Carmakers are making pickups look and behave more like SUVs in a bid to convince Europeans that the new-generation trucks are not just for farmers and construction workers anymore.
"There's a clear shift from the utilitarian single cab to full cabs or dual cabs with four doors and five seats, which makes it a leisure vehicle," said Jon Williams, marketing director for Toyota Motor Europe.
Toyota's sixth-generation Hilux goes on sale in October with more interior space plus changes to its suspension and steering that make it more comfortable to drive on-road.
Nissan promises that its new Barcelona-built Navara, which went on sales this summer, isn't like other pickups because it shares its platform with the new Pathfinder SUV.
"The Navara will bring to market attributes that will change the perception of these vehicles in Europe," said Macarena Cassi-nello, a quality director at Nissan Europe. Those attributes include improved ride and handling compared with older trucks.
The pickup segment is tiny compared to what it is in the US, where it accounts for 18.9 percent of the light vehicle market year to date. In Europe, pickups are growing slowly - from
3.6 percent of light trucks in 1996 (55,775 units) to 5.2 percent in 2004 (104,051), according to J.D. Power-LMC in Oxford, England. But that's only 0.6 percent of total European light vehicles.
Alastair Bedwell, an analyst with J.D. Power-LMC, said the segment will never equal its success in the US. He predicts the market will peak in 2006 at about 125,000 and will fall off slightly in the following three years.
Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota and Ford dominate the European market. They're trying to boost pickup sales by taking the lowly truck away from its work-class roots. Both Nissan and Mitsubishi are calling their vehicles sport utility trucks, or SUTs.
"An SUT is a combination of the best of two worlds, the capabilities of the pickup and the handling, comfort and perceived quality of the SUV," Nissan Motor Executive Vice President Carlos Tavares says.
Mitsubishi will offer three body styles, including a single cab, a club cab and a crew cab with four doors, said Daniel Nacass, general manager of public relations for Mitsubishi Motors Europe. The single cab is aimed at customers who will use it for traditional working purposes. The four-door version will be by far the largest selling model; it is aimed at the lifestyle segment.
Toyota also sees young, active customers as a potential growth area for the Hilux.
"The people we are now focusing on are young - in their 30s and 40s - with an active, outdoor-oriented life," said Duncan McMath, general manager of product planning for Toyota Motor Europe. Such customers want a versatile vehicle, he said.
At least three more new pickup models will debut in Europe in the next 18 months. Isuzu is pinning its European market re-entry hopes on the Rodeo, a 3.0-liter diesel sold initially in Germany, Spain and Portugal through a joint venture between Isuzu and Mitsubishi.
Dodge will bring a four-door pickup called the Dakota to Europe by 2007.
The growing pickup market may be further extended as Chevrolet is said to be considering shipping to Europe its Brazilian-built Montana pickup.
However, European Ford dealers are apparently opposed to plans to bring over another, larger, Ford pickup from the US, the Ranger already is a top seller here.