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The Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak pickup concept.

Handout

Volkswagen unveiled a surprising pickup-truck concept, called the Atlas Tanoak, at this week’s New York International Auto Show with the express purpose of making the brand more appealing to Americans.

The truck emerged from a cloud of smoke at the show, driving onstage to thumping music. Several millennials got out, took a selfie in front of the vehicle and walked off.

It’s the “most American Volkswagen ever,” said Klaus Bischoff, the brand’s chief designer.

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The Tanoak – named after a particularly large tree native to the U.S. West Coast – is just a concept for now, and it’s meant to gauge reaction from the market and media. Company officials said no decision has been made on if it will go into production, but the concept looks less like a prototype and more like a finished product.

If it did find its way into showrooms, the Tanoak would complement VW’s small but expanding range of SUVs and jump into the booming truck market, which is among the most profitable vehicle segments in the United States.

“What could be more American than a pickup truck? Perhaps the only thing would be a cowboy hat, but my PR team refused to let me wear one here today,” said Hinrich Woebcken, chief executive of VW’s North American operations. “We have been building on the promise of Volkswagen vehicles that are built in America, for Americans.”

The prototype is based on the same architecture as the seven-seat Atlas SUV and would be built at the Chattanooga, Tenn., plant to avoid the 25-per-cent “chicken tax” tariff the United States imposes on imported trucks.

No production plans for the Tanoak have been announced.

Handout

The mid-size pickup features seating for five, all-wheel drive and an eight-speed transmission mated to a 276-horsepower, 3.6-litre V-6 engine. It’s only slightly shorter over all than a single-cab Ford F-150.

With unibody construction – as opposed to the body-on-frame type used on full-size pickups – the Tanoak would pose a direct threat to the Honda Ridgeline, driving and handling more like a modern crossover than a traditional truck. The VW could also attract buyers who might otherwise buy a mid-size pickup or full-size SUV.

Volkswagen hasn’t sold a pickup in North America since the 1980s. The German brand sells the Amarok pickup in Europe and South America, but there’s little chance of that vehicle coming to this continent because it’s not assembled in the United States and would, therefore, be hit by the chicken tax.

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Volkswagen hasn’t been able to capitalize on the SUV boom as well as its rivals have.

“We were never that successful in selling SUVs,” said Hendrik Muth, senior vice-president of product marketing and strategy for Volkswagen of America.

The Tanoak's unibody construction would make it handle more like a crossover than a traditional pickup.

Handout

The company is playing catch-up now and a quick look at its display in New York shows how it intends to win more market share. Alongside the Tanoak concept are the five-seat Atlas Cross Sport SUV concept, which will go into production in late 2019, and the seven-seat Atlas, already in showrooms.

Both Atlas SUVs will be built at the Chattanooga plant, where VW plans to spend another US$340-million – above the US$2-billion already invested – to increase production capacity.

“We started later coming out with those SUVs,” Muth said, speaking ahead of the reveal in New York. “With the Touareg and the previous Tiguan, we had two imported SUVs. … They played more a niche role.”

The Touareg is expensive compared with its competitors in Canada, starting at $51,960. The recently unveiled next-generation 2019 Touareg will not likely find its way to North America, having been effectively replaced by the seven-seat Atlas, which is priced more affordably, starting at $35,690.

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Volkswagen has not sold a pickup in the North American market since the 1980s.

Handout

“What we’re saying with the new Atlas and new Tiguan,” Muth said, “is we’re really playing right in the sweet spot of the compact and mid-size SUV segment – and we don’t want to stop there.”

Volkswagen wants 19 different SUVs on sale globally by 2020, which is a huge jump from the three models offered currently in Canada.

The Tanoak pickup is one way VW could expand its North American truck and SUV lineup, but it isn’t the only way. The company has previously confirmed that another compact SUV is on the way.

“To be successful in the U.S., you really have to design, engineer, build, set up the car and price it with that U.S. market in mind,” Muth said.

Volkswagen wasn’t doing that with previous SUV models, but the company appears to have learned its lesson.

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