Midsize Pickups 'On' Again At GMBy Bill Visnic September 23, 2011
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. isnt carving any headstones, after all. GM hasnt 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 doesnt have to, as its all but said a new midsize pickup is coming. And itll no emerging-market leftover it looks magnificent and will be built in the U.S.
Its 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 weeks Frankfurt auto show soon to be built in Thailand. There arent 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 UAWs summary of the contract provisions said matter-of-factly that GMs 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 Chevrolets 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.
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 segments 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 hasnt been that customers just stopped buying midsize pickups. The breeds recent decline might be attributed to high gasoline prices and the impact of the recession, but the segments 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 segments fate was sealed.
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. Fords midsize Ranger line in continuous production since its launch in 1983 is, for now, gone. There is no 2012 Ranger and the trucks Twin Cities, MN, assembly plant will close as scheduled at the end of this year, said Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans. Meanwhile, Chrysler Group LLCs Ram division ended production of its midsize Dakota in August.
So while the downfall of the midsize-pickup market is easily dissected, GMs 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 its certain the new-generation Colorado will be more fuel-efficient than the current truck, which may or may not improve GMs Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) positioning.
Chevrolet provided no details about the Colorado Rally concept save that it is powered by one of GMs 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.