The global strategic partnership Volkswagen Group and Ford Motor Co. are exploring would focus initially on joint development of light commercial vehicles. But sources in Germany said it could also affect VW's plans to add a midsize pickup to its U.S. lineup.
The open question: whether to give VW dealers a rebadged body-on-frame Ford Ranger, or a unibody pickup built in-house in Chattanooga and based on the Atlas crossover — the Tanoak concept that debuted in March at the New York auto show.
Thomas Sedran, newly installed CEO of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles and former head of group strategy for the German automaker, told Automotive News that cooperating with Ford on light commercial vehicles will give the companies a better return on their investments.
"I wouldn't rule out anything [on the car side], but the focus is let's first get the LCV projects running," Sedran said. "We want a concrete project vehicle that has a start of production and a certain volume, and then can talk about other issues."
He declined to reveal the range of planned projects, but several people familiar with the matter said VW is looking to save development costs on a second-generation Amarok.
The 8-year-old midsize pickup is not sold in North America, but is the only body-on-frame vehicle in VW's portfolio of 300-plus models. It is built in South America and Europe and sold around the world.
Contracting with Ford to provide an Amarok replacement based on its global Ranger would save VW development costs and would more easily answer the homologation problems that have kept the current-generation Amarok from U.S. showrooms.
But VW dealers in the U.S. would likely face a similar issue with a Ranger-based Amarok that they had earlier this decade with the slow-selling Routan minivan. The Routan, a rebadged version of the Chrysler Town & Country built by Chrysler, was priced at a significant premium over its domestically badged line mate.
The alternative for VW would be a green light for the Tanoak, a unibody pickup like the Honda Ridgeline. The Tanoak concept is identical to VW's three-row Atlas crossover from the B-pillar forward, but could be sold as a "lifestyle" pickup because of its styling and features.
The Tanoak concept — championed by Volkswagen Group of America CEO Hinrich Woebcken as a demonstration of the region's new autonomy from Wolfsburg — was built on a lengthened MQB platform that allowed its bed to be more than 5 feet long, but its powertrain is identical to that of the Atlas. The company most recently displayed the Tanoak last month at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
But skeptics inside VW question whether a unibody pickup would generate the volumes needed in the smaller midsize segment to be sufficiently profitable. They say a traditional body-on-frame vehicle such the Amarok would be preferable because it could be sold worldwide.
Indeed, the jury is still out on the brand's pickup strategy for the U.S.
VW brand's chief strategy officer, Michael Jost, told Automotive News: "Whether it's a unibody or body-on-frame is something we're still examining."