A Volkswagen pickup truck? VW stuns New York Auto Show with Atlas Tanoak concept vehicle

Nathan Bomey
Hinrich Woebcken, president and chief executive officer of Volkswagen Group of America Inc., stands for a photograph next to the Volkswagen AG Atlas Tanoak concept pickup truck during the 2018 New York International Auto Show (NYIAS) in New York, on Wednesday, March 28, 2018.
Mark Kauzlarich | Bloomberg | Getty Images

NEW YORK — A Volkswagen pickup truck?

It could happen.

The German automaker known for zippy passenger cars pulled off perhaps the biggest surprise of the New York International Auto Show on Wednesday by revealing a pickup truck concept: the Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak.

The company was careful to say it has "no production plans" for a pickup. But the Atlas Tanoak is specifically designed to gauge the public's interest in a VW pickup truck.

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The news brings to mind memories of a long-lost vehicle called the Volkswagen Pickup that once rambled through American streets from 1979 to 1984. The automaker sold 77,512 units of the Volkswagen Pickup, which was based on a vehicle called the Rabbit, before it was discontinued, spokesman Mark Gillies said.

The 5-seat, crew-cab mid-size Atlas Tanoak's unveiling comes amid a red-hot U.S. market for pickup trucks, which are pumping out profits at a prodigious pace.

It's "the most American Volkswagen ever," VW chief designer Klaus Bischoff said at the auto show.

VW U.S. CEO Hinrich Woebcken joked that the only thing more American than the pickup is a cowboy hat, but his public relations team wouldn't let him wear one during the press conference.

Three truck kingpins made by Detroit's traditional Big Three automakers — Ford's F-series, General Motors' Chevrolet Silverado and Fiat Chrysler's Ram — were the top three best-selling vehicles in the U.S. in 2017.

And Americans have shown that they'll buy pickups made by foreign automakers, too, such as the Toyota Tundra, Nissan Titan and Honda Ridgeline.

Volkswagen may find it irresistible to try to snatch a share of the highly lucrative segment.

The pieces of the puzzle are already materializing. The Atlas Tanoak is based on the same underpinnings as the VW Atlas SUV, which debuted in 2017.

VW U.S. CEO Hinrich Woebcken said Tuesday that the company envisions possibly creating a "family of vehicles" based on the Atlas nameplate. That would include the Atlas Cross Sport crossover, which was revealed Tuesday night in an event tied to the New York Auto Show.

The Atlas Tanoak gets its name from a Pacific Coast tree species that can grow up to 135 feet tall.

The vehicle would compete in the mid-size pickup truck segment, which also includes in the Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado, GMC Canyon and Nissan Frontier.

The vehicle would be 214.1 inches long, which is 1.8 inches longer than the Tacoma and 1.4 longer than the Colorado.

It has a 276-horsepower, 3.6-liter, 6-cylinder gas engine, in keeping with VW's decision to abandon diesel engines in the U.S. after the company's emissions scandal. It would have an 8-speed automatic transmission and go 0 to 60 miles per hour in 8.5 seconds.

One design feature that helps the Atlas Tanoak stand out is a rail mounted on the pickup bed instead of on the back of the cab, which can help carry large items such as ladders.