The Speculator: A Mid-Sized Truck Renaissance?

2015 GMC Canyon - Photo by Randy Stern
2015 GMC Canyon – Photo by Randy Stern

General Motors fired a shot across the bow of the pickup market. It did so by creating a triple threat against the competition – the three-truck strategy. While they battle in familiar territories – full-sized, half-ton and heavy duty segments – GM returned to the mid-sized segment with a duo of global trucks with distinctive exteriors and a singular vision.

The Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon practically changed the game in the smaller truck segment. Their Thai/Australian roots offered up a strong frame and dimensions only shadowing a Silverado/Sierra. The result is one of the hottest products in their respective showrooms. Production is ramping up, but they still need to fulfill customer orders. Rather, customers are looking for configurations that are slowly being fulfilled at the plant to take delivery. There is also a promise of a diesel engine – the Duramax 2.8liter four-cylinder – that is still on target for the 2016 model year.

As soon as the first Colorados and Canyons hit dealer lots, Toyota fired back. Their Hi-Lux-based, US-developed mid-sized pickup, the Tacoma, broke cover for 2016 on the floor of Cobo Center in Detroit. The new Tacoma appeared to of the same size as the Colorado/Canyon, which meant that Toyota knew it had to be of the size to compete in the revitalized segment. No word on specific engines – a four-cylinder and V6 is expected, but no diesel – and other important performance and capability numbers.

Where GM and Toyota are re-establishing the mid-sized truck market, one wonders why they differ in marketing approaches. Chevrolet wants Colorado buyers to have a rock n' roll attitude, which lends to more play than work. Toyota made it clear that the Tacoma was strictly for play. Yet, fleet customers and small business owners wonder whether these trucks can do the job for them, even as they either supplant larger trucks or augment their fleets for lighter jobs.

Does this open the door for this segment to grow again? Back in the 1980s, mini-trucks were at their peak, with the Ford Ranger, Toyota Hi-Lux/Pickup, Chevrolet S-10/GMC S-15 and Nissan Hardbody were battling each other for customers who either want to work with or them, or play. Mazda, Isuzu, Mitsubishi, Dodge and Plymouth had competitors that tried to grab their share of the mini-truck four. By the 1990s, they were gone. Until the arrival of the Colorado/Canyon, only Toyota and Nissan were left, with Honda ready to dispose of their car-based truck, the Ridgeline.

Is this segment ready to grow again? And, which products would find their way into USA showrooms? The Speculator could only speculate – though there are enough rumors floating around that could lead to a renaissance of the small pickup truck. Let’s see who might join GM and Toyota in this brave new world of the mid-sized truck…

NISSAN: Last fall, the new Nissan Navarra was introduced in Thailand – the home of the mid-sized truck. Upon the first images, only a few asked whether this is the next Frontier. Since then, Nissan had been quiet on the Frontier, concentrating on the Cummins-powered full-sized Titan XD instead.

The Frontier continues to be built in the USA for North American consumption. Nissan also collaborated with Cummins on a possible diesel engine for the Frontier, shown as a concept at the 2014 Chicago Auto Show. Yet, no one has answered when a replacement for the current Frontier is coming. Perhaps it is a matter of when. If so, how much of the new Navarra will become the NA-market Frontier? Lastly, will that Cummins diesel we saw in that 2014 concept join the four-cylinder and V6 gas engines expected in this new Frontier?

I sincerely hope all of these become true. The new Navarra looks pretty compelling.

FORD: The Ranger was euthanized along with the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul. There was talk of perhaps bringing in a mid-sized truck if GM makes inroads with theirs. They could also see how the new Tacoma would be received, as well. All signs appear to point to the global Ranger’s return to our soil.

Just recently, Ford showed off a revised Ranger in Thailand. It was to match the design of the new Everest SUV built off the same platform and sold in some of the same markets as the Ranger – outside of the USA and Canada! Of course, this fed into the talk Ford had about GM’s mid-sized trucks and whether they could re-enter the market if they become successful in North America. The catch would be to find a way to produce them competitively to GM, Toyota and Nissan. It might mean that the next Ranger would not be built in Thailand, South Africa and Argentina, as they currently are. That would be the sticking point to the deal.

