VW will have a pickup strategy, and it may be to go where others aren’t

NEW YORK — In what is sure to be music to the ears of his U.S. dealers, Volkswagen Group of America CEO Scott Keogh says the brand will have a pickup strategy. He’s just not yet sure what it will be.

Keogh, 50, who assumed the top job at Volkswagen Group of America six months ago after leading Audi, says he believes there is space for VW in the crowded and highly competitive U.S. pickup market. For the second consecutive year, Volkswagen showed a concept pickup at the New York auto show.

The Tarok was developed by VW in South America and is built on the automaker’s MQB platform. It has two full rows of seating and a small, squarish bed with an innovative drop wall and folding seats that make for a bed length of more than 8 feet with the tailgate down.

Keogh says the brand has three options with a pickup:

1. Homologate a Ranger-derived, body- on-frame midsize pickup from Ford Motor Co. that will be sold as a replacement for the Amarok across the rest of the world.

2. Develop a unibody midsize lifestyle pickup based on the Atlas crossover, similar to the Tanoak concept VW showed at the 2018 New York auto show

3. Build a car-based, A-segment unibody pickup like the Tarok using the MQB platform in Mexico to keep costs down and import it to the U.S., where it might appeal to consumers who don’t want to spend more than $30,000 for a body-on-frame midsize pickup.

The Tarok, Keogh says, “will be made for the South American market [in 2020]. The question we have is, could something like this make sense, with modifications, in the U.S. market?”

VW’s history in the U.S. with small, unibody pickups may provide an answer. Forty years ago, the brand used its then-popular Rabbit as the basis for a small, bedded vehicle it simply called the Pickup.

The utilitarian, front-wheel-drive Pickup sported a single row of seating ahead of a 6-foot bed and was identical to a Rabbit from the doors forward.

Sales from its 1979 debut to 1984, after the end of U.S. production in 1983, were 77,512 vehicles, all produced at Volkswagen’s former plant in Westmoreland, Pa. Notably, the design lived on in Europe into the 1990s and in South Africa into the mid-2000s.

While the Tarok concept of today and the Pickup of old have little in common, VW’s bosses may find the trucks fill similar needs. For the Tarok, Keogh says, “the theory is quite straightforward: It’s an A-segment sized vehicle. There’s no pickup truck in the U.S. market that is quite that size at all.”

While that means there’s nothing similar that lets the company gauge potential sales, “there could be a space here,” he said. “This is what life’s all about.”

If Keogh approves a pickup for the U.S. — Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess told Automotive News in October that the decision is Keogh’s to make — entering a segment abandoned by the Detroit 3 may have an appeal.

“The positioning could be, when you extend the bed, in terms of what you can do with the second row, plus what you can do with the tailgate itself, you basically get the length of a B-segment pickup,” Keogh said.

“So we kind of like this application where you have the everyday size of an A-segment in terms of parking and driveability and fuel economy — all those types of things — and for the 4 or 5 percent of the time that you engage it in a lifestyle, smart packaging to bring to the vehicle,” he said.

Because the Tarok is based on the MQB platform, Keogh said, VW has “a whole host of engines that we could put in there” — up to 300-hp V-6s — so, “I don’t think drivetrain is an issue.”

If a pickup like the Tarok gets the green light, it would be built in Puebla, Mexico, where Volkswagen builds MQB-platform vehicles and could ship it to North and South America. With Golf production shifting from Puebla back to Germany, Keogh said “there’s room” to build it.

Would a Tarok-like pickup be a gamble? Certainly, Keogh said, but that’s fine.

“At the end of the day, there is no 100 percent decision in the world,” he said. “That’s the market receptiveness side of the equation. The other side is, of course, the business model. What does it take to produce it? What’s the price point we can hit? What’s the capacity? What’s the utilization? What’s the investment? How do we depreciate the investment?

“We think we can make that work, from our initial study. Now we’ve got to see what the market says.”