Keep On Truckin’, Baby

30 09 2010

They said it couldn’t be done. When Dodge announced the radical redesign of its RAM pickup back in the early 90s, no one thought it could mount a serious threat to Chevy and Ford.

After all, the pickup market had evolved to the point of there being only two real players anyway. Dodge had been written off for years. Always there, but no one cared. Real men debated the merits of Chevy and Ford. Sons were disowned for daring to deviate from the family brand preference. And window stickers showed cartoon characters urinating on the other guy’s logo.

The Dodge Ram now commands about 20% of the market. But don’t let that number fool you. Toyota, another “they said it couldn’t be done” maker, has bolted ahead of Dodge with its Tundra (made right here in the State of Texas).

If anything, the Ram and Tundra have shown just how vulnerable the Ford F-class and Chevy Silverado really are (family traditions notwithstanding).

Which is why Indian truck manufacturer Mahindra is hungry to enter the US market. That’s the country India, not a tribal enterprise in Arizona. And even though their distribution system is tied up in dispute at the moment, Mahindra is planning to take the US by storm very soon with its inexpensive and economical trucks.

I am sure there are die hard Chevy and Ford enthusiasts laughing hysterically at the prospect of an unknown trying to claim a toe hold in America. C’mon. America is the home of the pickup (or at least we think). The only reason the Tundra had a prayer is because it is made on American shores, right? No self-respecting man (or woman) would be seen tooling around in a Tokyo truck, would they? And will truck-loving Texans fall under the spell of a pickup made half a world away?

Well, we shall see. Mahindra has been establishing its brand presence in the US for a number of years with its tractor line. Pickups are just its latest entry.

With base prices in the range of $20K to $22K, the Mahindra should at least turn wallets. Heck, that’s cheaper than the average sedan. Monthly payments would suddenly be very affordable for most Americans.

And during a recession, who can argue that price isn’t a big factor? US car and truck sales have taken a beating the last two years, and maybe all we need is a good deal to put us in the buying mood.

But Mahindra has the same challenges any newcomer faces. Making Mahindra a household word will not be easy. And what about quality and safety? There is no track record here. It was only in the last few months that Mahindra was able to get its line up to US safety and emission specs.

The real risk for Mahindra is that they trip over themselves like Hyundai did in the late 80s, or, worse yet, self-destruct on the berm like the Yugo. Brand images are hard to shake when they get off on the wrong wheel. And never mind that there are already many happy truck buyers driving established brands. Sure, Ram and Tundra did the seemingly impossible, but can Mahindra pull another rabbit from this hat

All of this means that Mahindra better come out with all 4 cylinders firing. Because the last place the company wants to see its vehicles is at the end of a tow rope.

Dr “Pickup Line” Gerlich

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