Midsize Pickups 'On' Again At GM

By Bill Visnic September 23, 2011

Chevy Colo show truck.jpg

Midsize pickup trucks – they used to be called “compact” before they got too big for that to make sense – were presumed left for dead by the Detroit Three, but a variety of moves in the past week indicate General Motors Co. isn’t carving any headstones, after all. GM hasn’t said anything definitive lately about the fate of the midsize Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon nameplates, seeing how their assembly plant in Shreveport, LA is scheduled to close in mid-2012. But GM doesn’t have to, as it’s all but said a new midsize pickup is coming. And it’ll no emerging-market leftover – it looks magnificent and will be built in the U.S.

It’s no coincidence that just prior to agreeing with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union on a tentative new labor contract, that GM showed a concept version of a new midsize pickup at last week’s Frankfurt auto show soon to be built in Thailand. There aren’t a half-dozen pickups in all of Germany, so some wondered what the Colorado Rallye Concept was doing at Frankfurt. But when details of the new GM-UAW labor contract emerged, it became clearer: the Colorado Rallye is the trial balloon for the next-generation Colorado/Canyon in the U.S. The UAW’s summary of the contract provisions said matter-of-factly that GM’s commitments to new products to be built in the U.S. include (at its Wentzville, MO, assembly plant), “full shift added and new mid-size truck program.”

If anyone needed more confirmation GM intends to build and sell a next-generation midsize pickup [see concept, top] in the U.S., the company doubled-down on its clues when it issued a press release with a Bangkok dateline this week boasting that “Chevrolet’s highly anticipated new-generation Colorado has been put through final testing in Thailand as General Motors prepares to produce the midsize pickup in its Rayong assembly plant.” Press releases about GM products being introduced in Thailand typically are not the stuff of U.S. media relations.

092111 Canyon and Colorado Sales - AO.bmpShrinking Segment
The fact that GM intends to sell a next-generation midsize pickup – much less build it in the U.S. – is a notable strategic gamble given the segment’s astounding sales decline. The midsize truck market has been on a steady and precipitous slide since 2000, when, according to Edmunds.com data, more than 1 million midsize pickups were sold. By last year, midsize pickup sales plunged by nearly 75 percent to 264,206. Midsize-pickup market share in the U.S. hit a high mark of 8 percent in 1994, but was just 2.3 percent last year.

It hasn’t been that customers just stopped buying midsize pickups. The breed’s recent decline might be attributed to high gasoline prices and the impact of the recession, but the segment’s downward spiral truly began when the full-line domestic automakers began in the late 1990s to direct the bulk of their product-development and marketing (not to mention incentivization) efforts to fullsize pickups. The trend was joined by Toyota Motor Corp. with its genuinely fullsize Tundra in 2000 and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. with the Titan in 2004. Until then, the Japanese automakers relied on midsize pickups exclusively and helped to keep the game competitive. The introduction of Toyota and Nissan fullsize pickups saw those companies’ marketing efforts also slant to the fullsizers.

Nor did it help when the once-compact pickups grew to be seven-eights-sized little brothers to fullsize pickups. When product developers decided that bigger would be better, even for “compact” pickups, they unwittingly erased much of the appeal of compact pickups’ smaller footprints and appreciably better fuel economy. By the latter part of the last decade, midsize pickups were selling at average transaction prices similar to the entry end of the fullsize range, while their fuel-economy advantages became negligible. Most intenders quickly realized that they could buy a decently equipped fullsize pickup for similar – or often less – than a midsizer, and the segment’s fate was sealed.

GM's Gamble
As GM gears up to return a new version of an aging nameplate to a fading segment, chief rival Ford has yet to openly reverse what appears to be commitment to staying out. Ford’s midsize Ranger line – in continuous production since its launch in 1983 – is, for now, gone. There is no 2012 Ranger and the truck’s Twin Cities, MN, assembly plant will close as scheduled at the end of this year, said Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans. Meanwhile, Chrysler Group LLC’s Ram division ended production of its midsize Dakota in August.

So while the downfall of the midsize-pickup market is easily dissected, GM’s seemingly late-in-the-game decision to soldier on allows the company to check off several boxes. First, GM is playing a winning hand by building the truck at the Wentzville plant. More jobs for the UAW, jobs that presumably would have been somewhere else if GM chose, for instance, to import the Asia-market Colorado. Moreover, the move improves the capacity utilization at Wentzville, which since 2009 has been on a single shift building fullsize vans. And it’s certain the new-generation Colorado will be more fuel-efficient than the current truck, which may or may not improve GM’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) positioning.

092111 Compact & Large Truck MS - AO.bmpPlatforms, Anyone?
Chevrolet provided no details about the Colorado Rally concept save that it is powered by one of GM’s new turbodiesel 4-cylinder engines. Diesel power is one factor that could vastly improve the fuel-economy portion of midsize pickups’ current problem, but diesel-engine cost makes the new diesel engine family an unlikely option for U.S. consumption, although GM has found a way to make the new diesel engine family cost-effective for the Asia-market Colorado. But equally important is the size of the new pickup – most analysts and commenters across a wide range of online forums seem to agree that the segment needs to return to a smaller footprint, more basic equipment and prices distinctly less than fullsizers.

