Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – Because some downsizing big-pickup owners might not buy another one doesn’t mean they are going to end up in a Smart ultra-compact car.

They may find a midsize pickup just right, says Gene Brown, vice president-product planning for American Suzuki Motor Corp.

If so, Suzuki is ready for them with its first foray into the pickup segment, the ’09 Equator.

“If your motive is for your truck to be Texas-size, the Equator is not for you,” Brown tells Ward’s at the Chicago Auto Show, where Suzuki exhibits three Equators customized by editorial staffs of three off-road enthusiast publications.

Fullsize pickups still are the truck of choice for many tradesmen and construction workers. But big-pickup sales fell last year as fuel prices soared and many owners, especially those who bought them mainly for kicks, bailed from the segment.

If that trend continues, the Equator, which went on sale last month, could be a beneficiary. By now, all Suzuki dealers have at least one of the new pickups in stock, Brown says.

Today’s midsize pickups are a vast improvement from earlier generations that were much smaller and had underwhelming towing and hauling abilities.

“Midsize trucks now offer capabilities they didn’t have five years ago,” Brown says. “And it was only recently that fullsize pickups broke the 10,000-lb. (4,535-kg) barrier.”

The Equator’s towing maximum is 6,500 lbs. (2,948 kg).

A rebadged and modified version of the Nissan Frontier, the Equator is made at the Nissan North America Inc. plant in Smyrna, TN.

The truck has a traditional body-on-frame construction, a wishbone suspension, 2.5L I-4 and 4.0L V-6 engine choices and crew-cab variants. Hood, grille and fender differences set the Equator and Frontier apart.

Brown poses a couple of questions – Why a Suzuki pickup? And why now, considering the tough economy? – then answers them.

“The U.S. is the biggest market in the world, and as of (January), trucks and SUVs still make up 51% of vehicle sales, despite everything,” he says. “That would have to drop a lot before the light-truck market can be declared as dead.”

Suzuki’s plan is not just to grab a piece of that high-volume segment, Brown says. “We want to be more strategic than that.”

So, Suzuki is pitching the Equator to owners of Suzuki motorcycles, marine craft and all-terrain vehicles. The premise is that those consumers are more likely to buy a truck. The hope is that it will be of the same brand as their recreational equipment.

“We think it’s a natural fit,” Brown says of the prospective cross-buying.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com