Falling in LUV Again: Chevrolet's Small Brazilian Beauty Doesn't Love American Buyers...Yet
By: Mike Levine Posted: 06-12-08 15:19 PT
© 2008 PickupTrucks.com

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With gas prices headed for $4.50 to $5 a gallon, a number of pickup truck buyers are thirsting for a small work truck and coming up dry.

Forget the hybrid Toyota A-BAT; it's got a nice footprint, but it's still vaporware, aimed at hipsters and Baby Boomers. Forget the Australian-hatched Pontiac G8 sport truck (whatever it will be called), a V-8 powered muscle car with a bed for El Camino enthusiasts -- all 5,221 of them. Forget the compact Ford Ranger; it's scheduled to be euthanized next year, possibly to be replaced by a much larger F-100.

Midsize trucks? Ha! Considering how much you’ll pay for a new one that has only marginally better fuel economy than a half-ton, you might as well buy a full-size pickup. Which is why small-work-truck shoppers aren’t shopping at all.

What if I told you, though, that there was a truck on sale right now just a few minutes’ drive from San Diego that could haul 1,600 pounds of cargo, get more than 30 mpg on the highway and cost around $15,000 well-equipped? And it’s made by Chevrolet. You’d be interested, right?

The Chevrolet Tornado isn’t a mirage, but it might as well be for American buyers. It’s a two-seat Mexican pickup built in Brazil (where it’s sold as the Chevrolet Montana). It’s also exported to South Africa, badged as the Opel Corsa Utility.

This is no squashed Silverado. The Tornado has more in common with a Honda Ridgeline. It’s car-based and has front-wheel drive, built on GM’s subcompact Gamma platform. The rear suspension abandons leaf springs and a live axle for coil springs and a torsion bar.

Under the Tornado’s hood is a 1.8-liter, inline-four-cylinder engine rated at 104 horsepower and 118 pounds-feet of torque. With its standard five-speed manual transmission, it’s good for 23 mpg in the city and goes from zero to 60 mph in 10 seconds. Sporty? No. Efficient? Yes.

The cab is small and sparsely equipped. The Tornado doesn’t get much fancier than crank windows, a CD changer and air conditioning, but the South African Opel version comes with power windows, nicer materials and airbags. Surprisingly, there’s more than 5.5 cubic feet of space behind the Tornado’s two seats, good enough to stow a laptop or a small amount of luggage.

The Tornado’s cargo box measures 66.5 inches by 55 inches, and it’s entirely practical. The side walls are tall, and there are neatly integrated steps behind the B-pillar to make loading easier. Tie-down cleats circling the bed rails make it easy to secure cargo. The Ridgeline’s payload area is 60 inches by 50 inches, and the Tornado’s 1,600-pound payload capacity beats the Ridgeline by 50 pounds.

The styling is unconventional. Most U.S. pickups are bold up front and mild in the back, but not the Tornado. Its front clip is econo-car anonymous, while the back half sports wildly flared fenders, like a miniature heavy-duty pickup.

So why doesn’t GM sell a version of the Tornado/Montana/Corsa Utility runabout in the U.S.? It didn’t make business sense until gas prices broke the $3 a gallon barrier. Americans likely wouldn’t have bought a tiny truck like the Tornado when gas was cheap.

Now full-size trucks are suddenly out of favor and the current crop of small trucks can’t cut it. We’re in a situation similar to the early 1970s, when small import pickups from Toyota and Datsun suddenly became popular as oil prices spiked during the Arab oil embargo. Ford and GM responded by bringing over pickups from Mazda and Isuzu, renaming them the Ford Courier and Chevrolet LUV, respectively.

This time, there are no small trucks to import from overseas. Even Japanese manufacturers are struggling to cope with the sudden drop in pickup-truck demand, ratcheting back their American factories, just like the domestic automakers are doing.

Emissions and safety rules are also much tougher today than they were 35 years ago. The South African version of the Tornado comes closest to U.S. specs, but it would take many months of reengineering and testing to federalize the Tornado for our market.

These aren’t reasons not to bring the Tornado here, though. We’re guessing designs for smaller haulers are being pinned up in the cubicles of all the major manufacturers right now, but they’re still just concepts. The Tornado is on sale today. If GM brought it here and sold it as the modern-day Chevrolet LUV, those small-truck-buyers might finally quench their thirst for a modern-day compact with a pickup that’s not a big drinker at the gas pump.

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