L.A. Auto Show: Is Chevrolet banking on a mid-size truck comeback?

Texas may rule the roost when it comes to full-size pickup trucks, but step down to the mid-size truck world and California is the place to play.

Chevrolet made this clear on Wednesday by using the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show for the world debut of the all-new 2015 Colorado pickup.

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"Today we complete the new Chevrolet truck portfolio," Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America, said at Wednesday's unveiling. "It's a truck that will really shake up the segment and leave the competition in the dust," Reuss said. 

Chevy’s timing in reintroducing the Colorado isn’t a coincidence. Chrysler stopped selling the midsize Dodge Dakota in the U.S. in 2011. Ford discontinued its mid-size Ranger here in 2012. Chevy itself pulled the previous generation Colorado out of the U.S. market in 2012, and now admits it wasn’t a competitive product.

Yet Chevy feels there’s still plenty of life for compact trucks, noting the segment sold around 280,000 units in 2012. Toyota’s Tacoma made up a bulk of those sales, though the Nissan Frontier still remains a player. Neither has had a significant update since 2005.

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After waiting for Ford and Chrysler to leave the playing field, and with Toyota and Nissan sitting in a possibly vulnerable position, General Motors sees a ripe opportunity for its blue-collar brand to become the dominant player in the field.

“They haven’t done all that much with their trucks recently,” Jeff Luke, chief engineer for GM’s trucks, said of Toyota and Nissan. “If you go into a competitor's territory you’ve got to have a stronger product, so that’s why we’re coming in strong.”

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The bow tie brand chose the L.A. Auto Show for this truck’s debut because Southern California, and L.A. in particular, are crucial to the success of the Colorado -- and Chevy as a whole. More midsize trucks are sold in the L.A. market than any other state in the U.S., save for Texas.

“They put extra emphasis on the L.A. market simply because we’re the trendsetters here,” said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst for Truecar.com. “That’s important because it’s like setting a fashion trend for the rest of country.”

Chevy and the other domestic brands have traditionally had a harder time gaining loyalty among buyers in markets on the U.S. coasts and especially in Los Angeles, Toprak said. If Chevy can use the Colorado to draw in new buyers, the hope is they’ll stay with the brand even if they move on from the compact truck segment.

Despite Chevy’s ambitions, luring buyers away from the Tacoma may be a tough proposition.

“Initially, don’t expect Toyota to lose market share because buyers are extremely loyal,” Toprak said. “If a year from now [Chevy] has been well received, especially among new buyers to the segment, Chevy can nibble at the market share for the Tacoma for sure.”

The Colorado’s fortunes may also be bolstered by the fact that many of its target buyers don’t currently own a truck, mid-size or otherwise. “I think it really will open the eyes of a lot of crossover-type people,” Luke said.

To please buyers coming in from other segments, Chevy focused on giving the Colorado the quiet and comfort that consumers are used to getting from cars and crossovers. The shifter has been mounted on the floor, rather than the steering column in large trucks. Options include leather seats, touchscreen navigation and forward collision and lane departure warning systems.

These target buyers also influenced the Colorado’s exterior design. Whereas full-size buyers are into more passive sports (hunting, fishing, etc.), Chevy expects Colorado buyers to be younger and more active. Thus, this mid-size truck’s look is sportier and more curvaceous than the blocky design of Chevy’s full-size Silverado.

Initially, the Colorado will come with one of two engines. A 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder will be standard. It makes an estimated 193 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.

A 3.6-liter V-6 plucked from a variety of GM products will be optional. In the Colorado, it’s estimated to make 302 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. Towing capacity will be at least 6,700 pounds, Chevy said.

A six-speed automatic transmission will be standard on both engines. Fuel economy ratings have yet to be announced.

A year after the Colorado goes on sale in late 2014, Chevy will introduce a model with a 2.8-liter, turbocharged inline-four cylinder Duramax diesel engine. Horsepower and torque haven’t been finalized.

Park the Colorado next to a Silverado and you’ll notice the Colorado is 16 inches shorter, five inches narrower, and three inches lower. Chevy expects it to weigh about 900 pounds less.

Though a foot-and-a-half of less truck is certainly appreciated by anyone trying to parallel park one, it represents a distinct philosophical difference between Chevy and truck kingpin Ford.

Whereas Chevy sees the compact truck as a worthy segment to reenter, Ford disagrees, saying years of declining sales didn’t make sense for it to continue selling the Ranger.

“The problem with compact trucks is they’re too big, they’re not very fuel efficient and they’re too expensive,” said Mike Levine, head of truck communications for Ford.

Rather than gravitating to a compact truck like the Chevy Colorado, Ford sees people with active lifestyles heading toward crossovers or even cars, Levine said. Or they move up into a full-size truck.

Yet if the Colorado does prove to be a hit in this untamed segment, brands like Ford and Chrysler may be forced to play catchup in the near future. Currently, they have no choice but to concede the segment to their rival Chevy.

“It might be a bit too late for [Ford and Chrysler] now, and that’s where I think Chevy will enjoy an advantage,” Toprak said. “It’s truly the wild west for them at the moment.”


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