Mercedes-Benz will start selling a midsize pickup truck late next year in parts of Europe, Latin America, South Africa and Australia. It’s undecided on whether to bring the new truck to the U.S.
The German automaker, which earlier this year confirmed it was developing a pickup, showed off the design of the new vehicle Tuesday, announcing it that it would offer two versions of the new X-class truck.
The first will be aimed at what is considered the classic pickup driver. Mercedes said it will be “tough, functional, strong, and with off-road capability.” The second will be a luxury-oriented truck.
“With the Mercedes-Benz pickup, we will close one of the last gaps in our portfolio. Our target: we want to offer customers vehicles matching their specific needs. The X-Class will set new standards in a growing segment,” said Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz.
The company is investing about $1 billion in the project, he said.
The Mercedes pickup will be manufactured in a partnership with the Renault-Nissan Alliance. Production for the European, Australian and South African markets will start at the Nissan plant in Barcelona, Spain, in 2017. The X-Class for the Latin American market come from a Renault plant in Cordoba, Argentina, the following year.
Mercedes said the truck will rate as a one-ton pickup with seating for up to five persons. It is intended to be “an urban lifestyle and family vehicle,” he said.
“While a pickup is under consideration for the US market at some point, no timeline is available for a decision to be made,” Mercedes said in a statement.[vox id=”5690″]
Bringing the truck to the U.S. would be tricky because of an unusual tariff imposed on imported trucks.
In 1963, the U.S. and the European Economic Community nations entered into a trade war. Europe slapped tariffs on U.S. chicken exports. The U.S. retaliated with a 25 percent tariff on all imported trucks and vans. At the time, the U.S. auto industry was worried about Volkswagen, whose tiny Beetle sedan proved that American consumers would purchase foreign-built vehicles. The U.S. imposes a much smaller 2.5 percent tariff on imported passenger vehicles.
Mercedes Sprinter and Metris commercial vans are assembled in Europe. Mercedes then takes them apart. It packages up the engines, transmissions and axles and ships them to a facility in North Charleston, N.C. The vehicle bodies get shipped to the same destination but in a different container ship. Mercedes then puts all the vehicles back together.
While this adds 7 percent to 8 percent to the cost of vans, it allows the automaker to say the vehicles were assembled in the U.S. and avoid paying the 25 percent tariff.
The trade barrier is why Toyota now builds Tundra pickups in Texas and Nissan produces Titan trucks in Mississippi, even though the Japanese brands still import some passenger car models to sell in the U.S.
But the U.S. would be an attractive market for Mercedes. Americans have purchased almost 2 million pickup trucks through the first nine months of this year.
A Mercedes truck would attack the hottest segment of the pickup market. Sales of midsize pickups have soared more than 24 percent in the U.S. through the first nine months of this year compared with the same period a year earlier, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp. Sales of full-size pickups grew by a modest 3 percent during the same period. The overall auto market has grown by less than 1 percent at the same time.
The new truck is a good fit for Mercedes-Benz’s commercial business outside the U.S., but would be a hard sell domestically, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst at IHS Automotive.
“There is appetite here for automakers to load up their trucks with leather and lots of features and sell them at a high price,” Brinley said. “But the U.S. reaction to Lincoln and Cadillac pickup trucks shows there is not a large appetite for luxury brand pickup trucks. Buyers want them from their familiar brands such as Ford, Chevrolet, GMC and Ram.”
Moreover, Mercedes-Benz “is not the place where U.S. consumers go for pickup trucks,” she said. “That would be a difficult thing to turn around.”
The German automaker provided only basic information about the new truck.
“Our future X-Class will be a pickup that knows no compromise. Ladder-type frame, high-torque six-cylinder engine, and permanent all-wheel drive are compulsory for us,” said Volker Mornhinweg, who heads Mercedes-Benz Vans.
The top-of-the-line model will be powered by a V6 diesel engine.
Mercedes noted that the same trends that have made trucks popular in the U.S. are starting to catch on in other regions.
The automaker said, “the market for midsize pickups is undergoing a radical change. Gone are the days when they were bought as mere ‘workhorses.’ Instead, they are becoming increasingly popular as versatile vehicles for a simultaneous private and commercial use and as vehicles for a strictly private use.”
Other automakers are seeing the same trend. This past summer, Italy’s Fiat began selling the Fullback pickup.
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.