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The Next Great Pickup Lines

Trends * The trucks are the latest battleground for designers, as they turn these old standby workhorses into, well, roadsters.

August 16, 2000|TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — When it was time for Nissan Motor Co. to redesign its Frontier compact pickup truck, the job fell to Nissan Design International, the auto maker's styling studio in La Jolla, to do more than just a routine make-over.

"We were trying to fix the overall impression of the truck, which was a bit meek," says Diane Allen, an NDI stylist who served as the Frontier's chief designer. "So we took an industrial and techno approach."

Allen, a 40-year-old Detroit native, came up with a striking design that she says reflects two images that inspired her: a boxing glove representing power and a toolbox portraying utility. The result is the 2001 Frontier, which went on sale this month and which sports such beefy cues as large fender flares, exposed bolts and air channels under the grille.

Boxing or otherwise, the gloves are off. Auto makers are trying to craft pickup trucks--those drab, uncomplaining workhorses on four wheels--that pack a knockout punch.

General Motors Corp.'s 2002 Chevrolet Avalanche looks like it drove off the set of a "Mad Max" film. The Lincoln Blackwood, due next year from Ford Motor Co., lifts pickups to new heights of luxury, with Cadillac not far behind. And Chevy's SSR, announced just last week for production in late 2002, combines 1950s styling with Corvette-like muscle and top-down twin seating in a package that is nothing less than a pickup truck roadster.

Pickups have long been the bedrock of the U.S. auto market, accounting for about one in five vehicles sold since 1994. The two best-selling vehicles in America for years have been Ford's F-Series pickups and GM's full-size entry, in its current incarnation called the Chevrolet Silverado.

Now pickups have become the latest battleground for automotive designers. In the ceaseless quest to snatch market share in an increasingly splintered market, manufacturers are offering consumers choices in cars and trucks with cargo beds as never before: standard cab, extended cab, king cab, crew cab, short bed or long bed, ranging from minimal entry-level trim to in-your-face scowls and leather-draped luxury. They can be plain and utilitarian, but recent and future offerings flaunt looks to kill.

"While many are calling for a bust in the truck boom, we're actually beginning a new era of growth in mix improvements," says Scott Merlis, auto analyst at Wasserstein Perella Securities in New York. "The creativity and innovation we're seeing now in the truck market is one of the few cases in the last few decades where product innovation is really driving sales."

The Frontier, which sells for $11,700 to $23,000, "will get heads turning and people talking about it," says George Peterson, president of the AutoPacific consultancy in Tustin. "Clearly you won't lose one in a parking lot."

*

And amid all the elaborate styling, pickup trucks are becoming, of all things, family vehicles.

Pickup owners have generally owned at least one sedan as well for family use, says David McKay, director of automotive analysis with consultant firm J.D. Power & Associates in Troy, Mich. But all that is changing with the comfort and flexibility that the new trucks offer, he says.

"You'll start seeing those kinds of people saying, 'In one vehicle I can get all that utility,' " says McKay, who recently completed a study of the American pickup truck market that says models will move to predominantly four-door versions to concentrate more on people than payload.

"Manufacturers are trying to get car-like qualities into their pickups," AutoPacific's Peterson says. "Customers want one that can be a hauler with personality but something that could be parked by a valet."

Chevrolet's Avalanche and SSR certainly don't lack for personality.

The Avalanche's engine is a 5.3-liter, 265-horsepower V-8. But most of all, its looks convey a sense of brawn, technology and a kind of style that will turn some drivers off but leave others whooping in testosterone-fueled ecstasy.

"Things like the Avalanche are where the styling battle is going to get real interesting," says Joseph Phillippi, senior auto analyst for PaineWebber in New York. The Avalanche is expected to be positioned between the Silverado Extended Cab and the Suburban SUV, which start at $28,000 and $38,000, respectively.

The latest entry is Chevy's SSR, for "Super Sport Roadster," which GM Chief Executive G. Richard Wagoner announced last week. With its retractable hardtop, it's a low-slung, open-air, two-seat pickup tentatively outfitted with a 6.0-liter V-8 engine. The SSR, Wagoner said with undisguised glee, is "the truck Chevy has to build."

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