Despite higher US tariffs, Japanese pickup truck sales zoom ahead

The Japanese sold one pickup truck to an American buyer in 1980 for every five sales of foreign cars. That's a nice chunk of business and one that materialized despite the imposition in August of a 25 percent duty on the transpacific pickups, a 21 -percentage-point boost which raised prices as much as $1,000 per unit.

The 25 percent duty was imposed by the Treasury Department after it agreed with complaining domestic competitors that the Japanese trucks should be classified as fully assembled rather than partly assembled at their ports of debarkation.

What the importers do is ship the cabs and beds separately to West Coast ports of entry where they are "reassembled" and shipped to dealers. "Unassembled" vehicles are subject to a 4 percent tariff.

Major importers complained about the decision and Toyota, which sold 131,648 trucks in the US last year, even filed suit. Yet sales rose despite the worst fears of the Japanese representatives, winding up with 1980 ahead by nearly 15, 000 units from 1979 to a record 480,547 retail deliveries.

Not counted in the import pickup grouping is the Volkswagen Rabbit pickup, built domestically and introduced a year ago. Volkswagen of America sold 25,532 Rabbit trucks last year (the only entry with frontwheel drive), of which 14,511 had a diesel engine.

The diesel-engine option on imported pickup trucks has suddenly mushroomed. Chevrolet's LUV model, built by Isuzu, has been dieselized for the US as have the top-selling Toyota and Datsun pickups.

A diesel truck called the P'up is being introduced independently by Isuzu, which has formed its own US marketing affiliate. The engine is the same as that sold in the Chevrolet LUV.

With diesel engines, pickups are looking at EPA city ratings of upward of 32 miles per gallon of fuel. Nissan is importing about 2,000 diesel trucks a month and the price premium over regular gasoline engines is about $650 in the four entries with diesel options.

Three pickup makes remain in the import field without diesel power -- Ford's Cuorier, built by Toyo Kogyo (Mazda); the Chrysler Arrow/Ram 50, supplied by Mitsubishi; and a Mazda version itself.

Toyota was first in US pickup sales among the importers last year, followed by Datsun's 111,246, LUV's 88,447, Cuorier's 77,375, Chrysler Mitsubishi's 63, 056, and Mazda's 8,775.

The picture for the "big three" captive pickups will change this fall when new domestic light pickups go into production in the US. The Chevrolet and GMC divisions of GM are tooling up an S-Body pickup, but will keep LUV for a model year at least. Ford is grooming a domestic model called the Ranger to supplant the Courier, while the subcompact Omni/Horizon car platform will spawn domestic Dodge and Plymouth front-drive trucks to be called the Scamp and Rampage.

Toyota maintains a sizable pickup-bed manufacturing plant in Long Beach, Calif., while Nissan has begun construction of a truck-assembly plant at Smyrna, Tenn.

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