Published on February 12, 2014

Pickups getting their 'mojo' back

Lindsay Chappel, Crain News Service
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. photo
Jack Hollis, Toyota's vice president of marketing, introduced the TRD Pro Series line on the Tundra, 4Runner and Tacoma at the 2014 Chicago Auto Show.

CHICAGO (Feb. 12, 2014) — A new groundswell is taking place for sporty trucks.

Of all the vehicles on display at the Chicago Auto Show, the pickup segment stands out, with redesigned and/or pumped-up mid-sized pickups aplenty from several makers.

General Motors Co. is getting back into the game with its redesigned Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon models.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. presented a new batch of off-road-capable TRD Pro Series trucks.

Ford Motor Co. showed off a Ford F-150 SVT Raptor splattered in mud, while Nissan North America Inc. displayed its Frontier Desert Runner, fitted with a transparent acrylic hood to show what's beneath — a proposed turbocharged Cummins four-cylinder diesel engine.

Every brand has a different story to tell, but where they all overlap is that the industry smells opportunity in trucks, small trucks, sporty trucks and more trucks.

U.S. pickup sales rose 13 percent in 2013. And despite a 3-percent decline last month, blamed on severe winter weather that deterred shoppers, auto makers say the segment's outlook remains solid.

Nissan North America photo
Nissan is studying whether to equip its mid-sized Frontier with diesel power to reach younger buyers — customers who want truck muscle but can't afford a full-sized pickup.

Nissan is studying whether to equip its mid-sized Frontier with diesel power to reach younger buyers — customers who want truck muscle but can't afford a full-sized pickup. Frontier sales rose 13 percent in 2013 and 88 percent in January — and it's an old model.

This project truck, based on a Frontier Desert Runner 4x2 model, arrives just six months after Nissan and Cummins Inc. formed a partnership to provide a 5-liter turbo diesel V8 in the next-generation Titan full-size pickup, due out in calendar-year 2015.

GM, spurred in part by dealers, is actively mulling an all-terrain variant of the Colorado.

Toyota wants to "take things to the next level," said Jack Hollis, Toyota Division vice president of marketing. The TRD Pro Series is giving performance shocks, front skid plates, retro front grilles and special off-road suspension tuning to the Tacoma and Tundra pickups and the 4Runner SUV.

"This is the vision of the company," Mr. Hollis said. "Take everything we do well and take it a step further. What can we do to give our trucks a little more pizzazz? Not just for the off-roader, but also for the buyer who just likes the way it looks and feels, and what it says."

In other words, these truck enhancements are all about what customers want — not simply what they need.

Five years ago when U.S. truck sales collapsed, a dour and sober product outlook took hold. The best trucks were the safe bets — the low-key, the affordable and the practical.

Clearly, that era is behind us.

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Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business.

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