Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – Like salmon swimming upstream, American Suzuki Motor Corp. is entering the small-pickup sector in the U.S. at a time when just about everyone else appears on the verge of getting out.

Here at the Chicago Auto Show, the small Japanese auto maker debuts its first pickup truck, the Equator, set to go on sale in the fourth quarter.

Although Suzuki calls the Equator a “midsize pickup,” Ward’s most likely will classify the truck in its “small pickup” sector, along with the Nissan Frontier, on which the Equator is based.

Even as sales plummet, Suzuki still sees a need for compact pickups and will attempt to win over customers who already own Suzuki motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles or marine engines.

“You may see a fragmenting of this (small-pickup) market like we’ve seen in the SUV market,” says Steven Younan, product-planning director at American Suzuki. “In the same sense, I think that same fragmenting will lead to people who have specific needs in the (small-pickup) category.”

But Suzuki is entering a sector locked in a downward spiral, as volume plunged 16.2% in 2007, according to Ward’s data.

The ancient Ford Ranger, which had been the segment stalwart for years, has seen sales nosedive from 209,117 units in 2003, to 72,711 in 2007.

Likewise, Dodge Dakota deliveries declined from 111,273 in 2003 to 50,702 last year. Chevrolet Colorado demand, relatively brisk at 128,359 units in 2005, fell off a cliff to 75,716 in 2007.

The giant of the sector now is the Toyota Tacoma, sales of which slipped slightly from 178,351 in 2006 to 173,238 in 2007.

Demand for the Nissan Frontier, which inspired the Suzuki Equator, jumped to 79,320 in 2006, but then fell to 66,347 last year.

All of these pickups have one thing in common: a conventional body-on-frame architecture with a solid rear axle and a generally “trucky” feel on the road.

But auto makers are considering car-based unibody structures for future compact pickups, much like the Honda Ridgeline. Sales of that model have been relatively stable (between 42,000 and 50,000 units) since its 2005 launch.

General Motors Corp. unveiled here its GMC Denali XT concept, a unibody hybrid-electric vehicle with four doors and a small bed, similar to the 2-door Chevy El Camino of the 1970s.

GMC officials say the Denali XT is only a concept, and there are no immediate plans for production.

Benefits to a unibody architecture include better ride and handling, lighter weight and improved fuel economy – a significant draw for any auto maker hoping to reach the 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) federal mandate in the U.S. for 2020.

But Suzuki remains convinced its ATV, motorcycle and marine-engine customers want good towing and off-road capability, and that a body-on-frame architecture is better suited to those purposes.

“If you’re going to tow a boat, you’re really going to want a body-on-frame vehicle,” Younan tells Ward’s. “It makes a lot of sense for us to keep with that program for a body-on-frame vehicle, which is obviously more robust for off-roading as well.”

Two DOHC engines are offered in the Equator, both of them from Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.. The standard 2.5L I-4 is rated at 152 hp and 171 lb.-ft. (231 Nm) of torque. The 4.0L V-6 generates 261 hp and 281 lb.-ft. (381 Nm) of torque.

Suzuki says the 4-cyl. Equator, available in both 2- and 4-wheel drive, is capable of towing 3,500 lbs. (1,587 kg), while the V-6 can pull 6,500 lbs. (2,948 kg).

But Younan admits the vehicle won’t meet all buyers’ needs.

“If your goal in life is to have a vehicle for other purposes,” such as hauling groceries or kids or as a fleet delivery truck, “then maybe that’s a different market,” he says. “We’re targeting a certain buyer mentality, a buyer need.”

The Equator, produced at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, TN, will be offered with an extended cab (with clamshell “suicide” doors and a tiny second row only large enough for small children) and a larger crew cab. Two bed sizes are available, in 59.5-in. (151-cm) and 73.3-in. (186-cm) lengths.

Because it launches late in the model year, Suzuki likely will sell fewer than 10,000 units in the first year, Younan says.

“We’ll have to ramp up, and getting the Suzuki name out there is going to be a bit of a challenge,” he says. “It’s our first truck to market.”