Photo: Erin Marquis
Truck YeahThe trucks are good!  

Engineers and designers always geek out hard seeing their dreams take flight. In this case, the Volkswagen Tanoak and Atlas Cross Sport that the automaker allowed us to fool around with weren’t exactly flying—the two show cars we limited to 20-30 mph—but the excitement was palpable nonetheless.

After all, for years Volkswagen has said it couldn’t figure out how to crack the American market, even after its Beetle helped mainstream the idea of an “import car” decades ago. But now these concept cars—a truck and a stylish crossover—symbolize the way VW wants to eventually conquer our market, and without any diesel cheating this time.

(Disclaimer: Volkswagen flew me out to Monterey and put me up in a seaside hotel to experience Monterey Car Week, drive two of their show cars and speak with its CEO of North American Operations.)

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There was a twinkle in the engineers’ eyes, even as an annoyed Porsche GT3 angrily buzzed around us, as we slowly made our way up the incredibly beautiful 17-Mile Road in Monterey amid the Pebble Beach festivities. We were able to soak up the seaside cruise easily while steering the two creaking hand-built show vehicles.

I was warned not to close the doors too hard and to always set the parking brake when stopped. While not yet much to drive, these VWs still stood out in a place made up almost entirely of standout cars.

Hinrich J. Woebcken said his main desire in his role as CEO of Volkswagen North America operations was to shape products more for the U.S. market in order to snatch up more market share. An ambitious strategy, as Volkswagen has been relegated to the status of quirky outsider for a long time in the U.S. market rather than as the mass manufacturer it obviously would prefer to be, and is almost everywhere else.

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Of course, that can only mean one thing.

“In the past, it was more image approach, with small cars—the Jetta, the Beetle, the Passat, etc—we’ve decided to begin the journey of shifting product momentum much more into the American family lifestyle, small SUVs. We want to be a relevant brand with a full line of cars, trucks and SUVs,” Woebcken said.

But if you’re going to bring a truck to America, you had better come correct. And while Volkswagen fans have been clamoring for a VW truck for years now, VW also wants to capture the hearts of Americans who might be looking at a the Honda Ridgeline or even those initially not interested in a unibody pickup. (No, the Amarok isn’t gonna cut it.)

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The new Atlas crossover has shown some signs of life there. Big signs, too. It’s sniped many drivers from other manufacturers in North America—75 percent of Atlas buyers are new to VW. The new, embiggened Tiguan has done pretty well sales-wise too. And the Atlas Cross Sport will fill yet another very American niche for the company.

The Tanoak, built on the Atlas platform, is the bigger gamble, but with great risks can come great rewards.

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When we first saw the Tanoak revealed at the New York Auto Show earlier this year, VW was playing it very cool. “There are no plans to actually build this awesome thing!” the automaker proclaimed in its extremely detailed press release. Our handlers also assured us during our slow drive that there are still no plans to move ahead with production.

Methinks these Germans doth protest too much. This thing looks good to go. And it turns out, there is, indeed, hope.

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Hopefully, any truck that comes to market will carry all the small lighting details that make this car so fascinating to see on the road. The car is wreathed in light, making it look like a rally truck from the future. That’s an image for myself I am extremely into.

The Tanoak’s bed is 64.1 inches long and 50.4 inches wide, only three inches shorter than an F-150. So, it’s got American size, but what about American power? We were told in March that the Tanoak would come with 3.6-liter V6 engine with 276 horsepower.

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Unfortunately though, that engine did not get to stretch its legs on 17-Mile. Driving impressions were embargoed, but honestly I didn’t get much of an impression of anything by driving these two vehicles. If I wrote about driving show cars as if they were road-ready vehicles, it would do them very little justice.

No, these are show cars, and show they did. The Cross Sport comes with an expansive greenhouse and uses its lack of a third row to provide extra legroom in the back, making it a good fit for small families as well as empty nesters or dual-income-no-kidders.

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Even so, it definitely doesn’t look like your Dad’s SUV. This car isn’t the finished design, but if it keeps an ounce of this this class (an all of it’s light up accents) I won’t hate seeing it out on the roads. Pricing for the Atlas Cross Sport will come out this fall, right before it heads to dealers at the end of the year. The regular Atlas starts at $30,750, so expect this to be about in that range, probably.

And while the Cross Sport was nice, it was the Tanoak that stole the show and everyone’s hearts. A Volkswagen truck! On the road! IN AMERICA! Can you freaking believe it?!

While some of the best interior details, like a badass futuristic blue light living the cabin and gorgeous riveting around the seat seams in the Tanoak, probably won’t make it to production, it’ll be great to see what does should VW build it.

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Unfortunately, the future of the Tanoak is still unclear. However, Woebcken said that the pickup was bumped up to the next level of feasibility research a few months after appearing in New York.

“We believe in it, but we want to make sure we do it right. That’s why we did not confirm, finally, the car is coming,” Woebcken said “Doing it right in America, in this segment, is something you really have to do.”

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So, to appeal to American pickup market, Volkswagen is looking at building a unibody frame truck. This may sound counter-intuitive to Volkswagen’s previously stated desire for mass appeal, as almost all trucks in America are body-on-frame vehicles. But Woebcken believes the improved driving dynamics of a unibody will shift the segment.

“Almost all SUVs where body on frame, and the rest is history. The question is, will this copy paste to pickup trucks?” Woebcken said. “This is something we need to study a little more carefully. We are not through with that study.”

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If Volkswagen does bring the Tanoak to market, it may end up as a quirky, outsider pickup for weirdos who love Volkswagen. Certainly not a bad thing, but not in line with what the automaker is aiming for.

To me, it’s a little sad to think of Volkswagens being so ubiquitous that they’re just like every other carmaker when weird, kooky and charming vehicles seem to be disappearing from America’s roads. But the Tanoak has enough charm that I think it can stand out.

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VW doesn’t have to be like the popular kids to be successful—it can do it on its own terms.

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