John F. Kennedy famously said “Politics is like football; if you see daylight, go through the hole.” While that still rings true in both football and politics, it also works surprisingly well for the all-important truck market. There’s only one problem: If there’s one segment in the auto industry where there aren’t many big openings, the pickup truck segment has fewer than a goal line stand. Month after month, year after year, the top-selling vehicles – not trucks, vehicles – in America go in order: The Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ram Pickup. The sheer number these trucks sold in any given month is enough to eclipse the yearly output of many small automakers, and the profits they earn are enough to make any auto exec outside of Detroit green with envy.
But the more things stay the same, the more they change. The 2015 Ford F-150 was 700 pounds lighter than the ’14 model, yet it’s still taller, longer, and bulkier than when it was the best-seller 20 years ago. Chevy and Ram are no better. And as the full-size trucks continue to get fuller-sized, some cracks are finally beginning to appear in the segment. GM’s mid-size Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon took home Motor Trend’s 2015 Truck of the Year award, and the Colorado just did it again for 2016. And based on the response to Ford’s announcement that a new Ranger is coming before 2020, we’re beginning to think the mid-size segment is primed to make a big comeback.
There’s another crack opening up between the nascent mid-size and dominant full-size segments too, and Nissan is hoping that it can blast through it like Adrian Peterson against a tired defensive line. We spoke with Phil O’Connor, director of marketing for Nissan trucks, who says:
“Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a torque war between manufacturers and 3/4 ton diesel pickups. These trucks have gone from 600 pound-feet maybe 10 years ago to 900 and up today. What that’s created is a capability gap between 1/2 and 3/4 ton trucks, where customers have to make a decision: They need a little more capability than what comes with 1/2 tons, and they want a diesel engine, but they don’t need all the capability that comes from a 900 pound-feet 3/4 ton diesel truck, and the downsides that come with it. There’s an impact on fuel economy, there’s a ride and handling impact that comes with the capability a 3/4 ton truck delivers, and costs associated; if you’re not going to use it, that’s burdensome.”
As the mantra in the truck market continues to stay “Bigger is Better,” the number of customers left in the gap between light-duty and heavy duty will continue to grow, along with a number of trucks that will never be used to their full potential. Enter the all-new Nissan Titan XD, a Cummins diesel-powered full-size that’s positioned to fill the void, and make a huge splash in this very competitive, and notoriously exclusive segment.
While there’s always a lot at stake in the full-size pickup segment, O’Connor believes the formula Nissan could be one hell of a boon for the company:
“We know that there are about 75,000 customers a year who are trading up from a 1/2 ton, and another 75,000 who are trading down. They’re making this compromise: “Do I buy a 1/2 ton truck to get a better ride, handling, and save money, but I can’t get a diesel engine or the capability? Or, do I buy more truck than I need and sacrifice cost, ride, handling, and creature comforts?”
Off the bat, that’s 150,000 trucks a year in North America. It’s not F-150 territory, but that puts it within striking distance of the Toyota Tacoma – the fifth best-selling truck in America. The Titan XD’s big advantage is its 5.0 liter of Cummins turbo diesel that slots nicely between it’s 1/2 ton and 3/4 ton competitors.
With a 550 pound-feet of torque, the truck maintains the everyday drivability of 1/2 ton trucks, while still being able to tow up to 12,000 pounds, or carry a 2,000 pound payload. The all-new engine was developed in close collaboration with Cummins specifically for the Titan XD, and will be built at its engine plant in Indiana. Despite its Japanese roots, the XD was designed in the U.S. at Nissan’s California design studios, and will be built at its Canton, Mississippi plant.
The XD will arrive as a four-door crew cab in both two-wheel drive and all-wheel drive before the year is out, with V6 and V8 gas-powered Titans following suit next year. While the gas-powered Titans are likely to be just as competitive, O’Connor says the XD will be king of the hill. “When we bring out the full line of Titan pickups, the XD with its diesel engine will be our most premium truck, the most capable truck, and I think it helps legitimize the Titan brand as a real full-size pick-up competitor.” Nissan hasn’t released pricing yet, but you can expect XDs to start at around $40k and top out near $60k. Gas-powered models are likely to start at around $35,000.
The only carry-over on the new XD are some suspension components sourced from Nissan’s NV- commercial vehicles. This has turned out to be a huge asset, as O’Connor says:
“…we’ve tested these things, and used them in commercial applications, which gives us a tremendous amount of confidence when we talk about durability and the reliability of the Titan XD and its use cycle, which will be very intense. These customers are going to buy this truck, and they’re going to use it to its maximum capability, and we’re confident because of all the commercial components that we’ve used, that it’s going hold up under load.”
As Ford learned by introducing its new aluminum architecture on the current F-150, it’s always a danger to introduce something seemingly unproven into the ultra-conservative truck segment. With millions of real-world miles already logged on components like the leaf springs and differential, Nissan knows it has a truck that can perform in the toughest situations – something that should be played to maximum effect to attract new buyers.
So the Titan XD is all-new, plenty capable, and offers virtually everything its competitors can on top of that unique diesel powertrain. When asked about the truck’s chances of success in the market, O’Connor told us:
“I’ve got a long history of working in truck marketing, and with the number of variations that domestics offer, you know, millions of variations in domestic trucks, I wasn’t sure if there was any white space, but the evolution of these torque wars has created a legitimate white space, so we believe, because we’ve truly differentiated, and we’re answering a customer need that truly exists, that we’re a unique solution in the segment.”
That may be the right answer to give if you’re in PR, but Nissan’s numbers add up to us too. What’s more, after pouring over the Titan XD at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, we’re convinced that it can stand toe to toe against the Big Three on fit and finish, design, and ergonomics too. In our opinion, Titan XD is one to watch; don’t be surprised if it breaks out and goes on one hell of a run.
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