Amer­ica loves trucks, and more (smaller) pick­ups are on the way

The Commercial Appeal - - Business - Ted Evanoff Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal USA TODAY NET­WORK - TEN­NESSEE

Just when you thought the roads could not pos­si­bly ac­com­mo­date yet an­other pickup, a wave of new trucks is head­ing for the streets.

These are not the big and brawny be­he­moths Amer­i­cans shell out $35,000and-up on, like Ford’s F-150, a full-size pickup that nose to tail spans 19 feet, 3 inches. These are brawny, smaller tykes, like the 17-foot-7 Ford Ranger, a mid-size truck launched in Oc­to­ber with a $24,300 base price.

Four years ago, the Nis­san Fron­tier and Toy­ota Ta­coma were the only mid­size pick­ups be­ing made for U.S. high­ways. Then the Chevro­let Colorado, GMC Canyon and Honda Ridge­line were launched. Now two more pick­ups are on the way — the Ford Ranger and Jeep Gla­di­a­tor.

Three other mid-size pick­ups are pos­si­ble — a Tesla, the Hyundai Santa Cruz and Volk­swa­gen’s pro­posed Tanoak. The last could orig­i­nate on the VW assembly line at Chat­tanooga, boost­ing the con­sid­er­able com­mu­nity of auto parts sup­pli­ers who fol­lowed the Ger­man au­tomaker into East Ten­nessee.

“There’s a new mar­ket that has grown up around mid-size trucks,” said Matt Delorenzo, manag­ing edi­tor of Kel­ley Blue Book, a vehicle re­searcher and mar­ket an­a­lyst. “There hadn’t been new of­fer­ing for some years.”

Will Volk­swa­gen wade into to the truck game?

Whether Volk­swa­gen fol­lows Ford and Gen­eral Mo­tors into the mid­dlerung pickup mar­ket is an open ques­tion. VW just spent $1.2 bil­lion on the un­der­used Pas­sat sedan plant at Chat­tanooga, ready­ing it for assembly of the 7-seat At­las sport-util­ity vehicle and a 5-seat vari­ant sched­uled to reach deal­ers this year. The At­las assembly line still has ca­pac­ity enough to spin out an At­las­based pickup.

VW de­signer Klaus Bischoff called the Tanoak “the most Amer­i­can Volk­swa­gen ever” when the pickup was re­vealed as a what-it-might-look-like con­cept vehicle sport­ing 276 horse­power at the New York In­ter­na­tional Auto Show last spring. Since then, VW ex­ecs have been cau­tious.

In De­cem­ber, VW chief ex­ec­u­tive Her­bert Diess sounded iffy, telling the trade jour­nal Au­to­mo­tive News an all­wheel drive VW truck was “prob­a­bly still a bit risky” to put on the mar­ket. Diess knows rear-wheel-drive models with greater tow ca­pac­ity like the of­froad ca­pa­ble Ta­coma dom­i­nate the U.S. truck seg­ment.

If the Ger­man au­tomaker, Cal­i­for­ni­abased Tesla and South Korea’s Hyundai plunge in, 10 mid-size truck brands could com­pete soon. That’s un­doubt­edly a crowd com­pared to the six cur­rent full-size brands from Chevro­let, Dodge, Ford, GMC, Nis­san and Toy­ota.

Smaller ‘life­style’ trucks de­signed for sub­ur­ban com­fort

While farm­ers, ranch­ers and con­trac­tors ob­vi­ously fa­vor the big pick­ups, the trucks are chiefly sub­ur­ban fam­ily haulers these days, like six-pas­sen­ger sta­tion wag­ons of old, only fit­ted out with lux­ury touches and geared for chores. Today’s typ­i­cal big-truck buyer earns more than $96,000, re­ported au­to­mo­tive an­a­lyst Alan Baum. And his or her fam­ily of­ten an­tic­i­pates haul­ing and tow­ing ski boats, fish­ing craft, horse trail­ers, all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles or campers.

It’s a big truck for an af­flu­ent Amer­ica. Its smaller brethren are in the same mold, just smaller. Tow ca­pac­ity on Ford’s Ranger, for ex­am­ple, is rated at 5,600 pounds (com­pared to the F-150’s 12,700 pounds), says pub­lisher Con­sumer Reports’ 2019 New Cars edi­tion. Be­ing smaller, there’s less em­pha­sis on the mid­dle-weights as work trucks. Some auto an­a­lysts call them “life­style” pick­ups. They are primed for com­fort. The four-wheel-drive Ranger Lar­iat ver­sion runs over $38,000.

Where the trucks are no­tice­ably dif­fer­ent is in height. Put the tyke and big brother side by side. Seen from the driver’s seat of, say, a Toy­ota Corolla sedan, one re­sem­bles the sheer cliff of an Amer­i­can air­craft car­rier pass­ing close by. The other looks like what a pickup used to look like.

Ford’s cur­rent full-size crew cab with four-wheel drive tops out at 6 feet, 5 inches, Con­sumer Reports says, while the 2019 crew cab Ranger stands 5 feet, 8 inches, a height seen in work trucks two decades ago. (The cur­rent F-150’s width mea­sures 6 feet, 8 inches, an inch wider than the Ranger).

Typ­i­cal F-150s weigh 5,065 pounds with a crew cab. That’s heftier than pick­ups of old. A F-150 vari­ant was avail­able in sin­gle cab in 1998 weigh­ing 3,850 pounds, a weight close to the mod­ern Ranger’s 3,990 pounds.

