DETROIT—For decades, Toyota’s Camry sedan has been a best seller even though critics and even company executives described its exterior as conservative, bland or boring. Designers at Chevrolet were sick of hearing those same things said about their Silverado pickup truck.
General Motors Co.’s main brand this weekend is revealing the first new Silverado—its top-selling U.S. vehicle and among the highest-margin products in the auto industry—in more than five years. Tyler Moffett, the 32-year-old designer who hand-sketched the design, already has heard comments that the truck has a “squinty” face, even a steely, Clint Eastwood look.
“I love that,” said Mr. Moffett, who grew up around Chevy trucks owned by his dad’s forestry business in Virginia. “It looks serious, almost sinister, but still looks like a face of experience. Like the most experienced farmer in the world, or something.”
Even as electric cars and autonomous vehicles gain increasing attention, auto makers are set to show off new pickup trucks at the Detroit auto show, which kicks off this weekend with media preview events. GM rivals Ford Motor Co. and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles NV will show off new engines and body styles to keep an edge in a U.S. pickup market that represents 17% of overall sales and substantial portion of Detroit auto makers’ profits.
Pickups routinely sell for more than $50,000, with interior features and technology rivaling the highest-end products from luxury makers. The average price of Ford’s aluminum F-150, for instance, is a segment-leading $45,000 even with incentives factored in.
Car designers are known for using colorful analogies to describe the lines and forms that go into a vehicle’s look. The appearance of the new Silverado has gotten outsize attention inside GM. When executives last took the stage to unveil a new Silverado, in late 2012, the design was widely panned as staid.
Early in the planning for the new truck, GM’s head of product development, Mark Reuss, would often pop into the design studio in suburban Detroit unannounced. “Guys, you can’t go far enough,” Mr. Reuss said, according to lead exterior designer Rich Scheer.
In an interview, Mr. Scheer said he wanted “a departure” from the boxy, geometric lines that characterize the current Silverado. The new truck was designed to look “lean, muscular, sculpted.” He pointed out one crease in the sheet metal that plunges downward from the front fender into the driver’s side door. “It almost looks like a muscle being pulled through,” he said.
Subtleties like that might seem trivial to a non-truck buyer. But pickup-truck owners are known as among the most loyal and passionate of buyers. Car-research site Edmunds.com says 72% of pickup truck buyers stick with a truck—by far the highest loyalty rate in the car business – and most are fiercely loyal to brands. Many families identify as Chevy or Ford or Dodge families, going back generations.
That means GM’s designers had to balance their desire for a more striking design against the risk of alienating longtime customers.
“God forbid if it looks anything like a Ford,” Mr. Scheer said.
The stakes are high. Silverado generates billions of dollars in profit annually. Additional profit from other products that will use the truck’s same basic frame and underlying components—including the GMC brand’s version and SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban—combine to contribute the majority of GM’s global annual profit, analysts estimate. GM earned $12.5 billion in operating profit in 2016.
Write to Mike Colias at Mike.Colias@wsj.com