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VW Atlas Tanoak: Would it make sense to build it?

As a car-based truck, it could face some challenges

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the New York Auto Show was the Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak pickup truck. And one of the things that make the Tanoak so intriguing is how it seems pretty feasible to bring to market. It's based on the Atlas, which already has powertrains certified for emissions in America, and at least the front half wouldn't likely need much, if any work to make sure it passes U.S. safety standards. And like the Atlas, it uses the MQB modular platform found in everything from the aforementioned SUV to the Golf. As such, VW wouldn't be investing a lot of money to develop or adapt a from-scratch platform.

With all this in mind, the obvious question is: Will VW build it? The answer to that question depends on whether VW should build it, and there are arguments for both sides.

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'Build it!' (And, 'It looks cool!')

Pickup sales in the U.S. continue to be strong. And midsize trucks, the size segment the Tanoak would compete in, are selling quite well. For example, the Toyota Tacoma sold nearly 200,000 units last year, and combined Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon sales were nearly 150,000. Both of those exceed VW's bestselling car, the Jetta, which sold a little over 115,000 units in 2017, a number that just barely beats sales of the Colorado alone. Even if VW sold only a fraction of either of those trucks, it would be a great sales bump for a company that sold about 340,000 units in the U.S. across all models last year.

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'Don't build it!'

This brings us to the argument that building the Tanoak might not be a good move for VW, and that's the fact that the fraction of that midsize truck market accessible to VW could be miniscule. The truck on the market closest to the Tanoak is the Honda Ridgeline. It's also a car-based pickup truck that shares its front half and powertrains with the Honda Pilot crossover SUV. It even boasts unique and interesting features such as a big trunk in the back, and a tailgate that opens in different ways. In a market where the traditional trucks are selling in the six digits, the Ridgeline sold just over 34,000 units last year. That's not great. This midsize segment is also going to become more crowded soon as Ford introduces the traditional body-on-frame Ranger later this year, so everyone will be fighting harder for sales.

Then again ...

If the Tanoak sold at least that many, that would be a solid 10 percent gain in sales, going off of VW's 2017 numbers. Selling 34,000 units would even exceed normal VW Atlas sales, not to mention every variant of the venerable Golf. Put in that context, even the Ridgeline's middling sales look pretty solid. Even falling short of Ridgeline's sales wouldn't be that bad. Who knows, the Tanoak could exceed Ridgeline sales. Even though it lacks some of the Ridgeline's trick features, it has strengths in other areas. The concept certainly looks more butch than the Ridgeline, and style is important in the truck business. Offering some kind of low-range gearing as the concept has would also give the Tanoak a bit more off-road ability and truck market credibility than Ridgeline, too.

All-in-all, Volkswagen probably ought to build the Tanoak. It would be a relatively cheap and easy vehicle to develop and certify, and it would likely give VW's sales a nice little boost, even if it's never a wild success like existing competitors. Oh, and did we mention it looks cool? Yeah, you should build it, VW.

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