Expanding market: Smaller pickups packing diesel muscle

Staff reports
Farm Forum

Until recent years, the U.S. pickup market has limited diesel power to heavy-duty trucks, built to cope with demanding work conditions. Ambitious efforts to fill market niches have led Ram, General Motors, and Nissan to venture into new territory and pack lighter-duty trucks with diesel engines.

Ram was the first to enter the light-duty diesel segment, introducing a 1500-series pickup with a turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 EcoDiesel for the 2014 model year.

“The big strengths are fuel economy with the torque and towing,” says Ram 1500 Chief Engineer Elizabeth Krear. “I’ve done some rough numbers, and if you put 20,000 miles on your truck a year and you’re towing quite a bit, it’s about a four-year payoff.”

A key ingredient in GM achieving its goal to “reinvent the small truck” is a 2.8-liter Duramax turbodiesel in its restyled and re-engineered Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon midsize pickups. This makes GM the only manufacturer in North America to offer a diesel in a midsize pickup.

“Colorado was already segment leading for power, efficiency, and capability, and the 2.8-liter Duramax turbo-diesel takes Colorado to an even higher level,” says Sandor Piszar, Chevrolet truck marketing director.

Much like GM, Nissan took a giant step forward to make a bold statement in a competitive market by awakening an untapped consumer group with its new-from-the-ground-up 2016 Titan XD.

Creating a something-special pickup was essential for Nissan because it’s a “challenger brand” competing in a market with fiercely loyal truck buyers, says Fred Diaz, general manager, North America trucks. “Put a great powerplant like the Cummins engine, that’s tried-and-true tested and people have tremendous respect for, in an all-new-generation truck and all of a sudden you have reason for people to look and consider us,” says Diaz.

Nissan also stands apart from the pack because its Cummins grunt propels a truck sized between a half-ton and three-quarter-ton heavy-duty.

The target consumer for diesel-powered Ram, GM, and Nissan pickups is one looking for both towing and fuel-efficiency advantages.

Ram answers these demands with its 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. It delivers 240 horsepower at 3,600 rpm and 420 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,000 rpm. This turbo-diesel gives the Ram 1500 muscle to tow up to 9,210 pounds, and posts an estimated fuel-economy rating of 21 miles per gallon city and 29 mpg highway.

It’s a best-of-both-worlds engine that trumps the base 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 with 880 pounds more towing efficiency and by 4 mpg city/highway. It takes moving up to the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 to exceed its towing capability, but loses in fuel efficiency by 6 mpg city/7 mpg highway. Investing in an EcoDiesel pushes the price on most models to $4,270 over the base V-6 and $3,120 above the V-8.

Benefits of GM’s Duramax are similar. The 2.8-liter I-4 turbodiesel cranks out 181 horsepower at 3,400 rpm and 369 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,000 rpm. Its max towing is 7,700 pounds, and estimated fuel economy is rated at an excellent 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway.

Duramax efficiency costs $3,730 more than the base 2.5-liter I-4 gas engine, which is weak on towing, but posts respectable estimated fuel-economy numbers of 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway. Towing can be accommodated with the 3.6-liter V-6 gas powerplant, enabling the GM midsizers to tow up to 7,000 pounds, and has an estimated fuel economy rating of 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway.

While GM has undertaken a lofty mission to redefine the small-pickup market, Nissan has boldly moved forward to create an entirely new full-size lineup.

Nissan introduced a 2017 half-ton Titan, powered by a choice of V-6 or V-8 engines, to appeal to the traditional consumer, but the larger “five-eighths ton” Titan XD taps into a new market.

Its performance fits into a category between expensive big-bore diesels and less-capable smaller-displacement engines. The 5.0-liter turbodiesel delivers 310 horsepower at 3,200 rpm and 555 lb.-ft. of torque at 1,600 rpm. Partnered with a heavy-duty six-speed Aisin automatic transmission, the turbodiesel provides muscle to tow up to 12,300 pounds.

Nissan boasts that its workhorse capability comes at a starting price close to a half-ton pickup’s, and without sacrificing fuel efficiency. Fuel economy ratings on trucks like the Titan XD with a gross vehicle weight rating above 8,500 pounds aren’t reported, but unofficial best-guess figures are 16 mpg city and 21 mpg highway.

Erasing old-diesel stigmas, the new-breed turbo-diesels by Ram, GM, and Nissan boast advanced emissions-reducing technology, quiet operation, and crisp acceleration.