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GM to axe compact pickups, introduce 5-cyl engine

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GM Compact Pickup Trucks Head for End of Road

USA TODAY - August 14, 2003

Motor Trend

Small-pickup buyers want bigger trucks, so General Motors -- at the head of a slowly emerging trend -- is discontinuing its compacts in favor of what it calls midsize pickups this fall. The 2004 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon are a few inches longer and significantly roomier than the Chevy S-10 and GMC Sonoma trucks that they replace. Toyota is expected to go the same route when it overhauls the Tacoma pickup in a year or two. Nissan's Frontier likewise should grow a bit in two or three years.

Ford Motor, though, has no plan to redesign its Ranger pickup for years, leaving it the smallest among compacts. Ford has put off a Ranger redo as part of rescheduling its spending. Even when a redesign comes, it's not clear it will be bigger than today's truck.

"Ford's the odd one out" as automakers try to invent "the giant, economy-size small pickup," says George Peterson, head of consultant AutoPacific.

Dodge invented the true midsize pickup with the Dakota, last redone for the 1997 model year. It sold well at first, but is down 13.9% this year vs. last. Compact pickups overall are the dog of the truck market, down 10.1%.

The reason is simple, Peterson says, "People normally want a full-size pickup."

Big discounts lately have made full-size trucks a better buy than small ones, especially considering that big trucks depreciate far less.

GM's common-sense move -- giving buyers what they say they want -- sets up a bare-knuckles brawl. Ford is likely to apply generous discounts to keep Ranger the best-selling small pickup. Others will have to follow, or already slumping sales will accelerate downhill.

For buyers, the launch of the GM trucks will mean "a one- or two-month firming of prices as the early adopters pay what they need to and then it all goes to hell again," as low prices rather than product attributes become the main selling point, predicts Jeremy Anwyl, president of Edmunds.com car-shopping service.

Incentives on compact pickups have doubled the past 18 months, costing automakers an average $2,987 per truck. That's about $1,000 more than the year-ago average and 13.8% more than the overall average $2,624 for all types of vehicles, Edmunds.com reports.

AutoPacific's surveys show that 12% of recent new vehicle buyers say they'll consider a small pickup next time they buy, while 29% say they'll consider a full-size pickup. Sport-utility vehicles remain tops; 59% say that's what they'll look for next, Peterson reports. Least likely to be considered: small cars. Just 8% will look at those.

Automakers are required to meet federal fuel-economy standards and need the higher fuel economy of small vehicles to help offset the poor fuel economy of big vehicles.

"We did a lot of buyer research, and it was obvious they wanted size," says Bruce Mader, Chevy Colorado product manager. "But when you asked them about the (financial) trade-offs of full-size pickups, they weren't willing to make them."

Too, Mader says, "There are compact pickup owners who really do not want to be in full-size pickups. You could give them a full-size for the same price, and they would not want it."

New models usually increase sales of all vehicles in the segment, because they create buyer excitement. But that's not likely among compact pickups. "That segment is shrinking. . . . There are a lot of full-size pickups you can get for $15,000," says Larry Dominique, in charge of trucks for Nissan North America.

Beyond the marketing clash, GM's small pickups introduce five-cylinder engines to a small-truck market marbled with V-6s, setting up a philosophical dispute about engines. GM "will have some explaining to do" about the five-cylinder, Anwyl says.

Audi did and Volvo does use five-cylinder engines, but they remain oddball powerplants in a world of four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines.

Proponents argue that fives provide more power than a four and use less gas than a six. Opponents say they don't provide the power of a six and use more gas than a four.

GM's five-cylinder engines are derived from the inline-six-cylinder engines in its midsize sport/utility vehicles, such as Chevy TrailBlazer.

Mader says the power ratings, plus a test drive, should convince skeptics.

One other issue that might bedevil GM's new trucks is that the old ones would seem to outperform them in some ways. The Chevy S-10 crew cab, carried over temporarily into the '04 model year, will pull a 5,200-pound trailer, while 4,000 pounds is the best the five-cylinder Colorado will do, according to official Chevy specifications.

Chevy says it quit testing at 4,000, having decided that's as much as buyers required. "For all we know, it might tow much more," says Chevy spokesman Matt Banchek.

The carryover S-10 has slightly more front-seat head and legroom than the Colorado crew cab. Banchek says Colorado has more overall passenger room, even though specific measurements might come second to S-10's.

Nomenclature aside, by keeping Colorado similar in size to S-10, and cutting back the heft necessary to tow heavier loads, Colorado should accelerate, stop and handle better than S-10 does, Banchek says.

© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY

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