CHICAGO -- A new groundswell is taking place for sporty trucks.
Of all the vehicles on display this week at the Chicago Auto Show, the pickup segment stands out. There are General Motors' redesigned mid-sized pickups, the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, getting back into the game.
There is Toyota's new batch of off-road-capable TRD Pro Series trucks. There is the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor splattered in mud. There is Nissan's Frontier Desert Runner, fitted with a transparent acrylic hood to show what's beneath -- a proposed turbocharged Cummins four-cylinder diesel engine.
Every brand has a different story to tell. But where they all overlap is that the industry smells opportunity in trucks, small trucks, sporty trucks and more trucks.
U.S. pickup sales rose 13 percent in 2013. And despite a 3 percent decline last month, blamed on severe winter weather that deterred shoppers, automakers say the segment's outlook remains solid.
Automakers are pumping new life into their trucks.
Nissan is studying whether to equip its mid-sized Frontier with diesel power to reach younger buyers -- customers who want truck muscle but can't afford a full-sized pickup. Frontier sales rose 13 percent in 2013 and 88 percent in January -- and it's an old model.
GM, spurred in part by dealers, is actively mulling an all-terrain variant of the Colorado.
Toyota wants to "take things to the next level," says Jack Hollis, Toyota Division vice president of marketing. The TRD Pro Series is giving performance shocks, front skid plates, retro front grilles and special off-road suspension tuning to the Tacoma and Tundra pickups and the 4Runner SUV.
"This is the vision of the company," Hollis says. "Take everything we do well and take it a step further. What can we do to give our trucks a little more pizzazz? Not just for the off-roader, but also for the buyer who just likes the way it looks and feels, and what it says."
In other words, these truck enhancements are all about what customers want -- not simply what they need.
Five years ago when U.S. truck sales collapsed, a dour and sober product outlook took hold. The best trucks were the safe bets -- the low-key, the affordable and the practical.
Clearly, that era is behind us.