The Euro-pick-up truck is unwell.
Broadly speaking, we have a good deal to thank our American neighbours for in automotive terms, notwithstanding of course, the fact that some influences have been better received than others. Nevertheless, the automobile evolved more rapidly, and improved in ways we could scarcely have imagined largely due to US market forces. For instance, the modern styling studio was very much an American innovation, and it’s probably fair to say that nobody did more to further that particular art. The minivan originated there and latterly, the aspirational, tech-laden EV. Not to mention the SUV. Mixed blessings then.
The pick-up truck on the other hand; that most quintessentially American vehicle, is at least as old as the automobile itself. Unquestionably the current centre of gravity (and profit) for the US auto industry, the pick-up has evolved from pure functionality to popular icon of authentic no-collar masculinity. Capable, dependable, the sort of individual who can wear a tool belt with authority. After all, real men drive trucks.
One can understand the appeal. It speaks to the inherent urge in us all for capability in reverse, and in these deeply uncertain times one never quite knows how much one is going to require. But while a good many truck owners do in fact use their pick-ups in the manner intended, a decent subset very likely just like the look of themselves in one.
The enormous and seemingly all-conquering success of the enormous and seemingly all-conquering US pick-up did not go unnoticed on this side of the world. While there was always a modest EU market for these utility vehicles, the need was mostly served by 4x4s and various other forms of closed-back commercials.
Latterly however, there has been a minor explosion in such vehicles. Previously, largely the preserve of Toyota’s globally bestselling Hilux, recent times has seen the European market flooded with offerings from amongst others, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Renault, Fiat, VW and the blue oval.
Another component to this new raft of flat-backed commercials has been the manner in which they have been marketed. Enter the product strategist, ever on the lookout for the next sales sensation. Tracking the seemingly unending rise of the urban lifestyle truck in the US, where these vehicles come loaded with as much kit and caboodle as anyone’s luxury sedan (with engine sizes to match), they recognised an opening, and as we all know, marketing abhors a vacuum.
The European pickup began therefore to evolve, gaining in creature comforts, in a more sophisticated package, in the seemingly endless lists of optional add-ons, and perhaps most tellingly, in the adherence of a succession of pseudo-aggressive sounding names, like Warrior, Raptor and stencilled upon a Hilux I witnessed yesterday, Invincible. Names that do cause one to wonder why they need to labour the point?
The idea of upmarket lifestyle pick-ups reached its brief European apogee with that tangible experience of modern beauty, the Mercedes-Benz X-Class. Twinned (actually tripleted, if that’s a word) with Nissan’s Navara and Renault’s Alaskan, the X-Class entered the market in 2017, its then CEO, Dieter Zetche prophesising it would “set new standards in a growing segment.” Described as “the world’s first true premium pickup for the modern urban lifestyle,” Mercedes were unabashed in their ambition to pitch the X-Class towards those “new customers who have not considered owning a pickup before.”
Cynical acts were akin to breathing for the three pointed star of Sindelfingen by this time, but even by Dr. Zetche’s standards, the X-Class was a horribly potent example, one the market, much to the relief of many less credulous observers, failed to fall for. It was withdrawn from sale in 2020, sales never approaching projections. One assumes the product strategists fell on their swords – or ought to have.
The X-Class’ failure marked something of a watershed, and coming on the heels of Nissan’s announcement of the impending closure of the Barcelona plant where the soon to be discontinued Navara is built, we are witnessing, as auto-journalist, Nick Gibbs argues this week in a well researched and diligent piece of reporting for Automotive News, the ongoing decline of the Euro-pick up truck. As the market contracts, Mitsubishi (who have problems of their own) are, we’re told, set to pull the once popular L200 series from Europe as well. Soon, only Ford Toyota and perhaps VW will remain.
The rationale here contains a number of strands. These vehicles are coming under increasing legislative pressures, meaning that those who might have considered them as a lifestyle purchase might be forced to think twice (commercial users may benefit from tax breaks), while increasingly, this latter subset are gravitating towards more efficient vans and SUV vehicles, which offer greater security, practicality and in many instances, lower costs. So unless a pick-up really is the only possible tool for one’s business, the case in favour is pretty thin.
But more conclusively, there is also the marked sense that in Europe at least, apart from a longstanding modest demand, these vehicles have simply failed to catch the imagination of the buying public in anything like the manner of their North American equivalents; an analyst from industry sage, JATO characterising the push to convert buyers to pick-ups as “a mistake“.
I probably ought, at this stage point out that I have no particular issue with pick ups – not when they are employed in the manner intended at least. But surely there are enough oversized and largely superfluous vehicles sold on spurious grounds to people who simply wish to make a visual statement, without adding further to their number? Lately, the styling of these pick-ups, especially those bearing the name FORD emblazoned in three foot high letters upon their marquee grilles have become more weaponised still, as if an imposing body on frame behemoth wasn’t intimidating enough. So if the European market has indeed spoken, Amen to that.
The decline of the Euro-pick-up might represent a blow to the carmakers in question and certainly to the strategists who espoused them in the first place, but what it suggests more eloquently is not only that the art of product strategy isn’t nearly as straightforward as some might like to think, but also that not everything born in the USA is a guaranteed smash hit on this side of the world.
 And Steve Cropley
 Many of these vehicles are the results of joint-ventures.
 Or indeed a vacuum cleaner.
 I’m fond of reiterating this tangible piece of marketing drivel, as it exemplifies how vacuous the art of marketing communication can be when expressed so poorly.
 The Barcelona plant also built the X-Class and Renault Alaskan.
 And no, it isn’t lost on me that the current Ford Ranger is Europe’s current best selling pick-up.