It wasn't long ago that major changes in the truck segment could be counted in decade increments, then product cycles shrank to seven years, and now the development time on full-size trucks, at least in some cases, is down to the same five-year cycle as it is for most passenger cars. Today in the full-size truck segment, it’s a no-holds-barred brawl for market supremacy. All the while, the midsize segment, which has shrunken from six to just two models in the last five years, has largely been a neglected backwater.
Chrysler and Ford are out of the market altogether in North America, for all intents and purposes, ceding it to Toyota and Nissan. General Motors stopped production of the last-generation Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, but are back with all-new models due later this year. While GM's midsize twins have gotten plenty of attention, we believe Toyota and Nissan have some major changes up their sleeves for the next-generation Tacoma and Frontier.
New Tacoma - Just a Matter of Time
Just looking at the competitive landscape from a purely pragmatic perspective, both the Tacoma and Frontier are nearing 10 years with no significant mechanical or engineering updates. The current Tacoma debuted in 2005 and, aside from some special-edition trims and the most recent announcement of the TRD Pro model, it has the same basic powertrain and cab configurations as when it debuted, minus the discontinuation of the regular-cab model. Engines are still a 2.7-liter I-4 and 4.0-liter V-6. When we reached out to Toyota for official comment on the future of the Tacoma, we received a succinct "no comment," other than an assurance that a future model was in development, and a reminder of the current Tacoma's dominant 65-percent market share. So we don't have much official to go on, but here are a few speculations on what could be coming for the 2016 or 2017 model.
Toyota has traditionally taken a very conservative approach in its powertrains, sticking with proven formulas, preferring to emphasize reliability and durability over outright power or cutting-edge technologies. Case in point, the Tacoma still has a five-speed automatic with the 4.0-liter V-6, which is still port-injected. Thanks to the Tacoma's light-for-its-class weight, it offers sprightly performance, but fuel economy is not at all remarkable, especially considering the huge strides made in the last few years with full-size trucks. Expect the next-generation trucks to have a much greater emphasis on fuel economy. The V-6 may be downsized to 3.5 liters and may receive direct injection. The transmission will probably be upgraded to a six-speed at the minimum, if not an eight-speed.
Since the Tacoma sells in a price-sensitive segment, we're not expecting a hybrid option, but depending on how well the diesel option sells in the Colorado and Canyon, we could see a diesel option. This, too, will likely be a clean-sheet or heavily revised design. The 3.0-liter I-4 diesel in the global Hilux model produces a modest 170 hp and 253 lb-ft of torque. Considering the most recent revision in the global Colorado brought the output of the 2.8L Duramax I-4 to 197 hp and 369 lb-ft, figures that are expected to be close to the output of the U.S.-spec diesel model, Toyota will need to up its power output significantly to be competitive. The manual transmission may be a base-model-only option, with the V-6s (and diesels, if offered) being exclusively automatic.
Expect the styling of the next Tacoma to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. The style may converge more with the global Hilux model, or Toyota may decide to offer a unique look for the North American-spec Tacoma. Expect more sophisticated cabin electronics, and the next generation of Toyota's Entune system, possibly with truck-specific apps. Handy features like the in-bed 110V AC outlet will probably carry over.
The Next Frontier
Nissan has been a little more forthcoming about what it is envisioning for the next-generation Frontier, and the DieselRunner concept is a good example of that. Nissan clearly sees the value in an association with Cummins, and beyond the official announcement of a Cummins option in the next Titan, threw out a tempting hypothetical "what if" with the DieselRunner. We're almost 100 percent certain the next Frontier will have a diesel option, and an eight-speed transmission, as on the concept truck, is a strong likelihood as well. In terms of the gas engines, like our speculation on the Tacoma, the displacement may be scaled back to 3.5 liters, and it might get direct fuel injection to improve fuel efficiency as well as to maintain or even increase horsepower over the outgoing 4.0-liter V-6.
Expect an evolution of the current QR25DE base 2.5-liter I-4 engine, likely tuned for around 180 hp and 185 lb-ft. A version of the QR engine with direct injection exists in Nissan's global portfolio, dubbed the QR25DD, producing 170 hp and 181 lb-ft. A version of this engine could be the base engine in the next Frontier. Expect seven- or eight-speed automatics for all models and the six-speed manual carrying over, but possibly only on the base trim levels and possibly only with the gas four-cylinder.
The current Frontier is the heaviest model in its class, about 300 pounds heavier than a comparable Tacoma, and 200 lb heavier than a comparably-equipped 2015 Chevrolet Colorado, based on information just released by GM. Expect a lightening to bring its weight more closely in line with its competitors.
Like the Tacoma, don't expect any radical changes. The global-market Navara and the U.S.-spec Frontier are nearly indistinguishable currently, so if the Navara gets a restyle, expect the new Frontier to get it as well, or vice versa. Expect the cabin to get an update with a more contemporary design, greater tech integration, and better materials.
There are still a few unknowns about other potential players in the midsize segment. Volkswagen has its critically acclaimed Amarok truck sold in other markets and, while there is a small and vocal group of enthusiasts that would love to see it imported to the U.S. as is, VW has said it would prefer to build or import a truck more specifically suited to the U.S. market. If we do get a truck, expect it to be built in either Mexico or the U.S. and be slightly larger than the current Amarok. Naturally, being VW, it would have a TDI option and likely near class-leading interior trim and materials. Volkswagen has ambitious plans for the North American market and, while a pickup could fit into those plans, it's far from a foregone conclusion.
Another potential dark horse candidate in the midsize market is an offering from Chinese automaker Great Wall. Although the styling and components of the current Wingle pickup (yes, that's really what it's called) look like a hodgepodge of last-gen Colorado, Tacoma, and Hilux parts, Great Wall's quality and engineering have been noted and recognized as far superior to most Chinese domestic efforts. Assuming Great Wall does make a move into the U.S. market, expect them to be the "value" players, ceding the higher end of the market ($30,000-plus) to the more established brands. Distribution would likely be as an add-on franchise to existing dealers. Expect them in late calendar 2016 or early 2017 at the earliest.
Another truck that has gotten a lot of interest from certain U.S. enthusiast circles is the global T6 Ford Ranger. Since the discontinuation of the last-generation Ranger, Ford is publicly committed to an all F-Series truck strategy in the U.S. For the time being, expect that to remain the case. However, if sales of the Colorado and Canyon surpass industry expectations, it's plausible that the next redesign of the Ranger could incorporate emissions and safety changes necessary for U.S.-market certification, just in case.
But being the truck sales leader in the U.S. by a substantial margin, the need or desire for additional sales is not a huge priority for Ford. It's just as likely Dearborn is happy to let GM, Toyota and Nissan duke it out for market share.
The midsize market may have been a snoozer for the better part of the last 10 years, but don’t expect it to stay that way for long. While the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon may be the latest entries into the segment, they won't be the last and won't be unchallenged for much longer.