In many parts of Europe, you're as likely to see a high-end sports car like a Porsche Carrera as a pickup truck. Now, Renault and a few other automakers are aiming to change that by offering pickups with creature comforts that Americans have long taken for granted.
A test drive here in the Slovenian Alps of one new offering, the Renault Alaskan, shows that automakers offering pickups in Europe are catching on quickly. An American used to a midsize Ford Ranger, Chevrolet Colorado, Toyota Tacoma or Nissan Frontier would feel right at home in the Alaskan I sampled, a four-door, four-wheel-drive version.
The Alaskan is derived from the Nissan Navara pickup and built in Nissan's factory in Barcelona and has a stout body-on-frame construction with a five-link rear suspension. A twin-turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder diesel, developed by Renault, puts out 190 horsepower and 450 nm of torque, enough to move the Alaskan's 2,100-kg curb weight smartly when you "push the mushroom," as the French say.
The Alaskan debuted last year in South America, where pickups serve as workhorses as well as family station wagons. It lands in European showrooms this autumn, in both commercial and private versions. Prices start at 36,860 euros with tax for the base 4wd double cabin model with a single-turbo diesel with 160 horsepower and a six-speed manual transmission. At the high end the Intens version with the twin-turbo diesel, heated leather seats, a 360-degree camera for backup and off-roading aid, and more powerful LED headlights costs 45,960 euros.
Renault hasn't skimped on the Alaskan’s off-road ability. Standard features include an electronic limited-slip differential, self-locking rear differential, Hill Start Assist and Descent Control. Approach and departure angles are 30 and 27 degrees.
The cabin is SUV-like, if a bit spartan, but it features front and rear independent air conditioning, a five-inch entertainment and navigation screen, and a most-American like complement of cupholders, charging ports and cubbies.
Renault says it's introduced the Alaskan because the European pickup market, mostly midsize models with four doors and a one-ton payload, is growing significantly, up 25 percent in 2016 and 19 percent in the first half of this year, with 80,000 vehicles registered in the first half of 2017, according to JATO Dynamics.
Other entrants include the Ford Ranger, the Toyota HiLux, the Mitsubishi L200 and sister model Fiat Fullback, Nissan's Navara, the Isuzu D-Max and Volkswagen Amarok, all of which offer similar trim levels to the Alaskan. Ford leads the pack in sales, with 20,271 registrations in the first half, ahead of Toyota (15,849), Nissan (14,876) and Mitsubishi (11,021), JATO reported. VW sold 8,898 Amaroks.
"The segment is very competitive and changing that with a brand associated to small cars like Renault won't be easy,” JATO global automotive analyst Felipe Munoz said.
One reason the segment is growing is the virtual disappearance of body-on-frame SUVs, popular for towing boats or horses, said Anton Lysyy, director of the pickup vehicle program at Renault Group. With high regulation pressure for small engines, with double-clutch automatic gearboxes, it's not possible to use SUVs to tow because most are unibody construction, he said. "People with these hobbies, they need to have a truck. It's better to have body on frame for towing."
Another market is tradespeople who want a multipurpose vehicle, Lysyy said. "If you work in the construction business, you want to use your pickup for to work, and then on weekends with your family," he said. "They can’t imagine going to restaurants with their family in vans."
However, if Europeans aren't convinced by Renault's logic to buy the Alaskan in sufficient numbers, there's another Nissan Navara variant waiting in the wings: The Mercedes X Class. This is aimed at upscale adventure seekers who want a tristar logo on their grille and will go on sale later this year.