Smaller Trucks, Bigger Loyalty: VW Sees a Place for Truly Compact Pickups

Volkswagen has been flagrantly displaying new pickups at trade shows for a couple of years now, and with good reason. Domestic trucks have grown very large. In 1993, you could still purchase the Ford F-Series in a format where its maximum length did not exceed 197 inches. Today, the F-150 gets no smaller than 209 inches with a standard cab. Meanwhile, the now mid-sized Ranger, sold only in SuperCab and SuperCrew guise, grew from to 181 inches in overall length to a whopping 211 inches within the same timeframe.

The supersizing of the North American pickup created an interesting opportunity for manufacturers, and Volkswagen took notice

“As [midsize] pickups get bigger — to the stage where they are as big as full-size pickups were not so long ago – and more expensive and less fuel-efficient, we are trying to see if there is space for a vehicle with a smaller footprint that potentially is more affordable and gets better gas mileage,” VW’s senior vice president for product marketing, Hein Schafer, explained to The Detroit News this week.

Despite the continued existence of the overseas Amarok, Volkswagen has shown two new pickups at American trade shows over the last two years. In 2018, the Atlas-based Tanoak concept showed up at the New York Auto Show to show the automaker was serious about exploring the truck market. That concept, however, was sized extremely close to existing mid-size mainstays and was actually a little larger than Ford’s Ranger.

The following year, the much smaller (at 193.5 inches) Tarok arrived. Assuming Volkswagen sells it in the United States, the pickup would be the smallest thing with a bed currently available. It’s also more congruous with the public presumption that VW does small vehicles well. That’s unlikely to be disputed by early adopters, who will notice that the Tarok’s modern, car-like interior is loaded with the latest technologies.

It’s also the better vehicle to break into the truck market with, according to Autotrader senior auto analyst Michelle Krebs. “Our research shows there is little brand loyalty in smaller trucks,” she said. “Full-size buyers are the most loyal in the industry; smaller-truck buyers are the least. So the newest player likely has a good chance of conquesting [sic] buyers.”

A small truck would also have more global appeal. While individuals with a penchant for oversized ladder-frame pickups exist across the globe, most places aren’t interested in importing what would likely be considered an extravagant and ridiculously proportioned work vehicle. Something smaller is likely the better fit, which is why Volkswagen has already started assembly of the Tarok in Brazil. The automaker would need to shift production to North America to avoid the dreaded chicken tax.

To accomplish this, VW claims it can probably move some assembly north (likely to Mexico, alongside its MQB-based relatives) without much trouble. There, the little pickup would receive a more robust powerplant than the 1.4-liter TSI four-cylinder offered to Brazilian buyers.

“Obviously there is a market here for small pickups for young people who don’t want to spend $40,000 and want a lifestyle vehicle to haul their bikes or kayak,” says Joe Phillippi, analyst at AutoTrends Consulting. “But it’s a finite number of sales and manufacturers need to make sense of the numbers.”

Phillippi estimates that the hypothetical U.S.-spec Tarok would start in the low $20,000 range and fall short of $30,000 when fully loaded. That’s considerable different ground than a typical American full-size pickup, which usually starts above $25,000 and can be kitted out to a point where it costs multiple times the base model’s MSRP.

If Volkswagen is serious about getting back into the pickup game, it’ll have to strike while the iron is hot, at the same time realizing that this likely won’t be a segment with a never-ending consumer base. VW has the first aspect covered and may find additional support through its current partnership with Ford. But the second could be upended if a gaggle of rival manufacturers decide to start delivering smaller lifestyle trucks to Americans.

a version of this post first appeared on TTAC