2011 Ford Super Duty (© Ford Motor Company)Click to enlarge picture

The country's most popular vehicle, at least among car thieves: the Ford F-250.

The big Ford F-250 pickup has become the favorite of U.S. car thieves, according to a new report, replacing the Cadillac Escalade, the luxury SUV that had topped the theft chart for nearly a decade.

But the big Caddy fell to only sixth place in the annual survey by the Highway Loss Data Institute, and the HLDI found that Cadillac's parent General Motors still had eight of the top 10 spots in terms of theft claims.

Pickups, in particular, proved extremely popular with thieves during the 2010 to 2012 timeframe covered by the new study, accounting for the first five vehicles on the list.

Following the four-wheel-drive crew cab version of the F-250 were the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 crew cab, the Chevrolet Avalanche 1500, the GMC Sierra 1500 crew cab, and the Ford F-350 pickup.

The rest of the top 10, in order, were the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Suburban 1500, GMC Sierra 1500 extended cab, GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Tahoe.

According to the HLDI, its study does not distinguish between theft of a whole vehicle and the theft of components or vehicle contents. And "many pickup claims," it notes in a statement, "result from the theft of equipment from the truck bed" — something likely common with the list-leading F-250.

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The fact that the Escalade fell so sharply after leading the theft list since 2003, meanwhile, may be a positive sign for an embarrassed General Motors, which has promised to improve its antitheft technology — something it plans to integrate into new versions of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups coming for the 2014 model-year.

"General Motors has put a lot of effort into new antitheft technology, so that may help explain the decline in the Escalade's theft rate," said HLDI vice president Matt Moore, who cautioned that, "On the other hand, sales of the Escalade have fallen in recent years, so there may be less of a market for stolen Escalades or Escalade parts."

Ford, meanwhile, contends that it is also taking steps to reduce thefts with new technologies.

Nonetheless, the F-250 had a claim frequency of nearly six times the average for all vehicles sold in the U.S., or seven per 1,000 insured vehicle years, according to HLDI. That's the equivalent of having seven vehicles stolen out of every 1,000 over the course of a year.

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In terms of the average loss payment per theft claim, the F-250 came in at $7,060, second only to the F-350 at $7,517 among the 10 most stolen vehicles.

Then again, the average payment came to $13,803, HLDI reports, for the Audi A4 sedan. But insurance companies don't pay out very often on that model, which had the third lowest theft rate according to the new study.

The bottom five include:

To a large degree, the vehicles at the top of the theft chart are higher-volume vehicles that thieves find they can either sell whole or strip for parts — or those that make it easiest to access parts or content, a particular weakness with pickups. Those at the bottom of the list are either relatively unpopular products or lower-volume luxury models, such as the Audi A4. But there also are some more popular vehicles, like the Honda CR-V, ranked seventh from the bottom, that may benefit from improved antitheft technologies.

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Automotive immobilizers, designed to prevent a vehicle from being hotwired, were standard in 89 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2012, the last of the three years covered by the latest theft study.

Nonetheless, a separate report released a week ago by the National Insurance Crime Bureau found that the national rate for car theft rose 1.3% in 2012, largely led by the western U.S. It was the first increase the NICB has reported in eight years.

The average theft rate for all vehicles, HLDI notes, was 1.2 per 1,000 insured vehicle years, and the typical claim payout came to $6,532.