Philippe Leroy knew exactly what his friends in the village of Mennecy, France, would say when he bought his first Dodge Ram pickup truck in 2009.
It’s too big for French roads. It uses too much gas. The taxes are too high. Its open bed won’t keep work equipment secure. And it’s just so … American. In other words, every piece of conventional wisdom that has been used to explain why Europe is historically a terrible market for pickups.
But the 52-year-old construction worker says none of those things turned out to be true. It’s perfect for work and has enough space to take his family of five and their gear on hiking or skiing excursions. Leroy now buys a Ram every two years from the American Car City dealership in Paris.
“At first, they don’t understand why I’m driving such a car,” Leroy said. “But when I talk about the benefits for buying this car, they understand. It’s the perfect truck for everyday living.”
Thanks to people like Leroy, automakers at long last think Europeans may be ready to embrace the pickup trucks that are so popular — and profitable — in the rest of the world.
This past summer, Italy’s Fiat began selling the Fullback pickup. At the recent Paris Auto Show, Mercedes-Benz confirmed its first pickup would go on sale in Europe, Australia, South Africa and Latin America before the end of the decade.
“The midsized pickup segment is not only booming; it is at the beginning of a major transformation,” Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz’s parent company, Daimler, told reporters in Paris at a press conference. “More and more customers are looking for pickup trucks with car-like specifications. We will be a driving force in this change.”
France’s Renault said earlier this year it would build the Alaskan pickup. It’s slated for the Latin American market before the company decides whether to bring it to Europe. Until recently, Volkswagen was the main European automaker with a pickup, having launched the Amarok in 2010.
While nobody is predicting a truck boom on the continent, there is hope that as pickups become more common sites on the roads they can move beyond their status as a niche vehicle.
As these new trucks hit the market, analysts are watching to see whether automakers have caught the tail of a hot new trend or are simply deluding themselves in a fruitless search for new markets.
“It’s certainly a gamble,” said Christoph Stürmer, global lead analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers Autofacts. “And I hope these targets are not too high. It’s a very small niche in Europe.”
According to IHS Markit, a global market research firm, there were 121,718 pickup trucks sold in Western and Central Europe in 2015, up from 98,083 in 2013. And the firm says through August, sales of pickups in Europe have increased 21 percent from the same period a year ago.
At the moment, the biggest beneficiary of this changing dynamic has been the Ford Ranger.
Introduced in the market in 2011, Ford sold 27,300 Rangers in Europe last year, up 27 percent from the previous year. That made the Ranger the bestselling pickup truck in Europe, breezing past Toyota’s HiLux. Ford claims a 23.5 percent market share in the 20 largest European markets.
Still, that’s barely a dimple compared with the 1.3 million vehicles Ford sold overall in those markets in 2015. And it’s also a small percentage of the 780,000 trucks it sold last year in the United States.
Still, up is up.
The company is projecting it will sell 36,000 Ford Rangers in Europe in 2016. European consumers are increasingly opting for the Wildtrack, the most luxurious, powerful and profitable Ranger model. Between 2014 and 2015, it went from 25 percent to 34 percent of Ranger sales in Europe.
Consumers “want a lifestyle statement,” said Paul Baynes, Ford’s commercial vehicle marketing manager in Europe. “The Wildtrak has a great work angle, but it’s also very comfortable for leisure time and hobbies.”
European companies have watched the Ranger’s traction closely, particularly that appeal to premium customers, and are now hoping to cash in themselves. According to a PwC Autofacts report, the number of European-produced pickups was about 40,000 in 2015 and is projected to climb to 74,000 in 2016. That number could jump to 96,000 by 2018, according to PwC Autofacts.
Those numbers indicate optimism but are still small enough to demonstrate European automakers are moving into pickup trucks cautiously.
For now, the biggest holdout is BMW. But even it is monitoring the market closely.
“We know from other car manufacturers that the pickup trend in Europe has been growing in the last few years,” said spokesman Christophe Koenig. “BMW is always looking for new business opportunities and is leading various market/consumer analyses, but so far there are no plans regarding the expansion of our portfolio with such a model.”
In the case of both Mercedes and Renault, their trucks are being built in partnership with Nissan, sharing much of the latter’s frame and components. Although Fiat is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and is a sister brand to Ram, it has partnered with Mitsubishi. The exteriors will have different designs and features.
By sharing the platforms and manufacturing process, these European companies have slashed the start-up cost and risk in the event these new pickups flop, according to Carlos Da Silva, manager of the EMEA Light Vehicle Sales Forecast for IHS Markit.
“It’s not a big, big effort in terms of investment,” Da Silva said. “It’s a much safer bet. If they’re wrong, it won’t be a big investment to cover.”
Having waded into the market, there are still plenty of challenges ahead. Chief among them is marketing, and how to reach more customers. The heavily testosterone-themed ads in the U.S., often employing country-western themes, probably wouldn’t be effective in Europe, for instance.
“They would need to get away from that typical image,” Da Silva said. “There are not cowboys in Europe. It’s a workhorse, for people working hard. But it comes with a nice design. They have to explain the advantages over buying a small van.”
For Ford’s part, it’s still primarily going to be relying on word of mouth.
“You won’t see it on the local TV,” Baynes said. “What you find is that when people see it, they see it’s very good-looking, and that it’s sporty and has a presence. And they really get drawn to it.”
Of course, the customers coming into the showroom at American Car City don’t have to be convinced of any of those benefits. According to Jordan Mizdrak of American Car City, the company is selling more to independent workers who, like Leroy, find it appealing to have a vehicle that can also be used for fun.
Those sales have gotten a push by changes in French laws that allow people who buy a truck primarily for work avoid some of the larger taxes. And the type of gas many of the trucks use is not the most expensive variety, which helps ease the pinch that might otherwise be caused by them being less fuel efficient, he said.
He’s heard about all the new European trucks coming. But he’s dubious that European manufacturers will be able to make a truck as appealing as one from the U.S.
“I think people prefer a big American pickup truck for the style and the engine,” Mizdrak said. “For them, the pickup truck has become like a luxury. I think we’re going to sell more and more.”