The Speculator: GM's Mid-Sized Global Pickup


Holden Colorado Concept. All photos (c)2011 General Motors Corporation

We pundits think we know everything about the automobile industry to try to fix it.

It's not true. As much as we know about this industry, we can analyze, criticize, express opinions and make recommendations to the companies. Yet, we do not have the power to actually change anything.

Some of us can dream, though.

Part of dreaming about the industry is rooted in the reality of gathering news, discussing it with our counterparts and colleagues alike. Understanding the reasons behind a new release or hoping that a rumor is indeed fact (or fiction). Ultimately, we can express our thoughts with some grounding for you to understand what we're on about.

Where this is coming from have been a series of online discussions through forums and Twitter Chats as to what we want from our industry. Our discussions are varied on product speculation, weaknesses in current lineups and controversies surrounding the company itself. We often ask many questions. What vehicles needs to be improved – and how? What lineups need to be presented better for consumers? What could the industry offer consumers that will be a win for everyone?

There have been many discussions I've been involved where I contributed plenty to the conversation. I was hoping to do an overview of several hot speculative topics that came up in these interactions with fellow journalists, enthusiasts and contacts inside the industry. Unfortunately, there's too many to parse out.

One recent topic came up was based on the recent labor agreement between General Motors and the United Auto Workers. The gist of the agreement was about jobs and wages, as most labor agreements normally revolve around. The new contract guarantees jobs in the USA with an addition of 4,000 or more positions to the current workforce. There was discussion as to the status of GM's Spring Hill, Tennessee plant – the former birthplace of Saturn. Various announcements leading to the GM-UAW agreement were about solidifying jobs at current GM plants around the country.

From the discussion of the GM-UAW agreement, came the speculation of products to be built at certain plants. One such prominent product that was brought up was GM's global mid-sized pickup. When the Colorado concept was introduced in Bangkok earlier this year, the hope was for the truck to be sold in North America as well as other strong pickup truck markets worldwide. Thailand, Australia, South Africa and parts of Latin America have strong truck sales where this truck would do well.

While they are the standard work tools around the world, the mid-sized truck market has been a weakening one in North America. Isuzu pulled out of the passenger car and light truck market in the mid-2000s. Mitsubishi no longer has a pickup to offer here as well. Chrysler just cancelled the RAM Dakota, while we are awaiting the absolute final verdict on the St. Paul, Minnesota-built Ford Ranger.

Toyota offers a variant from their global truck, the HiLux, in the form of the Americanized Tacoma. Since Toyota felt the need to develop a North American truck in the mid-1990s, it strayed from some of the best parts of what makes a HiLux one of the most bulletproof trucks in the world. Nissan continues to create a global product – the Frontier. The Frontier is seen here as a play truck rather than one that would work at construction sites and farms. Suzuki sells a modified version of the Smyrna, Tennessee-built Frontier – the Equator. Honda offers the unibody Ridgeline, but most truck consumers have shied away from it for not having the right capacity to do any work.

Sales of mid-sized trucks have yielded to the larger full-sized and heavy duty pickups. Ford's dominance in this segment may have everything to do with the Ranger's eventual demise. The F-Series is the best-selling vehicle in North America – period. GM, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan sell their share of the big pickup. There's no question that this segment will heat up when more new products and engines come on line across the board.

Where does this leave GM and the Colorado concept? Fuel prices may be slightly coming down, but it is parked north of $3.50 a gallon for regular unleaded. One would hope that the current downsizing trend by automotive consumers would translate into the truck market as it did during the OPEC Crisis of the mid-1970s. Some speculators say that it would not happen in North America. Others have other ideas.

I am part of the "other" camp.

You see, smaller pickups can possibly do the same job as a basic-level full-sized pickup. The beds are smaller, but better payloads and towing capability could be achieved if the truck is designed and built right. Smaller trucks also have the ability to move around a property with ease in comparison to a larger pickup.

To convince current truck consumers that these advantages still exist in these smaller trucks, a class-leading product must be produced. A truck designed to be work ready and fun at the same time. Something that harkens back to the days when the Toyota HiLux, Nissan Hardbody, Chevrolet S-10 and the original Ford Ranger were actually considered by truck buyers for many uses.

The Colorado concept provides a golden opportunity for GM to take the lead in this marketplace.

The reality of the Colorado concept is that it will make it into production. We certainly have some ideas where this will be built around the world, but hope for confirmation as to the exact location for North America production. The speculation begins on what would be offered under the hood and the form of technologies that a North American Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon in this new global form will take on.

My ideas for a class-leading GM mid-sized pickup…I hope you're ready for this…

ENGINES: There is no question that a lineup of engines will have to be both powerful for truck use and economical to run. A standard four-cylinder is a good start, with an optional V6 and an alternative motor. The four should be robust enough for truck use. Toyota developed a variant from one of their engine families for their 2.7litre mill that has the right power and torque band for entry-level truck use. The upcoming 2.5litre ECOTEC was discussed as a possible entry-level engine for the upcoming Colorado. If it can produce a better power and torque band than the Toyota, this should be a good starting point for the new truck. The key to the 2.5 ECOTEC is fuel economy. If it can do 30MPG or better on the highway, imagine the sales for this truck in the light delivery and use sub-segment. GM might even consider a FlexFuel version that runs on both regular petrol and E85.

