Based on a close reading of the latest GM-UAW contract proposals, it now appears that, after much hemming and hawing, the General has decided to build a next generation of its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups here in the U.S. after all. Although for some folks, “decided” isn’t exactly the right word. A certain section of the media views this as some sort of UAW blackmail program, in which the union is forcing GM to build a kind of vehicle that no one in this country wants buy—albeit while adding a few hundred jobs in the process—in return for concessions elsewhere.
There’s plenty to chew on here, but it begins with the underlying assumption that the compact pickup segment is a non-starter in the U.S., primarily because full-size pickups offer significantly more capabilities at MSRPs that are insignificantly higher. And that’s the case even when you look at fuel-efficiency, where you’d think the smaller vehicles would have a large advantage—yet a V8-powered Colorado puts up an EPA line of 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway/16 mpg combined, while the full-sized Chevy Silverado, with the same engine, achieves 15/21/17.
But let’s dig a little deeper here, shall we?
Compact Pickups Picking up Sales
When you read a story about the declining sales of small pickups, there’s usually an accompanying graph that shows the segment’s sales over the past 20 or so years heading in a consistent southerly direction. But you see a much different story if you focus on how the trucks have been doing in 2011—during which the segment actually has outperformed the rest of the industry by a notable margin.
Here are the relevant numbers for the five traditional small pickups (i.e., excluding the Honda Ridgeline thing): the Colorado was up 37 percent in August and 38.9 percent year to date; the GMC Canyon, 140.8 percent and 47.3 percent; the Ford Ranger, 48.8 percent and 9.2 percent; the Nissan Frontier, 29.6 percent and 26.7 percent; and the Toyota Tacoma, 5 percent and 2.6 percent. And while the Tacoma’s numbers don’t stack up that well against the others, we have to remember Toyota struggled with disaster-based production problems to a much greater extent than did Nissan. Further, Tacoma’s overall numbers mask a notable difference in sales of two- and four-wheel-drive models. Toyota breaks these figures out separately, and they show the Tacoma 4X4 with a 17.6 percent sales jump last month, on its way to an improvement of 10 percent through the end of August. It’s really the two-wheel-drive Tacoma that’s having the problems.
Regardless, the bottom line for the segment was an overall sales increase of 27.7 percent in August and 13.4 percent for the year to date. During the same period, the industry as a whole was up 7.5 percent last month and 10.5 percent through August. Not too shabby, huh?
Crossover Pickups: The Time is Now
So, despite the long list of their flaws, it seems fairly clear that smaller pickups have some amount of appeal to today’s truck buyers. And many of those “flaws” merely reflect how little attention the vehicles have gotten in recent years. For example, one of the reasons the V8 Silverado is more fuel-efficient than the V8 Colorado is the fact that the former has a relatively sophisticated six-speed automatic transmission while the latter is still plugging along with a four-speed. Merely bringing the level of technology and content on these vehicles up to the typical benchmarks for newly introduced products would be a huge improvement.
On the other hand, that wouldn’t address their capabilities disadvantage against full-size pickups, and updating the trucks could require a nice chunk of cash. And this is where the concept of a unibody pickup comes into play. Remember, there was a time when people thought crossovers couldn’t succeed in the U.S. marketplace because they didn’t offer the same capabilities as body-on-frame SUVs. But it turned out that the vast majority of customers were willing to trade off a few tons worth of (rarely used) towing capacity in return for a vehicle that was more comfortable and more fuel-efficient.
At this stage, there’s no reason we shouldn’t see the same pattern among small pickup buyers, provided the vehicles show the same pattern in terms of engineering. To stick with the Colorado as our stalking horse, that means building the next one on the same platform as that underpinning the all-new Chevrolet Malibu.
No, it wouldn’t be able to haul as much as a “real” pickup, but it would have all the General’s latest infotainment tech, a highway fuel-efficiency rating of about 30 mpg, a much improved driving experience, relatively low development costs (because of its Malibu platform) and—mark my words—a relatively high chance of success.