Toyota Motor Corp. is studying whether there is room for a small truck that would fit underneath the existing Tacoma pickup truck. And in doing so, it’s putting the spotlight on a debate now raging among the industry's designers and product planners.
Don Esmond, Toyota senior vice president, confirmed for TheCarConnection.com that the Japanese automaker is evaluating whether there is room for a smaller truck in its model line.
"We are looking at it," he said.
The new "A-BAT" concept truck displayed at both the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and at the Chicago Auto Show could serve as the model for a new smaller truck, Esmond said.
"It's a pure concept vehicle," said Esmond, adding the Toyota will be looking carefully at the consumer reaction to the vehicle throughout the auto show season. Esmond also noted Toyota's FJ Cruiser started out as a pure concept vehicle and the favorable reaction of auto show crowds helped Toyota decide to put the vehicle into production.
"I think everyone is trying to come out with products the customer doesn't know they want yet," Esmond said.
Toyota isn't the only manufacturer looking at small pickup trucks. Jim Gillette, an analyst with CSM Worldwide in Northville, Mich., noted one of the overriding trends in the car business today is that vehicle segments are getting smaller and smaller. Thus, companies ranging from Suzuki to General Motors have been looking at the small truck segment as a possible new segment or sub-segment.
"Everybody is looking for white space," said an executive with one Japanese automaker who asked not to be identified. In that kind of an environment, the small pickup truck is bound to get attention, the executive said. "I think it would have to be pretty funky-looking to work," he said.
In addition, one reason trucks like the Tacoma and the Nissan Frontier have grown in and succeeded with customers over they years is that they are quite capable for hauling snowmobiles and motorcycles, he added. "The number of people who tow in this segment is huge," he added. Giving up towing capacity could quickly limit sales.
“Everybody asks, 'Why don't you build a simple stripped-down pickup truck like they used to make.' But I'm not sure anybody would buy it," said one GM official, acknowledging there have been discussion about the feasibility of GM bringing small pickup trucks back.
Nevertheless GM has designated its design center at GM do Brazil as a center of expertise for small trucks in its new global product development system, raising the possibility GM also is moving ahead with a truck that would fit underneath the Colorado and Canyon, which company officials insist aren't going to disappear any time soon.
Ford has postponed the death of the Ranger for a least a year and Jim Farley, the company's new group executive for marketing and communication, seems determined to try a rebuild Ranger's sales even though the truck's basic design dates back more than two decades.
Meanwhile, the A-BAT is an example of why other automakers fear Toyota.
The Toyota concept hybrid truck, which offers improved fuel economy and lower emissions, comes with a distinctive un-truck-like profile that has already reminded a lot of observers of Chevrolet's old El Caminos from the 1970s.
The A-BAT isn't exactly an old-school-style truck. It is built on unibody like a car for improved handling and a smoother ride. It also features wireless Internet, a portable battery pack stowed in the center console and a solar panels on top of instrument panel which captures sunlight and converts it to energy used to charge up the navigation system.
The four-passenger A-BAT also features a relatively short, four-foot bed and a bed extender to handle the ubiquitous six-foot long sheet of plywood beyond the tailgate as well as a translucent roof panel, which slides open to allow for tall cargo inside the cab.-- Joseph Szczesny