January 9, 2009 at 1:00 am

Chrysler looks at car-based pickup

Proposed changes to corporate average fuel economy standards could penalize small trucks.

GM canceled the '10 Pontiac G8 ST. (GM / Pontiac)

Chrysler LLC is exploring entering a new vehicle segment with a car-based "lifestyle" pickup as an alternative to slow-selling traditional compact trucks.

"What is needed is a lighter-duty, multipurpose vehicle from a lighter, more fuel-efficient car platform that allows the vehicle to be priced significantly different from what your full-size trucks are," Chrysler product development chief Frank Klegon said in an interview.

The revelation comes as General Motors Corp. is killing plans for a similar vehicle: the Pontiac G8 ST sport truck.

Automakers are looking at replacing small pickups with car-based crossovers sporting truck beds that they hope will be more appealing to consumers.

The fate of the small pickup segment could ultimately be decided by proposed changes to corporate average fuel economy standards that could penalize small vehicles. Federal regulators are still discussing how CAFE standards would be measured, but if they are based on the footprint of a vehicle, that would force smaller vehicles to improve their fuel efficiency more dramatically than larger models.

Small pickups might need such small, fuel-efficient engines that they would lack the power customers demand of a work truck. But a smaller engine would suffice in an urban vehicle that amounts to a car with a bed and is not expected to tow and haul.

Chrysler does not currently offer such a unibody pickup, but this type of vehicle appears to be in the works and could fill the spot now occupied by the Dodge Dakota, a small pickup with a traditional body-on-frame construction.

The successor to a Dakota "might look very different than today," Klegon said.

Therein lies some of the problem: smaller pickups were squeezed when the price of full-size pickups came down, a situation that worsened when buyers balked at the cost of filling up large trucks as gas prices rose and automakers needed incentives to make sales.

U.S. sales of small pickups were already in decline in 2007, when sales dropped 15.2 percent, according to Autodata Corp. It worsened in 2008, when sales fell a further 24.2 percent spread across 10 nameplates.

"Each month gets worse and worse," Klegon said.

The biggest seller, the Toyota Tacoma, notched 144,655 sales in 2008, followed by the Ford Ranger at 65,872. The Dakota sold 26,044, down a whopping 49 percent. Three nameplates sold less than 3,000 units last year, despite some hype from a newcomer to the segment. Suzuki in December sold its first 13 units of the all-new 2009 Equator that is essentially a Suzuki-designed Nissan Frontier, engineered and built by Nissan Motor Co.

This is a segment where many automakers have recognized there isn't enough volume for all of the players to invest in their own platform, and there is a lot of sharing going on.

The Mazda B-Series pickup is basically a Ford Ranger, and the Mitsubishi Raider is based on the Dodge Dakota.

And fears for the future of the segment have led to the small spate of car-based alternatives.

Toyota is preparing to make a version of its A-BAT concept and GM had planned to sell about 3,000 units a year of the Pontiac G8 GT that resembles the old Chevrolet El Camino. While the Pontiac truck has been killed, GM also has the GMC Denali XT concept which is unibody with a short cargo bed -- and resembles the El Camino -- that has raised speculation that it will replace the GMC Canyon pickup.

It all dates back to the 2004 Detroit auto show when Honda Motor Co. showed the Ridgeline concept -- the first pickup engineered on a car platform. Until then, pickups were, by definition, body-on-frame workhorses for lugging gear and towing.

The Ridgeline went on sale in 2005 to limited success; 2008 sales were down 21 percent at 33,875.

Being the first to blur the line between car and truck, the Ridgeline was designed to look like a pickup, unlike the concepts that have followed it which are recognizable as having car roots.

Chrysler has not said if its vision falls in the El Camino category. Klegon described it as having unibody construction, front-wheel drive with all-wheel-drive capability, and likely powered by a direct-injection and turbocharged four-cylinder engine from Chrysler's "world engine" family made in Dundee.

He said elements can be found in a couple concepts shown in past years: the Jeep JT pickup and the Dodge M80 entry-level standard-cab pickup.

Klegon said the M80 is the right size, but there is no market today for a standard cab so it would have to be changed to an extended cab.

Klegon said the Dakota offers "far more capability than most people need." And consumers that need a real truck can move up to the full-size Dodge Ram, he said.

A similar migration occurred at GM where customers found they could get a full-size Chevrolet Silverado for less than a smaller Colorado, said analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics in Birmingham.

Moving customers into full-size trucks could prove necessary, Hall said, because changes to CAFE would spell the end of small trucks if they must meet drastically different standards.

Among the proposals for calculating fleet fuel-efficiency in the future is the idea of measuring a vehicle's "footprint" by multiplying its wheelbase (length of the vehicle as measured between the center of the front and rear wheels) by its track (width as measured between two front or two rear wheels).

This would force a higher-percentage improvement on small vehicles, Hall said. If the new standard allows for lower fuel economy for large vehicles, there's no incentive to do a small one, Hall said.

"If footprint stays in there the small trucks are dead," Hall said.

Automakers would have to equip a smaller pickup with such a small engine to meet CAFE that it would lack the power to function as a working truck, Hall said.

This could be one of the reasons Chrysler is joining the ranks of automakers seeking a lighter, car-based alternative, Hall said.

For Chrysler, losing the Dakota would be unfortunate, he said. "It's a vehicle that's 99.9 percent incremental sales with no merchandising cost and no investment because it was paid off so long ago."

You can reach Alisa Priddle at (313) 222-2504 or apriddle@detnews.com">apriddle@detnews.com.

Chrysler may be forced to eliminate small trucks like the 2009 Dodge ... (FPI Studios)