Will Volkswagen Bring Its Small Truck Concept to the U.S.?

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Cars.com photos by Christian Lantry

By Aaron Bragman

Volkswagen unexpectedly brought a concept truck to the 2019 New York International Auto Show, one that it built for Brazil's Sao Paulo International Motor Show last year. The Tarok concept is a unibody pickup truck (think Honda Ridgeline) that VW has promised will be built for the Brazilian market where small pickups are considerably more common. But the fact that VW brought this pickup to a U.S. show to "judge interest" is astonishing, so we took a closer look at the Tarok to see what its true chances are of arriving on our shores.

Related: Volkswagen Tarok Concept Makes U.S. Bow in New York

The Platform Would Work

The Tarok concept isn't a new version of the Amarok pickup that VW sells in just about every other market except ours. That truck would require a new plant to be built somewhere in North America to make selling it in the U.S. feasible — importing it wouldn't work due to the longtime tariffs on imported pickups that are still in place in the U.S. Not to mention it would require considerable investment in federalizing for crash safety and emissions standards. Put those costs up against the anticipated volume such a truck would sell, and the business case doesn't make sense.

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But the Tarok Concept, which VW calls "compact" in size, is different. It's built on VW's modular "MQB" platform, the same one that forms the bones of the VW Golf, Jetta, Arteon, Atlas, Tiguan and a host of Audi vehicles, all of which are sold here. At 193.5 inches long, it's 4.8 inches shorter than a Volkswagen Atlas, and 16.5 inches shorter than a Honda Ridgeline. At the auto show, VW told us federalizing the Tarok for crash-test standards isn't likely to be too difficult, since all the heavy-lifting structural work is largely done. Given that it's MQB, it also can be built locally, but would make more sense if it should find a home in the Puebla, Mexico, plant. Making it there would avoid the import "chicken tax" tariff on light-duty trucks, and Mexico's free trade agreement with Brazil would enable it to also be shipped south for use in markets there.

The Powertrain Can be Swapped

Powering the Tarok is a 147-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that can run on 100 percent ethanol, a characteristic of several Brazilian-market motors. Brazil made huge investments in ethanol thanks to its sugar cane industry and climate that doesn't worry about ethanol's qualities in cold weather. That engine wouldn't work for North America (it sounds completely gutless) — yet given the Tarok's MQB bones, there are a variety of engines that would. If it were brought to North America, our money would be on finding a version of the Atlas' 3.6-liter V-6 under its hood. As it sits, it has a payload of more than 2,200 pounds, qualifying the truck for half-ton pickup status. That would likely drop if a bigger, heavier engine is fitted, but it would still likely be competitive with mid-size pickups from major automakers.

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The all-wheel-drive system could certainly be retained. The MQB platform is a front-wheel-drive setup, with optional 4Motion all-wheel drive that the Tarok Concept features. Equipped with multiple drive modes and aggressive approach, departure, and breakover angles, it would have some reasonable all-terrain chops — certainly enough to go after the Ridgeline, but certainly nothing approaching the off-road abilities of even a the most basic Jeep Gladiator.

The Bad Precedent

The problem with the Tarok coming here is that the precedent set by similar trucks in this market doesn't provide much reason to do it. The Honda Ridgeline has yet to find anything more than just a cult status following, with monthly sales considerably lagging the more traditional rear-wheel-drive-based leaders in the class. The unibody style used in the Ridgeline and now-defunct models like the old Subaru Baja hasn't ever really worked well here. Hyundai is considering bringing a similar model to market in the Santa Cruz concept, but there's no word yet on whether it's been given the green light.

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But then, VW might not care about precedent. Even if it sells only 10,000-20,000 a year, it's still getting VW's foot in the door of a new, hot class in which it currently has zero presence. If VW can do that with minimal investment, piggybacking on a vehicle destined for another market and using a plant that's already set up to make similar vehicles, maybe it's a simple decision to ship some here to see how they do. Stay tuned — if we learn anything more about the Tarok's future in the U.S., you can read more at PickupTrucks.com.

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