Chevy Colorado debuts at L.A. Auto Show: Has era of the mega-truck peaked?

The Chevy Colorado will become the first mid-size US truck after Ford and Dodge killed their Ranger and Dakota lines in 2011. It’s a relatively risky move for GM, which believes Americans are ready for more modest personal haulers.

Jae C. Hong/AP
The new 2015 Chevrolet Colorado is introduced at the Chevrolet booth at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday, Nov. 20, in Los Angeles.

After abandoning once-popular smaller trucks in favor of glistening mega-trucks that can tow an elephant, one US brand – Chevrolet, part of General Motors – believes Americans are ready for more modestly muscular and neatly refined personal haulers, in the form of the new Chevy Colorado mid-size truck.

Chevrolet unveiled the Colorado on Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show – the start of the auto-show season. The Colorado is a completely reworked iteration of a “global” Chevy truck that has sold well in places like Thailand, where the vehicles are used primarily as nimble work trucks.

This past decade has seen truck buyers abandon mid-size trucks for accessorized SUVs or new quad-style full-size trucks. The Colorado will become next fall the first mid-size US truck after Ford and Dodge killed their Ranger and Dakota lines in 2011.

The decision to revive the Colorado – which in its previous incarnation never sold above 39,000 vehicles a year – is a brash and relatively risky move for GM, pegged to a central idea: that younger “lifestyle” car buyers living in hipster meccas from Los Angeles to Denver to Washington are ready to look at a snazzy American-made kayak and mountain-climbing-gear hauler.

Given its roomy cab, modern dashboard refinements, and boxy, upright styling, it’s got at least a shot, reviewers say. “It's a rugged, handsome thing, this Colorado,” fawns Steven Ewing on Autoblog.com.

But the return of the mid-size US truck to challenge the likes of the market-leading Toyota Tacoma is also part of a deeper evolution – goaded by the Obama administration – to steer consumers toward vehicles that slurp less fuel but that can still haul the stuff that Americans want moved around.

“In the long run, [the US auto industry] is trying to evolve consumer taste into a more fuel-efficient vehicle, and [the new Colorado] continues in that vein. If you don’t give consumers a chance to see if this will satisfy them, then you’ll never know if it will,” says Bruce Belzowski, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor. “It’s part of a pretty large experiment to see if you can move the population in that direction.”

Small to mid-size trucks peaked in the mid-1990s, when truckmakers sold more than 1 million in the United States a year. (Just over 200,000 have sold this year.) But the market was decimated by the emergence of roomy and glitzed-out “quad” cabs at price points not too much higher than those for the compacts, all of which led many consumers to ask: Why buy small and modest when I can go big and flashy?

To be sure, the stakes for GM are high, and there’s concern that the Colorado could suck sales away from the profitable Chevy Silverado. Ford, meanwhile, has shown no signs of abandoning its big-truck focus, anchored by the top-selling F-150.

To Ford, the truck-buying public simply moved on from mid-size trucks to larger trucks or to new crossover vehicles. If that automaker is wrong, though, it’s got a problem: It has nothing comparable to the Colorado on the mid-size global market that can be quickly revamped for the American road.

Chevy’s move is in part based on the belief that manufacturers, not the public, killed demand for the mid-size truck.

“Our strategy is simple: meet the needs of the broadest possible customer base, and let them choose precisely the right truck to meet their needs,” said Mark Reuss, GM's North America president, in a statement. “The all-new Colorado benefits from the solid foundation established by the Silverado, and it reinvents the midsize truck while reinvigorating the segment at the same time.”

The rapid market growth of sporty Subarus aimed at so-called lifestyle consumers – think surfers, rock climbers, sporty couples, and dog-and-bike enthusiasts – suggests that there may be a market Chevy could tap. The new truck’s bed will have plenty of tie-downs and rack options for bikes and boats.

The rollout of the Colorado in Los Angeles jibes with such preferences. Currently, L.A. residents buy more mid-size trucks than are sold in the entire state of Texas.

“The reason this type of vehicle sells so well in emerging markets [overseas] is that people really use them for work,” Mr. Belzowski says. “That could be very different in the Los Angeles area, where it could be much more of a lifestyle thing and where they like the idea of having the ability to move stuff around. Especially if you can fit four people in there, now it’s a family-mover as well.”

Pricing for the new Colorado has not been released yet, but it’s expected to come in just under $20,000. A new 2014 Tacoma starts at $17,875. The Colorado will be available in crew and extended cab packages, and it will haul 6,700 pounds, GM says, even though it’s 900 pounds lighter than the Silverado. Horsepower in both its four- and six-cylinder models will surpass the Tacoma.

Fuel-efficiency figures have also not been released yet, but indications are the Colorado will match or improve on the Tacoma, which gets 23 miles per gallon city and highway combined. The Silverado gets 19 m.p.g. combined. Also, the Colorado will be the first mid-size truck to host a Duramax diesel engine, starting in 2016, GM says.

GM is suggesting that “there’s a pent-up demand for a modern pickup in a smaller form,” Evan McCausland writes for AutomobileMag.com. But he also has advice for buyers hoping for the return of a true, stripped-down compact truck with a manual transmission: “keep moving.”

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