Japanese display new ideas in midsize trucks

March 19, 2004|by TIM SPELL/Motor Matters

Visiting 2004 auto shows is like trekking through a parallel universe. Concept vehicles appear to be in real-world auto show form, but the manufacturers linked to them are out of sync. In a role reversal, domestic automakers are focusing on passenger-car introductions and Japanese manufacturers are hinting at the future with sizable pickups.

Pickup debuts by Honda and Mitsubishi aren't of spunky compacts typically associated with import manufacturers, but of formidable midsized pickups. Honda named its truck the SUT Concept and Mitsubishi tagged its pickup the

Sport Truck Concept.


Honda, which announced it would build a production version of its show

truck in 2005, bills the sport-utility truck as a different-breed pickup.

"The concept that we had was: We are going to make a truck and we are going to make all of the truck attributes, but in a Honda way," said Dave Marek, chief designer for the SUT.


Honda's mission is to build a vehicle that appeals to a consumer other than the traditional buyer of a truck or sport-utility.

The use of unibody construction and four-wheel independent suspension gives the SUT civilized, car-like attributes, said Jared Hall, an SUT exterior designer, but this sophistication doesn't come at the sacrifice of truck-like toughness.

A machined-aluminum look is evident in the vehicle's headlamps, taillamps and wheels, said Damon Schell of the exterior design team. Everything in excess is milled away to leave just the bare essentials.

The SUT is fitted with a 5-foot-long cargo box that Honda boasts is deep and benefits from less wheel-arch intrusion than a traditional pickup. The bed size is just right for hauling a Honda motorcycle or ATV, said Mike Tsay, the SUT's interior designer.

In true sport-utility style, the cab is roomy and accommodates five adults. Playing off the billet theme, interior shapes are basic and geometric, Tsay said. The speedometer is housed in a large metal cylinder and the instrument panel block is a massive rectangular form. Seats get a roll-bar treatment, with metal bars looping through upper portions of two-part headrests.

As expected of Honda, the powertrain is a high-torque, all-aluminum, DOHC V-6. Honda reports this V-6 boasts ultra-low emissions, class-leading fuel efficiency and has the power for medium-duty towing. It's linked with a four-wheel-drive system and has off-road capabilities.

The SUT Concept is the next level in an evolving pickup market focused on meeting the demands of a new generation of truck buyers, said Tom Elliott, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co.


Mitsubishi is on a similar path to Honda in reaching out to non-traditional truck buyers. A key difference is that Mitsubishi's Sport Truck reflects the company's performance image.

Powering the all-wheel-drive Sport Truck is a 4.7-liter V-8 engine generating 235 horsepower and 295 lbs.-ft. of torque. Its transmission mate is a five-speed automatic with a dial-type shifter knob, offering a manual-shift option complete with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Fitting for a pickup with V-8 power, the body is bold, athletic and muscular looking. Departing from the traditional, the Sport Truck is a monocoque design - Mitsubishi's term for unibody construction.

Chris Schuttera, interior designer for the Sport Truck, said, "It's a truck that speaks to a car person," and definitely is built with serious production intent. He expects to see a production version of the Sport Truck in 2006 or 2007.

The Sport Truck's exterior is "very tough, very muscular," Schuttera said. Unlike a conventional pickup, there is no gap between the 5-foot-long bed and cab, and the C-pillar flows into the bed to give the truck a more athletic profile. The Sport Truck reflects Mitsubishi's performance image with a wide stance and big 22-inch alloy wheels shrouded by aggressive fender flares. These wheels roll on a four-wheel independent suspension.

Driving excitement has a special meaning to rear-seat passengers who have the option of enjoying an open-air jump-seat ride. Rear seats can slide apart or together, and "expand" up and out - sliding rearward into the cargo box. The rear glass pops upward when the seats are out to double as a windshield.

Also featured are practical engineering pluses such as full-time all-wheel drive and an electronically operated, multiposition tailgate.

Concept vehicles give designers the ability to think outside the box, said Dan Sims, general manager for Mitsubishi Motors Research and Design of America. "We've literally reshaped that box into something that inspires passion."

Tim Spell is the automotive writer for the Houston Chronicle Cars and Trucks section.

© 2004, Motor Matters

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