Back in the early nineties the light duty work truck market experienced something it hadn’t seen before: Asian competition; sort of.While Japanese manufacturers had done a number on the big three in the small truck market as they had done in various automobile segments, the full size truck market was still red, white, blue, and green$$. Then came the Toyota T-100. While the initial entry into the full size market from Japan didn’t have much of an impact on the North American work truck market, it should have been a wake-up call.
Though the T-100 missed the work truck mark in many ways: low gvw, sheet metal like tin foil, puny power trains, low tow rating, and styling best described as a Camry with an 8′ bed, it did accomplish one thing. It gave Toyota a platform to experiment, gather feedback and learn. It wasn’t exactly heavy duty. But by the T-100’s third year of production it claimed the title of Best Full Size Pickup in JD Powers initial quality survey and had begun to erode notions that only American manufacturers could build full size trucks.
Since then the T-100 has become the Tundra, and has racked up just about every quality award and press accolade known to man. It’s also grown up. Regular Cabs have grown to double cabs larger than the domestics, and horsepower and displacement have grown from the initial 3.0 v6 to todays vvt-i V8 pushing nearly 300 hp. But a more important event occurred when the T-100 became the Tundra. It went from a Japanese truck built in Japan by Japanese workers to an American Truck built for the American market by American’s. Why is that important? In the world of full size trucks, it’s everything. When it comes to high revving sports cars, compact economy cars, or even lawnmowers, we’re happy to defer to any European or Asian company with a better idea. But, when it comes to trucks, Americans are finicky.
We know what we want and don’t want. I’m an American truck owner and I can’t describe it but I get it. We all get it. So regardless of whether or not it makes financial sense for Japanese car companies to build trucks here in the US (it does), it makes perfect sense from a design and marketing standpoint. The best and fastest way to deliver what a market wants and needs is to be immersed in the culture. That shift from the T-100 being built in Tokyo by Toyotas Hino division, to the Tundra being built in Indiana by American’s forever blurred the distinction between foreign and domestic trucks. Foreign vs. Domestic simply doesn’t have the same meaning in the 21st century as it did in the decades following WW2.
The impact of this event hasn’t fully developed yet but it will in the coming years. Full size trucks were the last unmolested market the big three had. Now, not only is there foreign competition, it’s not even really foreign. When Toyota opens their new truck plant in San Antonio in late 2006, they will employ over 2000 workers and have on-site suppliers employing another 2100 people. All of them Texans. It’s hard toimagine an American truck more American than one built by Texans.
Now, with the introduction of the Canton Mississippi built Nissan Titan, the writing is on the wall. Through October of this year, Nissan has sold nearly 74,000 Titans. Add that to the more than 100,000 Tundras pumped into the market, and we’re talking serious numbers. That’s annually more than a quarter million sales that would have gone to Ford, GM or Chrysler a mere 13 years ago. But the figures are more ominous to the big 3 than that. The Titan and Tundra only compete in the 1/2 ton market. Toyota and Nissan don’t produce a model to compete with the Chevy HD’s, Ford Super Duty’s, or Heavy Dodge Rams and Power Wagons; YET.
Can’t imagine Nissan and Toyota building serious work trucks? Remember, Toyota already owns Hino and Nissan and UD are one in the same. Hino and UD own a significant piece of the class 3 to 6 medium duty truck market in the states. Those are the segments just above the Super Duties, Power Wagons, and HD’s.
They may not be called Nissan and Toyota, but that’s not important. What is important, is that they have the dealer network, distribution chain, corporate infrastructure, and 20 plus years of selling quality trucks to commercial buyers in the U.S. All that’s left is to close the loop in the noose around the big threes collective neck.
To work truck buyers, three factors are critical. Initial cost, cost of operation, and reliability. Nissan and Toyota are masters at entering market segments and in a short time having products of higher quality, better efficiency, and in many cases lower prices than their competitors. Forcing the big three to play catch up at their own game. Cadillac and Lincoln still haven’t caught back up to Lexus. If GM, Ford and Chrysler don’t get it together in a hurry, Nissan and Toyota will start building 3/4 and one ton trucks, and the game will be over before they knew it started.So how ready are the big three for serious foreign competition?
This year If Toyota was inclined, they could have offered a no bed Tundra with a dual wheel rear axle under it, dropped in one of Hinos diesel engines and sold more cab and chassis than Dodge. How? Dodge hasn’t offered a true cab and chassis since the Ram’s redesign in 2003, literally giving the market to Ford and GM for over three years. That kind of slow adaptation will spell disaster against companies like Toyota and Nissan. Not to mention Honda and Mitsubishi who may also become players.Based on show vehicles recently unveiled, like the Toyota FTX (which has a built in collapsible job box and ramps that slide out of the bed), Nissan and Toyota are going to go bigger and heavier. While Ford is wasting time slapping Super Duty pickup beds on International chassis, Toyota and Nissan are refining their product and winning the hearts and minds of American truck buyers.
Will history repeat itself? It already is. Oh, and by the way, the Chinese are coming.