In 1989, it was increasingly clear a new revolution was coming to the truck market, but what shape it would take was still a mystery. With the staggering success of large body-on-frame SUVs and light trucks just a gleam in the eyes of automakers, GMs design team continued down the path of car-based pickups with the Chevy XT-2 Concept Truck. Although we now know car-based pickups and SUVs lost the battle to large SUVs shortly thereafter, it appears the XT-2, an essentially ignored concept here in the United States, may end up winning the design war.
The American SUVs on the market in 1989 were quite a bit different than the generation that would take over in just two years' time. We tend to focus on their crudeness and lack of creature comforts, but more importantly, nearly all "mid-size" SUVs before the 1990s period were two-door models. The exception was the Jeep Cherokee XJ, which was developed with extra doors specifically because Chevy hadn't added them to their Blazer. The other players were either Japanese, like the Isuzu Trooper or, like the Suburban, based on a larger truck platform.
The Jeep Z5 concept will look very familiar to you.
Fortunately for Chrysler, Jeep had developed a more-refined version of the four-door SUV that we know as the Jeep Grand Cherokee all the way back in 1985, when the division was owned by AMC. Unfortunately for Chrysler, when they purchased AMC and Jeep, they put the development of the Grand Cherokee project on hold in favor of new minivans. Still, Jeep had the answer, and in 1989 they released the Jeep Z5 Concept 1, which was basically the final design for the Grand Cherokee that they would bring to market in 1992.
Contrast that with the General. For 1989, GM had two futuristic concept trucks that we assume they hoped would stir enough interest to guide them in their product-making decisions. One was the youth-oriented Pontiac Stinger compact SUV. Though it wasn't particularly powerful — its engine was only good for 170 HP — it had a high level of utility, including features such as a removable picnic table and portable radio. These types of features weren't put to use, as Pontiac wasn't going to build an SUV in the near future. Ironically, many of these ideas found a home — the ill-fated and poorly designed Pontiac Aztec.
The Stinger is certainly better looking than the Aztec, even if it isn't as practical.
The other concept truck was the Chevy XT-2 concept, which stood for the Chevy Experimental Truck #2. This futuristic-looking, performance-oriented vehicle featured a Corvette suspension, a front-engine/RWD layout built on a platform similar to the F-body Camaro, and a 4.5-liter V6 that was good for 360 horsepower and 315 lb-ft of torque. The V6 engine itself, which featured tuned port injection, was an important technological leap forward for GM. The TPI system not only provided more power than a carbureted engine, it was also relatively fuel-efficient. For an excellent discussion of the importance of this engine see this discussion of the XT-2 at PickupTrucks.com.
The XT-2 was designed as a pace car to be used in what was then the CART PPG Indy Car World Series, which is now a weird mix of words to see together. The truck itself went through two designs before engineers landed on the final one. The first version was fairly wild and had the engine mounted under the bed. The second version was a based on a passenger-car platform with a FWD/AWD layout and a smaller V6 engine, a concept not unlike the crossovers that would follow in the mid-2000s. So how did they end up with the final version? According to a press release provided by GM, "Given the consumer preference to small, sporty trucks, the evolution of the Chevrolet PPG XT-2 Pace Truck was natural."
So, in 1989, you had the Pontiac Stinger and the Chevy XT-2 from GM as the radically futuristic vehicles. The designers and planners clearly understood that, after the previous gas crisis, crossovers and sportier car-based trucks were the way forward. But that wasn't what happened.
In 1990, GM came out with four-door versions of their S10-based SUV's and Ford came out with the Ford Explorer. The design wasn't exactly revolutionary — the Explorer and others were the same basic body-on-frame trucks as before with an extra set of doors. The Explorer caught the imagination and dollars of Suburban families by offering car-like amenities such as leather interiors and CD players. Jeep suddenly had to rush their dusty Grand Cherokee to market in 1992 to catch up with the market.
Gas prices remained low, especially relative to the sudden increase in the purchasing power of the average American. In 1991 there were less than a million SUVs sold in the United States. By 1998, Americans were buying nearly three million a year. In 1998, the three best-selling trucks (F-Series, Silverado and Explorer) outsold the Toyota Camry, which was the best-selling car. Unfortunately, in this orgy of truck sales, nothing quite like the XT-2 was ever produced. Why make a car-based SUV or truck when you're suddenly making money hand-over-fist by adding a CD player and an extra set of doors to a body-on-frame platform you've already developed?
Fast-forward almost twenty years, to March 2008. The Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Toyota Camry bested the Ford F-150 in monthly sales, and you have your answer. Not long after, GM postponed development of their GMT-900 full-sized truck platform. It then leaked out that GM was considering a more Honda Ridgeline-esque pickup — not unlike the second version of the XT-2 concept that was never produced.
Then the news we were all waiting for: GM announced the Pontiac G8 Sport Truck in 2008. The Pontiac G8 ST will be built on the Zeta platform that underpins the 2010 Chevy Camaro, giving it essentially the same setup as the Chevy XT-2.
The General could have created car-based CUVs and sporty trucks; obviously, they thought the idea had some merit in 1989. But development and focus instead shifted to the cheaper and easier body-on-frame alternative with two extra doors. Almost 20 years later, with another energy crisis underway, it's fascinating to see how two versions of the same forgotten concepts from the late 1980s are now looking like the new way forward for an automaker desperately trying to grapple with age-old problems.
[Photos and press releases courtesy of General Motors. Special thanks to GM for providing the information, Mike Levine of PickupTrucks.com for tracking much of it down and to SmalleyXb122 for starting this whole search with his comment in the Five Ugliest Concept Trucks post.]
The Pontiac G8 ST proves Peter's maxim about originality.