As the big trucks were made taller and longer over the years, some mo­torists re­fused to buy them. “Some peo­ple were turned off by the size,” Delorenzo said. They shopped in­stead for sportu­til­ity ve­hi­cles and crossovers, a car de­signed to look like an SUV, such as Acura’s MDX. Now, many driv­ers who like trucks but balked at the new girth are ex­pected to look at life­style pick­ups.

Mid-size mar­ket is grow­ing fast, but the big trucks still dom­i­nate

No one fig­ures the mid-siz­ers will out­sell the big trucks, at least not any time soon. The six truck brands ac­counted for al­most 3.5 mil­lion full-size truck sales last year. Joseph Hin­richs, Ford global mar­kets pres­i­dent, told the Detroit News he an­tic­i­pates reg­u­lar sales ev­ery year of 500,000 mid­dle-tier trucks, in­clud­ing Ford and ri­val brands once the Ranger and Gla­di­a­tor reach mar­ket.

“We’re already there,” said Baum, head of au­to­mo­tive mar­ket an­a­lyst Baum and As­so­ci­ates in sub­ur­ban Detroit, not­ing about 493,000 new mid­size trucks were sold last year.

That’s up from about 245,000 mid­dle-weight sales a few years ago. Push­ing over the half-mil­lion level would mark a ro­bust turn of events. Canyon, Colorado, Ranger, Ridge­line and Dodge Dakota are long-run­ning name­plates. Re­cently as 2010 each was be­ing made. As sales fell, au­tomak­ers stopped pro­duc­tion of all five models, leav­ing the mid-tier truck field to the Nis­san Fron­tier and seg­ment sales leader Toy­ota Ta­coma.

Aware the Fron­tier and Ta­coma’s rough-and-ready pres­ence height­ened de­mand, and that Ta­coma was out­selling the big­ger Toy­ota Tun­dra, Gen­eral Mo­tors re­turned to the mid-size seg­ment, alert to see if big-truck fans would trade in GM pick­ups for the smaller brethren. GM brought back the Chevro­let Colorado and GMC Canyon about four years ago. De­mand for the full-size

models never fal­tered. In De­cem­ber, GM sold just over 54,400 Chevro­let Sil­ver­a­dos, com­pared to 10,131 Colorados.

“Peo­ple have tremen­dous loy­alty to their (full-size) trucks. They’re not will­ing to down­size,” Delorenzo said. “When GM brought back the Colorado and the Canyon they didn’t dam­age full­size truck sales.”

As sedan sales sag, cus­tomers turn to trucks

Now with Ford and Jeep’s new trucks, fresh life is stir­ring more in­ter­est in the mid-size seg­ment. Chrysler, owner of the Jeep brand since 1987, made the last Jeep pickup truck in 1992. It was the 3,000-pound Jeep Co­manche, an off­shoot of the Jeep Chero­kee sport-util­ity vehicle.

By June, the new Jeep trucks will reach deal­er­ships. De­rived from that iconic off-road Jeep, the Wran­gler, the four-wheel-drive pickup stretches 18 feet and 1 inch. It is rated for tow­ing 7,650 pounds and is ca­pa­ble of be­ing hosed out after a hard day in the muck at the duck blind. Gushed the mag­a­zine Road and Track in a Novem­ber head­line: “The 2020 Jeep Gla­di­a­tor is the Wran­gler Pickup We’ve Been Wait­ing For.”

Rather than pitch the new model as a life­style truck, Jeep North Amer­ica brand chief Tim Ku­niskis told Road and Track the Gla­di­a­tor aims for driv­ers “look­ing for real pickup trucks.” They’ll have to be will­ing to pay prices well over that of an econobox. Kel­ley Blue Book pre­dicted the Gla­di­a­tor’s base price will fit just above the four-door Wran­gler’s $31,445. Baum fig­ures decked-out Gla­di­a­tors will top $40,000, a level above the $37,577 av­er­age trans­ac­tion price on all new ve­hi­cles sold in De­cem­ber.

Who will buy the new truck? Jeep fans, of course, and also folks trad­ing in cars. Amer­i­cans have turned away from two-door coupes and four-door sedans. Last year, sales tum­bled 11.2 per­cent from the year be­fore on the na­tion’s best-sell­ing car, the Toy­ota Camry. Sales climbed 1.4 per­cent for Ford’s Fseries pick­ups, the na­tion’s top-sell­ing car or truck.

With just over 909,000 copies sold, the F-se­ries out­sold the Camry al­most three to one.

Faced with fall­ing car de­mand, Ford is can­cel­ing U.S. pro­duc­tion of all cars ex­cept the sporty Mus­tang coupe and the planned Fo­cus Ac­tive cross­over. Gen­eral Mo­tors is clos­ing car assembly lines near Cleve­land, Detroit and Toronto. Both au­tomak­ers count on trucks and crossovers to at­tract cus­tomers.

Will Volk­swa­gen weigh in with a pickup? The au­tomaker hasn’t de­cided.

VW ex­ec­u­tives are gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion and es­ti­mates on sales vol­ume, costs, prices and the fu­ture of the mid­size truck seg­ment, said VW of Amer­ica spokesman Mark Gillies.

‘’It’s still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion ba­si­cally,’’ Gillies said. “It takes a while be­fore you can work up a busi­ness case. We only showed the con­cept car last April.’’

AU­TO­MO­BILES FIAT CHRYSLER

FCA will build on Jeep’s re­cent suc­cess with a Wran­gler-based pickup called the Gla­di­a­tor, due later this year.

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