January 14, 2016 / 6:33 AM / 3 years ago

Japan automakers hitch pickups to U.S. growth as gas prices slide

DETROIT (Reuters) - Japanese automakers are taking on Detroit’s Big Three and scrambling to expand their share of pickup truck sales in the United States, as record low gasoline prices curb demand for their once best-selling small and medium-sized sedans.

Jose Munoz, Chair of Nissan North America, introduces the Nissan Titan Warrior concept truck at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook -

Soaring demand for SUVs and pickup trucks drove U.S. auto sales to a record high last year, as the lowest fuel prices in seven years prompted a shift from sedans and smaller cars to larger vehicles in the world’s biggest auto market.

The big U.S. automakers - Ford Motor Co (F.N), General Motors Co (GM.N) and Chrysler (FCAU.N) - have so far gained the most from this shift, with many selling pickups at luxury car prices.

Faced with slowing demand growth for smaller models including the Civic, the Camry and the Altima, Japanese automakers such as Honda Motor Co (7267.T), Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) and Nissan Motor Co Ltd (7201.T) now want in, launching beefed up models at the Detroit auto show this week.

“We’re looking for 5 percent share of the full-sized pickup truck segment,” Nissan North America Chairman Jose Munoz said at the Detroit auto show this week, citing a figure that dwarfs Nissan’s roughly 0.6 percent market share of the full-sized pickup segment last year.

The automaker launched a hulking concept design for its Titan XD pickup model at the event.

While Japanese automakers have steadily grown their share of the SUV and crossover markets, their share of the higher-margin truck market was 14.7 percent in 2015, according to automotive researcher Kelley Blue Book, down from 20.5 percent in 2007.

Regaining market share will be tough, however, as many truck buyers tend to remain loyal to U.S. models, senior analyst Karl Brauer said, but the Japanese automakers still have a chance.

“If volumes continue to rise they could take some new share as new buyers to the segment might be open to models by overseas makers,” Brauer said, adding that recently launched new models could help the Japanese brands.

In a bid to attract truck buyers, Toyota last year launched a redesigned version of its Tacoma compact pickup.

Honda also said this week that it would soon launch the first revamp of its Ridgeline mid-sized pick up in a decade and which would target the “tail-gating” crowd which hold parties in parking lots. The vehicle offers features such as audio speakers in the load bed and beer-cooler-sized well under the bed floor, features many rival trucks don’t have.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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