The switch to unibody pickups will be similar to the switch made by many owners of body-on-frame SUVs to lighter, more fuel-efficient, carlike crossovers.
Toyota's A-BAT concept is likely to be the basis for a compact pickup. General Motors could have two unibody pickups on the road in the next decade. Ford's next-generation Explorer Sport Trac could shift to a fwd unibody platform. Meanwhile, Chrysler is wrestling with the idea of creating a vehicle platform to be used for cars and pickups.
The vehicles, called "lifestyle pickups" by automakers, will have less towing capacity than body-on-frame pickups. Most will drive like cars, with smaller engines and better fuel economy than traditional pickups — some may have hybrid or four-cylinder powertrains.
Lifestyle pickups will be able to haul all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, personal watercraft and some boats. But right now no one is certain what a lifestyle pickup will be. Said Frank Klegon, Chrysler LLC's head of product development: "Everybody is hunting down this formula."
"Is it a smaller body-on-frame? Is it unibody?" asked Klegon during an interview at the Chicago Auto Show in February. "Can it be front-drive? Can it just carry 1,000 pounds? We don't know yet."
Chrysler: Mid-sized pickup
Ford: Redesigned Explorer Sport Trac
GM: Next-generation Chevrolet Montana
GM: Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia derivatives
Toyota: A-BAT concept
Ridgeline set patternHonda's unibody Ridgeline pickup is the forerunner of the lifestyle pickup.
Lee DaSilva, senior product planner for the Ridgeline at American Honda Motor Co., says research showed that the needs and expectations of some families were not met by body-on-frame pickups.
Some buyers wanted a four-door pickup that provided carlike ride and handling, could "accommodate a family during the week in a very comfortable, capable vehicle (and) on the weekends handle personal leisure activities — say, motorcycles or camping equipment," DaSilva said.
The Ridgeline is based on a fwd Honda platform, but the pickup is offered only with awd.
But other automakers are thinking about offering fwd unibody pickups. Such pickups were tried more than 25 years ago — and they failed. The short-lived 1982-84 Dodge Rampage and 1980-82 Volkswagen Rabbit pickups were developed on fwd unibody platforms. The small bed and limited payload capacity failed to attract large numbers of buyers. Ditto for the 2003-07 Subaru Baja, which evolved from the Outback.
But Tom Rocchio, manager of advanced product strategy for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., says fwd pickups are viable.
"We have done research, and people are open to the idea," he says. "Not everybody in a pickup goes off-road, and not everybody needs all-wheel drive."
Simply put, Rocchio says, the world is changing. While tradespeople demanding power to haul a heavy load or pull a big trailer will continue to buy body-on-frame pickups, other pickup enthusiasts will never need that capability. They are likely to prefer lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Jim Hall, director of industry analysis at 2953 Analytics in suburban Detroit, estimates that 25 percent of the full-sized pickup business eventually could shift to unibody pickups that have cabs and beds similar in size to the full-sized trucks.
"They are true pickups for a chunk of the market that doesn't load their pickups with gravel or bark," Hall said.
Pickup plansHere's a review of top automakers' plans:
-- Chrysler LLC
Project D is Chrysler's moon-shot mission. Chrysler wants to develop a variety of vehicles off a new mid-sized global vehicle platform: sedans, hatchbacks, crossovers and a lifestyle pickup.
A team is trying to determine the formula, Klegon said. Chrysler must decide whether to develop the platform on its own or develop it with another automaker. Recommendations are expected by June.
Chrysler turned down an interview request for more details last week.
John Smith, group vice president of global product planning, says GM is developing most fwd global architectures with cars, crossovers, SUVs and pickups in mind.
If GM has not approved a pickup for production when the architecture is launched, "later, if a market develops, we can pounce like a leopard and have something in the market in, say, two years as opposed to four or five," Smith said in an interview.
General Motors is eyeing compact and mid-sized unibody pickups for the United States. One possibility is the Chevrolet Montana, a fwd compact pickup sold in Brazil.
"When we do the next small pickup, it will be globally capable," said Smith, when asked whether the pickup would be sold in the United States. Unlike the current model, the redesigned fwd pickup will be offered with awd capability, he said.
A mid-sized unibody pickup also is possible. In 2001, when GM was creating its mid-sized, fwd Lambda vehicle architecture, three models were under consideration: a crossover, minivan and pickup. Instead, only four crossovers evolved from the Lambda program: the Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave and the upcoming 2009 Chevrolet Traverse.
Over the past year or so, a Lambda-based pickup has been in and out of GM's future product plans, industry sources say. Last week, Smith said a Lambda-based pickup "is a possibility, but it is not something that is in our plans."
But Catherine Madden, senior analyst for Global Insight Inc., said "all of our information still indicates that GM is working on a product." Global Insight expects production of the Lambda-based pickup to begin in 2011 with estimated annual production of about 65,000 units for Chevrolet and 35,000 for GMC.-- Ford
Ford's next-generation Explorer will be developed on a unibody platform, possibly with a four-cylinder engine with more than 250 hp. Analysts expect standard fwd, with awd availability.
The replacement for the Explorer Sport Trac is expected to share that platform. But there has been debate within Ford whether the Sport Trac will be replaced.
The hybrid-powered fwd compact pickup Toyota is considering is based on the A-BAT concept that debuted at the Detroit auto show in January.
The A-BAT has two rows of seats, a rear cabin door that opens into the cargo box, and a four-foot pickup bed. When the tailgate is lowered, the bed is large enough for light-duty hauling, such as transporting a motorcycle. The overall length is 181.3 inches, compared with 190.4 inches for the Toyota Tacoma regular-cab, long-bed model.
Toyota Motor Sales' Rocchio said that if the concept is produced, its price would be a little above that of the entry-level Tacoma pickup, which stickers for $14,965 including shipping.
Enthusiasts who want a compact pickup are a different breed, Rocchio said.
"They are not into the detailed specs as full-sized pickup truck owners are," he said. "They talk more in generalities.
"So they don't say, 'I need a six-foot bed.' Instead, they say, 'These are the activities that I do, and I would like this truck to accommodate that.'"