The standard V6 is a key motor in this segment. Matching the numbers of the two dominant V6s is important for GM to consider. Toyota's 4.0litre runs with 236 horsepower with 266 lb-ft of torque, while Nissan's 4.0litre VQ has 261 horsepower and 288 lb-ft of torque. The penalty of both engines historically had been fuel economy. For example, when I reviewed the Nissan Pathfinder with the 4.0litre VQ, it turned in 15.3MPG, where as both V6s in GM's crossovers yielded over 17MPG. With full-sized pickups touting the ability to yield 20-22MPG, GM needs to see how to create a basic V6 with better power and torque bands and much better fuel economy than the competition's V6s, as well as a full-sized V8. Maybe, this V6 should also be a FlexFuel compatible engine.

What do I mean by "alternatives?" For starters, there had been talk of GM building a 3.0litre twin-turbocharged V6 to match Ford's EcoBoost. Some say that should be reserved for the new full-sized pickups coming for 2014. There is an argument for installing this engine as a payload/towing leader in the segment. It would depend on the numbers the engine will yield. Fuel economy should also play a huge part in installing this twin-turbo V6 at the top of the range.

A diesel engine should not be ruled out as an alternative. Prior to bankruptcy, talk had existed about a smaller Duramax diesel for the 1500 pickups. The project had been shelved coming out of bankruptcy. Now that Nissan has teamed up with Cummins for a diesel engine to be installed into the full-sized Titan pickup, the speculation has begun for the small Duramax to be looked at again. In markets around the world, a diesel engine is mandatory for sale. What about North America? Why not the globalized diesel that was shown on the concepts – the 2.8litre tubro-diesel? Or, what about installing one that could be easily adapted for this market as being used in the Colorado elsewhere? If this happens, we could the first diesel engine small truck in this market since the 1980s.

Lastly, there is the Hybrid option. GM already has the technology to create a smaller scale version of the mild hybrid drive system from the current full-sized pickups onto the Colorado concept. Imagine the fuel economy and torque from a hybrid Colorado/Canyon? Imagine the lower emissions. The key to doing this hybrid – either in a four or V6 – is to do it right. By doing so, GM could move the bar where Toyota, Nissan, Honda and RAM cannot reach.

THE DRIVELINE: The concept showed off the latest in four-wheel drive systems. This should be the focal point of the Colorado globally to ensure it has the ability to tackle the world. For North America, this should not be lost in translation. Rear-wheel drive should also be standard for some applications, but I would hope that GM would see more 4WD sales overall.

Safety technology should also be a top priority. GM has a slew of components to throw at it: Stabilitrak vehicle control system, anti-lock brakes, multiple airbags, etc.

DESIGN: Crowds at the Bangkok and Melbourne auto shows loved the design of the Colorado concept. While it looked like a sporty fun truck, one could see the usefulness on the farm, out in the desert and into the jungle.

To top its competition, it has be better looking – period. The concept integrates Chevrolet's family look with a modern truck design. The idea of integration goes further when you notice the fluid transition between cab and bed, as is the trend for non-North American pickups. It is not a complete unibody construction, since it appears that a cab-chassis version will be sold alongside traditional cab-bed versions. The concept comes in a four-door crew cab, which is also a staple in non-North American markets. Our market should have the crew cab, but also a regular and/or an extended cab version as well.

One thing that drew me to the concept is its aggressiveness – something lacking amongst domestic mid-sized pickups. A Z71 model – the 4WD version – would be aggressive like the concept model with off-road capabilities pulverizing the likes of Toyota's TRD and Nissan's NISMO models. Standard models should have some work-readiness to its overall look, if it actually wants to supplant the Ranger in these key markets. Think about how this Colorado would do as a municipal truck fleet vehicle. I could see that with this truck.

COMFORT: If you have seen photos of the Colorado concept, you will notice an integration of GM's global design onto a truck cabin. There are also some touches found from other vehicles developed elsewhere that would be integrated into the Colorado's space. The issue is whether these details will be translated into the North American trucks – or what modifications will be made to them.

The chunky steering wheel is a good start, following the three-spoke design that is found on the latest GM vehicles. Instrumentation appears to be influenced by the latest Chevrolets – namely the Camaro. The HVAC controls look a bit cheeky for North America tastes. I know the audio system might be different on the stateside version, with hopefully a provision for the newest touch-screen navigation/infotainment screen.

Seats should be both comfortable and supportive. These requirements are usually reserved for the sporty trim, but it should also be considered for every trim from the LS/SL to the LTZ/SLE grades. I would argue that a new Colorado/Canyon should take a different approach to the truck market than its competitors –including the Honda Ridgeline – in terms of creating a world-class pickup. If there has to be a utilitarian grade interior – that would be reserved for fleet sales towards commercial and government customers.

To create a mid-sized pickup that translates well between the jungles of Thailand, the velt of South Africa, the rainforests of Brazil and the farms of Middle America is to ensure everyone gets a shot at a class-leading product. The Colorado concept is a glimpse into a future that will enable to GM to take a leadership role in global truck development. It is the execution that is critical for the success of this truck – here and abroad. All GM has to do is to build it accordingly.

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