined to comment on future product plans.
Like Ford with its all-new 2015 F-150, GM is dramatically lightening the next versions of its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, which are being developed under a program known to suppliers as T1XX, or T1 for short.
The first versions of the current redesigned pickups debuted last year, and GM is introducing SUVs based on that platform this year.
Despite the accelerated schedule, the new GM trucks still will not reach U.S. dealers until about four years after the F-150, whose design keeps the pickup's weight down through intensive use of aluminum. U.S. and Canadian dealers on Monday began ordering the Ford truck, which is expected to hit showrooms this fall.
Given the weight reductions GM has already made, it may not lag its rival by much. The curb weight on a base 2015 Silverado is 4,392 pounds (1,992 kg), compared with the sub-4,500-pound (2,040-kg) total for a comparable 2015 F-150.
Ford is not worried. The No. 2 U.S. automaker plans to hold onto its sales crown in the segment by continuing to refine its truck's efficiency.
“It’s not like we’re sitting still after ’15," Ford spokesman Mike Levine said. "We’ll continue to improve the F-150.”
Tough new fuel-economy rules go into effect in 2017, spurring U.S. automakers to overhaul radically their high-margin pickups, which account for the lion's share of pretax profits at Ford and GM.
But the weight reduction programs carry some risk in terms of the massive investments required to shave hundreds of pounds from those vehicles. Another risk: The possibility that some traditional truck buyers, especially commercial users, may question the ruggedness and durability of weight-saving aluminum and composites in place of conventional steel in body panels and suspensions.
Those issues should be of less concern to buyers of the Chevrolet Suburban and GMC Yukon sport utilities, which also are being redesigned and lightened under the T1 program, suppliers said. The next-generation Suburban and Yukon XL are due in fall 2019, they said.
GM Chief Executive Mary Barra last week told analysts that the automaker has more substantial enhancements coming for the current Silverado and Sierra. While she and GM officials did not provide details, that includes new transmissions and engines.
Bill Rinna, senior manager of forecasting at industry research firm LMC Automotive said that while future fuel-economy requirements "are clearly in GM's sights, any major enhancements, including significant lightweighting, are not expected to occur until the next redesign" in about four years.
In addition to the efforts to trim weight from the vehicle, GM is following Ford's lead in developing more advanced engines and transmissions that will help to meet new fuel-economy targets.
GM said it will begin offering new eight-speed automatic transmissions late this year on certain versions of the 2015 Silverado, Sierra and Yukon, replacing the current six-speed automatic. The eight-speed is expected to provide better towing performance and improved fuel economy.
GM and Ford are jointly developing a new 10-speed automatic for their future trucks. Suppliers said the 10-speed likely will not be ready for production until the redesigned Silverado and Sierra arrive in fall 2018.
GM also is planning a new family of smaller, lighter, more powerful engines similar to Ford's EcoBoost engines, with fuel injection, turbocharging and stop-start systems designed to dramatically improve efficiency.
While the new trucks are still in development, both GM and Ford have raised the stakes, offering hefty incentives on current models.
Despite additional dealer discounts of up to $10,000, however, sales of full-size pickups have slowed this year.
Through the first six months, Ford F-series sales dipped slightly to 365,825, while combined Silverado/Sierra sales rose slightly to 333,870. Industry truck sales overall rose 8 percent during the same period.
(Reporting by Paul Lienert and Ben Klayman in Detroit)