Early polls show that people want a new Ranger. How would Ford deliver on such a demand?

Holden Colorado7 - Photo (c) 2015 GM
Holden Colorado7 – Photo (c) 2015 GM

MORE GM? GMC announced that it will expand the brand further through marketing and product development. There were no indicators what this expansion will entail, but one would hope it would include something GM needs to sell – a truly off-road capable SUV.

There is one, actually. The Colorado has a cousin – built in Thailand and is quite popular throughout Southern Asia and Australia. The Chevrolet TrailBlazer/Holden Colorado7 is built on an integrated body-on-frame SUVs with exceptional capability and good four-wheel drive systems. A NA version would feature the same engines as in the pickups, graft a modified front end of the Canyon – that is, assuming this new SUV would be part of the brand’s expansion – and offer brand exclusive features directing people to GMC showrooms.

A GMC-exclusive SUV sounds like a great idea to boost the brand’s image!

HONDA, HYUNDAI, FCA AND VOLKSWAGEN: At the Chicago Auto Show this year, Honda flashed a rendering of their next generation Ridgeline on the screen. This whetted the appetite on how the successor to the car-based pickup would appear. Otherwise, Honda has been mum on the next Ridgeline only to say that it is coming.

In Detroit, Hyundai showed off a concept of a cross-based pickup called the Santa Cruz. There had been some increased interest in the concept and wondered when I would be made. It does make a compelling argument for car-based pickups, years after the Subaru Baja last showed its face here. It could also open the door for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to consider bringing the Fiat Strada pickup northward from Brazil. Since Hyundai hinted at truck development, one wonders how much of the Santa Cruz will factor into these new products.

FCA was recently spotted in testing our a mid-sized truck mule. Since the photo was shot in Europe, one wonders which brand – Ram, Dodge, Fiat Commercial – it would ultimately wear. Also, some speculated this could be a SUV, rather than a truck. Lots of guessing going on here, but one thing is for sure – FCA looks like it's taking GM's bait.

Volkswagen did state it was looking to sell more trucks in North America. The Amarok mid-sized pickup appears to be one candidate, since it fits against the GM and Toyota pickups. VW has not sold a truck since its Golf/Rabbit-based pickup. However, VW also sells a car-based truck in several global markets. If FCA does bring the Strada, would VW also bring the Saveiro?

HOW ABOUT THE OTHERS? Mazda, Isuzu and Mitsubishi offer pickups in their key markets – Southern Asia, China, Australia, South Africa, Latin America and Europe. The arguments against all of these coming back stateside are numerous. Isuzu is only selling medium duty trucks for commercial customers. Mazda is committed to cars and crossovers befitting its “Zoom-Zoom” image using Skyactiv technology and the KODO design language.

That does not entirely rule out Mitsubishi. Though the brand is concentrating on crossovers and SUVs at this point, would the L200/Triton be a good fit in North American showrooms? Some might say that in is current iteration, mid-sized truck consumers might be put off by it. But, what if it was designed for us in mind – as well as the rest of the world? Would that put Mitsubishi in a position to sell a pickup again…and, possibly use the extra capacity at their Normal, Illinois plant to build it?

Though Mahindra had a chance to send trucks our way, the deal to import them was squashed because the importer did not appear to be ready to do so. The concern was that American might not be receptive to trucks that appear and act more “agricultural” than its current offerings. Maybe that is needed in the marketplace – a back-to-basics approach for these trucks to be sold to commercial and small business customers? This would also include any Chinese entrants looking to get into the American market with a pickup truck.

GM is now taking the lid off of an old segment. If the trend continues, could GM, Toyota and Nissan finally get some company? How much will Honda go with their next Ridgeline to make a statement in the segment? Will Ford, Volkswagen and Hyundai join the fray? How about FCA and Mitsubishi? Mahindra…Isuzu…Mazda…the Chinese?

The next twelve months of truck sales will tell how this segment will finally shape up.

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