In terms of size, one of the most intriguing questions surrounding any potential new approach to the segment was whether a modern midsize pickup needs to retain the traditional body-on-frame construction. Speculation said that a carlike unibody platform would cut fuel-sucking weight and offer production rationalization by easing incorporation of a pickup into a car-producing assembly line. A unibody chassis also might enable more refined ride and handling, a factor that could make a new-age midsize pickup more attractive to the less work-oriented buyers of small pickups.

But supplier sources have told AutoObserver that a unibody structure designed to retain the payload and towing capabilities some might still expect of a “pickup truck” would have to be reinforced to a point that would negate much of the potential weight savings. The question probably is irrelevant, anyway: by locating its next-generation midsize pickup at Wentzville, where body-on-frame vans are built, it appears GM intends to adapt the Asia-developed, body-on-frame Colorado for the American market. The move probably is the most efficient and cost-conscious strategy for the moment, given GM is the first domestic automaker to recommit to the risk-fraught midsize-pickup segment.

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j84ustin says: 10:32 AM, 09.23.11

So, is the Colorado going to be compact or midsized?

slo86gt says: 8:54 AM, 09.24.11

What a crock of s#!^. The graph shows sales for Colorado/Canyon all the way back to 2002 when the first model year was 2004. Also, the reason the platform wasn't selling was because dealers refused to stock them. There was rarely a time when you'd ever see more than 3-4 of the models on a dealer lot, surrounded by literally HUNDREDS of full-size trucks to choose from. If there was a reason the mid-size truck market collapsed, it was because the manufacturer or dealerships wanted it to.

wtd44 says: 4:42 PM, 09.24.11

At last, I will have a good excuse to try to buy a GM vehicle, if this opportunity arises.

the_big_al says: 1:51 PM, 09.25.11

I agree about there being no availability. The last time I was on a GM lot, I was surrounded by a Silverado of just about every trim level from base work trim to loaded LTZ and in I could find various cab styles as well. The Colorado? Three or four trucks all similarly optioned out in the crewcab 2wd guise and the LT1 package. Not even any used ones except for one that had been hammered out back to "presentable" levels, but not one that I would buy after I looked through the glossy veneer of the detail job.

Build me a Colorado that has a decent interior on par with the interiors GM is producing these days. The current generation Colorado/Canyon's interior isn't even on par with the models GM was producing in 2004 when it debuted. I'd even argue that the S-10 it replaced had a better interior. At least the S-10 of yore had a soft touch dash and soft touch arm rests you could actually rest your arm on. And seats that you could ride in for hours with out issue. I know this because I went from a 2001 S-10 LS trim to a 2004 Colorado LS trim and I still think I downgraded just a bit in the interior department. I'd buy a Colorado if it comes with the things GM is promising in the auto shows. Until then? I don't think I'd actually buy one. Maybe I would in 4wd crewcab guise with a 5.3 V8 motor so at least I've got some grunt to forgive the awful ergonomics on the inside.

the_big_al says: 1:52 PM, 09.25.11

I agree about there being no availability. The last time I was on a GM lot, I was surrounded by a Silverado of just about every trim level from base work trim to loaded LTZ and in I could find various cab styles as well. The Colorado? Three or four trucks all similarly optioned out in the crewcab 2wd guise and the LT1 package. Not even any used ones except for one that had been hammered out back to "presentable" levels, but not one that I would buy after I looked through the glossy veneer of the detail job.

Build me a Colorado that has a decent interior on par with the interiors GM is producing these days. The current generation Colorado/Canyon's interior isn't even on par with the models GM was producing in 2004 when it debuted. I'd even argue that the S-10 it replaced had a better interior. At least the S-10 of yore had a soft touch dash and soft touch arm rests you could actually rest your arm on. And seats that you could ride in for hours with out issue. I know this because I went from a 2001 S-10 LS trim to a 2004 Colorado LS trim and I still think I downgraded just a bit in the interior department. I'd buy a Colorado if it comes with the things GM is promising in the auto shows. Until then? I don't think I'd actually buy one. Maybe I would in 4wd crewcab guise with a 5.3 V8 motor so at least I've got some grunt to forgive the awful ergonomics on the inside.

easterling says: 9:39 AM, 09.28.11

I have been a new or used car dealer since 1970. I retired in 2009. The problem with midsize trucks are many; but, mainly the workmanship, quality, and design of all of them sucks. Dodge came the closest with the Dakota but they screwed it up also.

What I want in a midsize truck is a smaller high quality truck that will pull a 18 foot boat or a couple of motorcycles and get decent fuel mileage.

Here is how to get that truck: #1 make the overall length of the truck short....Cut the nose off. This will get rid of 2 feet or more. #2 Make the truck fairly wide so you aren't giving up much room inside. This is where the Dakota messed up.... #3 Make the truck aerodynamic to give some improvement in fuel mileage. #4 Offer a light diesel as an option. Something like a 4 cylinder rated at 175 horsepower and 400 ft. lbs. of torque. Offer the truck with a variety of gasoline engines. #5 Having a wide body you will still be able to put a sheet of plywood in the bed with the tailgate down. #6 Put some quality in the truck. The Ranger and the Colorado feel and look like cheap trucks because they are. Offer a plain vanilla high quality truck with options that make it a high quality expensive small truck.

Just because something is smaller doesn't mean it has to be cheap. BMW's, and VW's are small and they aren't cheap. My full size Chevrolet truck is to big. I want quality in a smaller size. I don't care if it cost nearly as much as the big truck.

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