Volkswagen goes big with pickup concept

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

New York – Germany’s Volkswagen has thrown on a cowboy hat and boots and swaggered into the U.S. pickup market with the mid-size Atlas Tanoak truck concept.

Volkswagen’s Atlas Tanoak truck concept

Built on the same bones as the three-row Atlas SUV, the Tanoak — introduced Wednesday at the New York auto show — is the latest pickup to be based on a car-like unibody instead of a traditional body-on-frame truck chassis. It is also part of Volkswagen’s strategy to redefine itself as an ute-maker with an expanded Atlas family.

“The Tanoak takes (the Atlas) to a new all-American extreme,” Volkswagen North America CEO Hinrich Woebcken said at the reveal.

U.S. truck enthusiasts have long pooh-poohed unibody pickups for their lower towing and payload numbers. But unibody chassis boast a smoother ride than ladder frames, and the Honda Ridgeline — built on the same unibody as the Pilot SUV — has been a popular alternative since its 2016 introduction.

Hyundai is building its own unibody concept based on the Santa Cruz concept that debuted at the 2015 Detroit auto show. Volkswagen is testing the waters to see if there is room for its own unibody creation.

There are no current production plans for the Atlas Tanoak, according to Volkswagen. But the automaker wants to gauge response to the idea, since pickups are one of the biggest volume segments in the U.S.

Volkswagen’s Atlas Tanoak truck concept

Volkswagen didn’t have to wait long. The New York show floor was abuzz with response.

“A mid-size pickup enhances what the VW brand wants to be — a serious player in the U.S. SUV market,” said Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer. “The product makes sense, they have the capacity in Chattanooga to make it, and if they’re smart they will make it as quickly.”

Edmunds analyst Ivan Drury was less impressed: “It will be tough to make a business case work for a lifestyle truck that would likely be priced at the higher end of the market, especially when you’re trying to compete with mainstays like Honda. The real missing link (in the U.S.) is a small, affordable truck with a minimalist design.”

The sculpted, upscale-looking Volkswagen concept is aimed at an increasingly crowded midsize pickup market that includes domestic truck giants like Chevy (Colorado), GMC (Canyon) and Ford (Ranger). All three domestic entries are rugged, off-road-ready, body-on-frame chassis — as is segment leader Toyota Tacoma.

The mid-size pickup market showed aggressive growth in 2014 when Chevy and GMC re-entered the game after years away, but sales tapered off in 2017. Ford’s Ranger enters the segment early next year.

The Volkswagen design looks mature with signature, narrow Volkswagen horizontal front and rear fascias wrapped by continuous LED lights. The bold side panels are etched with tall fender lines that echo the Atlas SUV.

Emphasizing the upscale, high-tech theme, the interior features a digital instrument display and center console touchscreen.

But make no mistake, Volkswagen wants customers to know this is a work truck you can take to the Texas ranch.

“The Atlas Tanoak would be built in America for Americans,” said CEO Woebcken. “It is a tribute to the American ideal ... an American pickup that brings German precision.”

Volkswagen’s Atlas Tanoak truck concept

Contrary to stereotypically small, imported European vehicles, the big Tanoak is based on the Tennessee-manufactured Atlas midsize SUV as Volkswagen tries to better integrate itself into the U.S. market after years of slow sales.

The short-bed concept is comparable to segment-leaders Chevy and GMC, stretching to an overall length of 214 inches. That’s nearly 16 inches longer than the Atlas seven-seater. The 128-inch wheelbase is 11 inches longer than its SUV cousin.

Perched 2 inches higher than the all-wheel drive Atlas, the Tanoak is powered by a 276-horse 3.6-liter V-6 mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.