Any similarity between the new crop of trucks coming out of Detroit and a traditional truck is becoming purely coincidental.
Judging from the new light-truck concepts on display at this year's North American International Auto Show, designers are hell-bent on ripping up the old definition of truck and making up a new one for the new century.
Truck designs from General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler have audiences wondering whether they are looking at pickups, sport-utilities, sedans or something closer to anarchy.
'Segmentation is breaking down,' declares J Mays, Ford design vice president. 'Pickups aren't pickups anymore. They are lifestyles on wheels.'
The Chevrolet SSR marries drag-racer looks with off-roading high wheel wells and - just for good measure - a pickup's cargo bed. The Jeep Varsity may or may not be a sporty hatchback, but it has the tall stance, rugged looks and four-wheel drive of an off-roader.
The Ford Equator vaguely resembles a Swiss Army knife with fog lights, fusing a pickup short bed and an airy cab. It sports removable instrument gauges and gaps between the doors and floorboard big enough for snakes to crawl through.
Mays even submits the heretical notion that the very idea of streamlining - the jet airplane-inspired concept that largely has ruled vehicle design for half a century - is no longer in control.
'Design elements are a reflection of the times,' he says. 'Streamlined cars were a reflection of one era. Now we're at the beginning of a new era.'
Mays' arch competitor, Wayne Cherry, vice president of GM design, echoes the thought: 'All of a sudden, the future is here. There's a psychological thing in moving into a new century. I think designers are reacting to that.'
Such thinking is a hairpin turn away from the industry's mood just one year ago. At last year's fin de sicle Detroit show, the undisputed design flavor was the retro look. This year, designers appear to have booted winsome nostalgia out of the studio. 'Design has gotten fun again,' enthuses Pierre Gagnon, executive vice president of Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America Inc. 'It's a renaissance in design. We're all asking, what is the next generation of vehicle going to look like?'
Space for hauling stuff may be emerging as the magic ingredient, judging from the Detroit show. Mitsubishi's own outer-edge concept car, the California-designed SSS, is clearly a sedan. Yet SSS designer Jon Hull proudly throws open the sedan's futuristic trunk to reveal its contents: a full-sized upright mountain bike. The cavernous cargo space could hold two of them, he points out.
Even Ron Zarrella, president of GM North America, made a point to show off the roomy cargo area of the otherwise sleek new sports coupe concept from Buick, the LaCrosse.
'The industry is seeing that design sells,' adds Mitsubishi's Gagnon. 'Just look at the Volkswagen Beetle.'
Indeed, Volkswagen AG took the Detroit opportunity to unveil a truck creature of its own, the Advanced Activity Concept. The design blends a pickup bed into the mix and uses sloping A and C pillars to evoke the unmistakable flavor of a coupe.
But VW's blending still seems tame compared with other truck stylings now.
Ford's 24.7 pickup resembles a cube with the corners rubbed off. DaimlerChrysler's new Dodge MAXXcab has fused its trademark angular cab-forward look into a pickup. GM's Pontiac Aztek might have been a tall sedan, or possibly a hatchbacked sport-utility, but the vehicle's young brand manager Don Butler christened it a 'sport recreation vehicle.'
GM also pushed the styling envelope with its GMC Terradyne, a pickup with sliding doors and a variable-height chassis that looks as much like a machine from the movie The Terminator as a vehicle. Terradyne brand manager Duane Paige called the look 'industrial precision.' In addition to raising the chassis as desired, drivers also can use electronics to extend the cargo bed, open storage containers and control the doors.
'We're trying to solve some of the inherent problems with trucks,' Paige says. 'Comfort. Rear seat room. I think every time the industry makes an innovation to solve one of those problems, trucks get a little more popular.'