Truck sales 'hint at economic pickup'

VW Amarok
Image caption Volkswagen designed its Amarok pickup for builders and farmers in fast-growing developing countries, but it has proved popular in the UK as well

The modern pickup truck is a vehicle with a split personality, simultaneously carrying big, dirty loads back on the bed while passengers up front relax in comfortable leather seats.

For some observers though, the pickup's role as a multi-purpose vehicle is far less exciting than what this rugged go-anywhere 4x4 can tell us about the times we live in.

In the UK, pickup truck sales rose some 24% last year.

So far this year, there has been a dip in fleet sales, but the retail market, which is dominated by farmers and builders, seems to have held up well.

Mitsubishi Motors UK's managing director Lance Bradley sees it as a sign of optimism about the future amongst his main pickup truck customer groups.

"The pickup truck market is interesting," Mr Bradley says, "as it's a bit of an indicator of where the economy is going."

Specific jobs

Image caption Pickups are often used as working vehicles during the week and as family vehicles at the weekend

Nissan vice president Jerry Hardcastle agrees that farmers and builders - the people who produce our food and erect our houses - tend to buy when they are feeling good about the future.

And these days, he points out, they dominate the customer base - certainly in the retail market.

"The fashion of owning a pickup truck has lost its appeal so it's going back to its roots as a working vehicle," Mr Hardcastle says.

"I go to Cumbria a lot, and the farming community both there and across the rest of the UK still very much use them the way they were intended to be used."

The only other major pickup truck customer group consists of utilities such as British Canals, EON or Cable & Wireless, according to David Crouch of Toyota GB, which saw pickup sales in the UK soar 43% last year, largely on the back of some major fleet deals.

"But they buy pickups in order to do specific jobs," he says.

Two in one

Builders and farmers like pickup trucks for two reasons, according to Mitsubishi's Mr Bradley.

Image caption A decade or so ago, pickup trucks were a much harsher ride

For starters, a twin-cab pickup seats five so it doubles as a family car during the weekend and a working vehicle during the week, which means their owners do not need both a van and a car, he points out.

And as modern pickups have become almost car-like inside, with a much better ride than in previous years, this has become a viable option for many, Nissan's Mr Hardcastle and Toyota's Mr Crouch agree.

"It's effectively two vehicles in one," reasons Mr Crouch, recalling how as recently as a decade ago a pickup would have been "almost agricultural in the harshness of its ride".

Tax advantages

The other and perhaps more persuasive reason why they like them is linked to tax.

Pickup trucks are defined as light commercial vehicles for tax purposes, so builders and farmers can reclaim VAT and benefits in kind.

Image caption Pickups have long been among Ford's bestselling vehicles

"This means that if you are a taxpayer in the 40% tax bracket, driving a Mitsubishi Animal or Nissan Navara, for example, could save you in the region of £4,000 every year on benefit-in-kind tax payments compared with a similarly priced passenger car," according to the website

Though a word of caution for any company car buyer keen to exploit this loophole.

"A pickup truck is still a compromise," Mr Bradley says. "It doesn't drive like a Ford Mondeo."

Global growth

For the motor industry as a whole, the rather small UK market for pickup trucks is marginal, given their enormous popularity elsewhere.

Ford's F-150 pickup, for instance, has not only been the bestselling truck in the US for 34 years running. During the past 24 years it has also outsold any other vehicle, whether car or truck, both in the US as well as in the Canadian market.

Toyota, meanwhile, has sold more than 12 million Hilux models since it was first launched in 1968.

"Globally, it's our second biggest selling vehicle after the Toyota Corolla," says Mr Crouch.

Indeed, their durability was visibly highlighted during the recent uprising in Libya, where they were often kitted out with machine guns.

The global market for pickup trucks is set to continue to expand further, given the prospect of rapid economic growth in a number of developing countries, according to Volkswagen.

The German automotive giant recently launched its first pickup truck - Amarok - specifically to benefit from this growth, and this particular truck is central to VW Group's ambition to become the world's largest carmaker by 2018.