Compact pickups share parts more than ever to save themselves
The all-new Fiat Strada is the latest example of how the segment struggles to keep the few buyers it has managed to attract
While it’s true that cars have become complex from many points of view, they’re still created by humans and created for the market. Humans will always prefer to execute tasks with minimal effort and the market will always favor products which accomplish goals with minimal cost. As a result, one can say complexity only grows as much as those minimizations allow. The whole segment of compact pickups is a nice application of that train of thought.
The original pickup trucks made cargo transportation much more flexible. By being smaller than trucks and easier to drive, they became their counterparts: trucks would haul large quantities across long distances while pickups would take a portion at a time and zigzag through city streets to deliver it. The thing is, the dimension standards made famous by the North-American market soon seemed excessive for many people, especially residents of emergent countries.
How did the industry respond to that?
The very same North-Americans tried to solve that problem with sedan-based pickups like the Chevrolet El Camino and the Ford Ranchero. However, their concept made them rather fancy at first. Since people wouldn’t buy them for work, the industry ended up turning to young drivers: those models became increasingly stylish and powerful, to the point of having side design and tech specs comparable to those of coupés. None of that was enough, though.
Fiat hit the right spot in 1978 with the 147 Pick-up: coming from a supermini made it as nimble and fuel-efficient as the market needed. Time made sure to remove excesses such as the tiny bed, but the overall idea became a hit: many makers followed it over the next few years. Brazil quickly became the country where they became the most successful, offering models from Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford and Volkswagen for a long time — Peugeot and Renault joined them later.
Tell me more about those pickups
Large pickups attract buyers mostly for opulence, which may appear in their design, equipments and overall capacity. The compact segment, in turn, needs them to be cheap and efficient. The most important resort companies have to achieve that is part sharing: not only platform and powertrain, but also some of the visible parts. That’s why many models are pretty much identical to the base cars up to the front doors, for example. It’s become sort of their signature trait.
Over the years, Australia became the only country where large car-based pickup trucks sold well and Brazil became the only one to welcome the compact ones. Both are complicated situations because it means the regions are too interesting not to invest, but too risky to do it. Since the Australian car industry has been shrinking in the past few years due to many other factors, this article will focus on the Brazilian market from now on for the sake of moving on with its analysis.
What makes those pickups successful in Brazil?
In Brazil, high profit margins are the only way to keep compact pickups on sale, but their target audience is highly sensitive to the final price. Companies need to invest in bringing part of what makes larger pickups desirable, but in a way that doesn’t inflate their price. Sadly, the only makers which still take this challenge seriously are Fiat, Volkswagen and, more recently, Renault. The former’s Strada has dominated the local market for twenty years, but the others don’t give up.
Among those models, it’s easy to see a mix and match of shared parts that yields a mixed bag of results: the Saveiro is the best-equipped member of the Gol clan, but has a weird elevation on the center of the crew cab’s roof; the Oroch comes from the first Duster, so it’s the roomiest one… and has trouble making the first Sandero’s doors look like they had always meant to be its own; and the Peugeot Hoggar was cheap at expense of being outdated in general from the beginning.
Which direction this segment is following now?
The Fiat Strada is the most prominent member of that group. After making itself famous for segment innovations like crew cab and light off-road trim, it stood so firmly at the top-seller position that it became increasingly difficult to keep it up-to-date. Fiat applied frequent facelifts which preserved its price range but made it a four-wheeled Frankenstein: the 2019 model had features released in all five phases it has had. It deserved a huge change and, fortunately, it finally came.
The impressive appearance seen on the photos comes with an all-new platform, don’t get it wrong. However, that platform is the most interesting pout-pourri of components in the category: Argo’s engine, Mobi’s front doors, Uno’s dashboard, old Strada’s rear suspension… it’s a long list of parts and base cars. Rather than Frankenstein, the appropriate comparison is now with genetics: children inherit features from their ancestors, but develop their own appearance.
How can we interpret that?
The Strada is the first of its market segment to become visually independent from another model (the most likely would be the Argo). That means it’ll get a life cycle of its own; it makes it easier to export it to other regions, especially those where FCA sells pickup trucks under the RAM brand; and even gives it the possibility of spawning its own family; Fiat has taken too long to develop a crossover with its brand to be a low-cost counterpart to the Jeep Renegade.
The latest compact pickups help prove that sharing parts among several car models can be as easy as the maker wishes, as long as that has been properly planned from the beginning. Doing that right can bring an economy of scale large enough to make some models thrive in the market, especially low-cost ones. Examples such as the latest Fiat Strada represent the survival of entire car categories and, as a consequence, of parts of the car world’s diversity.