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Nissan, Toyota forge ahead in truck game despite minuscule sales

Nissan and Toyota have tried to shake the U.S. auto makers’ hold on the pickup market, but the Titan and Tundra have both been disappointing. However, the 2016 editions of both models are set to shake up this highly competitive segment.

Left: Nissan

For Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., global and highly profitable car companies with a history of success in North America, the continuing frustration is real and painful, the failures have been embarrassing, the financial costs have been profit-sapping and the stakes remain enormous.

Ah, pickups.

Despite various efforts and investments ranging from valiant to halting to tepid, Nissan and Toyota continue to stand on the outside looking in at the profits and prestige that come with nailing down a significant chunk of the full-size and medium-duty pickup markets. Full-size pickup sales for Nissan and Toyota, in particular, are relatively miniscule. The mid-size market is somewhat different, though it's dwarfed by the big rigs in size and in sales.

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Yet, the recent Detroit auto show proved that hope springs eternal. We saw promise in an all-new Nissan Titan and we saw defiance as Toyota introduced a Tacoma mid-size rig with serious bells, whistles and capabilities. We may be face-to-face with the most concerted and best possible efforts of both to nail down a chunk of a pickup world distinctive to North America – one rich with potential financial rewards, and one that might help Nissan and Toyota save some of the face lost over these many years. Pickups are massive money-makers and ego-builders, the benefits of which have largely escaped both Nissan and Toyota.

Why have Nissan and Toyota failed to nail the pickup formula? It's not for lack of a template.

Detroit's two auto makers, General Motors and Ford Motor, and Netherlands-based Fiat Chrysler's Ram brand have been feasting on pickup profits for decades – as much or more than $17,000 (U.S.) a unit, in a segment that totalled more than two-million pickups sold last year. These three have owned pickups for as long as suburbanites have hauled rubbish to the dump, ranchers have been raising cattle and tradespeople have been framing houses. Pickups are the foundation of their businesses.

Nissan and Toyota have tried to rock that foundation. In the past decade, both came to market with what many thought were legitimate challengers. Nissan and Toyota went so far as to build new factories in the U.S. South to build the all-new Nissan Titan (Mississippi) and Toyota Tundra (Texas). Both companies assigned their best engineers and most creative designers to conjure up real pickups for real North Americans. Both the Titan and Tundra have been at best disappointing, at worst disastrous.

The Canadian numbers for 2014: Ford sold 126,277 F-Series pickups in Canada, while GM sold just north of 90,000 Sierras and Silverados and the Ram pickup came in just shy of 90,000. Toyota sold fewer than 10,000 Tundras, Nissan just more than 3,000 Titans. Ugh.

Toyota can console itself with a dominance in mid-size pickups. The Tacoma is a nice little business for Toyota Canada, with about 10,000 sold last year. Nissan sold about 3,600 of the rival Frontier, while GM sold fewer than 600 Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon pickups.

Nissan's task with the new Titan is unquestionably more onerous than Toyota's with the new Tacoma. The former is a complete reset of the Titan, which found fewer than 13,000 total buyers last year. The latter is more a defensive action by a Toyota Motor whose patience and resilience in staking out territory among mid-size pickup buyers is admirable – especially given Fiat Chrysler and Ford have abandoned the segment (remember the Dodge Dakota and Ford Ranger?), while GM took its sweet time reinventing the Canyon/Colorado.

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What's the measure of Nissan's seriousness here? The new Titan coming in the fall will have not just three engine choices – including a Cummins diesel – but two frame sizes, three bed lengths and a design penned by one of Nissan's stars, original Titan designer Diane Allen, a 54-year-old mother of 13-year-old twins who suggested to Automotive News that a hammer can be "gorgeous."

Allen is based at Nissan's design studio in La Jolla, Calif., where she also was responsible for the 370Z sports car. This Titan is anything but wimpy, which is something I would say about Allen herself, having interviewed her many times.

As for the 2016 Tacoma, what we saw in Detroit suggests that Toyota will not cede a single sale to the new Colorado/Canyon without a fight. The new Tacoma gets an all-new power train and enhanced suspension tuning, with the work largely done at Toyota's Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. The 2.7-litre four-cylinder engine is new, there's basically a carryover V-6 and both engines will be paired to a new six-speed automatic transmission – with a six-speed manual available with the V-6.

The Tacoma is no Tundra, but it's also been an overall greater success than the bigger Toyota pickup and will hold its ground. As for the Titan, Nissan would like to sell 100,000 of them in 2016. That represents a big climb, but Nissan has nowhere to go but up.

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