By John Lamm
That’s the number of “light vehicles,” meaning cars and trucks, sold in the U.S. in 2015. It was a record year led by — sorry, car guys — trucks. A combination of SUVs, crossovers and pickups were 55.7% of that total. Some 2.5 million were pickup trucks.
Television commercials imply one needs a gravelly voice, big biceps and a nearby sledgehammer to own a pickup. But now there’s a growing class of pickups that blur the line between workhorse and polo pony.
The latest blurrings are courtesy of Honda and Mercedes-Benz. Honda veers off the grit and business of traditional pickups with an urban party truck. As for Mercedes, its recently unveiled prototype pickup promises to be a high-roller hauler.
Pickups have a storied history. Ford Model Ts with a work-bed out back were sold before World War I. Ford’s F Series has been the top-selling single vehicle in the U.S. since 1981. Chevy’s Silverado and Chrysler’s Ram pickup take second and third place.
When country music went mainstream in the 1970s, pickup trucks — along with lyin’, cheatin’, and long-suffering mamas — became staples of many songs. Among them were two classics mid-1990s by Joe Diffie: “Pickup Man,” with its obvious double entendre, and “Leroy the Redneck Reindeer,” a Christmas classic (sort of).
In the first years of the 21st Century Toyota and Nissan entered this arena. Japan’s car companies had long made compact pickups, but the Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan were their first full-sized entries.
The motive: profit. Trucks (including SUVs and crossovers as well as pickups) account for 90% of global pre-tax profits at GM and Ford, Reuters estimates. Analysts peg pickup profits at more than $10,000 per vehicle, five times the profit on typical sedans.
Especially lucrative are designer pickups such as Ford’s King Ranch edition; the seats have more leather than most cows. But Lincoln’s 2002 Blackwood pickup was just too frou frou. Car critic Dan Neil called it “…a pickup that won’t pick up.”
Honda’s Ridgeline pickup debuted in 2005 and differed from “normal” pickups. Its boxed unibody frame, independent suspension and, horrors, V-6 engine in a V-8 world made it distinctive enough to win the truck category of the 2006 North American Car of the Year. The Ridgeline’s functionality — including car-like ride and handling — earned it a reputation as the Swiss Army knife of trucks. Federal regulators gave it a 5-star safety rating.
Today’s second-generation Ridgeline — built in America, like the original — still sports a unibody but now looks more like a traditional cabin/bed pickup. The cabin, borrowing heavily from Honda’s Pilot SUV, seats five. The info-screen/audio layout is slightly clunky. But the host of tech features includes Apple CarPlay, blind-spot visibility, rear camera, etc.
A 3.5-liter, 280-horsepower V-6 works through a 6-speed automatic and front- or all-wheel drive. The independent suspension takes the ride, handling and comfort on gnarly roads far beyond the Chevrolet and Toyota competition. But towing is rated at 5000 pounds — a hefty payload, but way below the F-150’s maximum of more than 12,000 pounds.
The real fun is out back, in the composite truck bed with its two-way tailgate. The under-floor trunk provides room for plenty of room for beverages (e.g. beer). There’s a drain. And a 400-watt AC inverter should you care to mount a flat-screen TV back there. Best yet, six exciters (optional) in the walls of the bed turn it into an outdoor speaker.
This party truck starts at $29,475 plus $900 destination. Fuel economy is 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway.
What makes a Mercedes-Benz pickup of interest is not its features, but its very existence. Mercedes and pickup truck are not terms one would normally mate, but last October the automaker did just that, debuting the X-Class Concept.
Not a Stuttgart design, it’s based on the Nissan Navara pickup, and is another step in the Mercedes-Renault-Nissan alliance. Built on a ladder-type frame chassis, the X-Class is roughly the size of the Ridgeline, and also offers room for five. The only drivetrain mentioned so far is a Mercedes V-6 diesel with 4MATIC all-wheel drive.
Mercedes gives the X-Class a payload of 1.1 tons and a towing capacity of 3.5 tons. The Mercedes sensibility is evident in its example of a payload (firewood) and towing object (a sailboat). Concrete blocks or bass boats? Nein!
Mercedes mentions two variations on the X-Class theme, the “powerful adventurer” for toughness and off-road use and the “stylish explorer” for “the urban environment.” Presumably that includes gravel driveways in the Hamptons.
Planned as a 2018 model, production will began late in 2017 at a Nissan factory in Barcelona, Spain and, some months later, at a Renault plant in Cordoba, Argentina. “With the Mercedes-Benz pickup, we will close one of the last gaps in our portfolio,” declares Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG. The added sales will also be helpful in the automaker’s worldwide sales battle against German arch-rivals BMW and Audi.
As for the X-Class in the U.S.? Mercedes-Benz North America states: “While a pickup is under consideration for the U.S. market at some point, no timeline is available for a decision to be made.” But there’s a good bet the company will build and sell the X-Class in America.
After all, Mercedes’ U.S. assembly plant is located in Vance, Alabama — between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, and smack in the middle of America’s pickup country.