BANGKOK -- Competition in Thailand's pickup truck market is intensifying with a series of new models hitting the market.
Thailand is a key market and export base for the trucks, and the only country to make Mitsubishi Motors' Triton pickup.
Mitsubishi first launched the Triton nine years ago. It recently unveiled a revamped model that it plans to sell in 150 countries.
"The Triton is one of our most important products, as it has contributed the most to our revitalization," said Chairman and CEO Osamu Masuko.
When Mitsubishi introduced the Triton in 2005, the company was in turmoil due to a cancelled tie-up with Germany's Daimler and revelations that vehicle defects had been covered up to avoid recalls. Mitsubishi nearly went out of business, but it was saved by its operations in Thailand and the production of the Triton. In the past nine years 1.26 million Triton pickup trucks have been sold, accounting for nearly 20% of Mitsubishi's global sales.
The new Triton, which went on sale Tuesday in Thailand, costs between 791,000 baht ($24,489) and just more than 1 million baht. The Triton line offers three pickups with different types of engines. The Triton's cabin is also roomier than its predecessor.
Mitsubishi will start exporting the model early next year to other Southeast Asian nations, Latin America and the Middle East. It is aiming for global sales of 200,000 units of the new Triton a year and expects to move a further 170,000 of the older model.
Holy Land of 1-ton pickups
Large pickup trucks are mainstream in the U.S., but compact models are more popular in Thailand. Some 1.6 million 1-ton pickup trucks are sold globally each year.
Thailand is regarded as the home of smaller pickup trucks, accounting for more than 70% of production and 30% of global sales. A number of Japanese automakers have set up operations in Thailand, drawn by the preferential excise levy on trucks. One-ton pickup trucks attract a 3% to 12% levy, compared with 17% to 50% for cars. As a result, the trucks make up more than 40% of new-vehicle sales in Thailand.
Another factor behind Thailand's rise as an automaking center was the Asian currency crisis in 1997. As demand in the region plunged, Japanese automakers consolidated their manufacturing operations in various parts of Southeast Asia into Thailand.
The economic boom which followed in emerging countries sharply boosted demand for pickup trucks, turning Thailand into a major exporter. Today, eight automakers -- five Japanese, two from the U.S. and India's Tata Motors -- manufacture pickup trucks in Thailand.
Compared with cars, which are redesigned every four or five years, pickup trucks have a longer product life, making them "extremely profitable," said a major Japanese automaker executive. Consequently, competition among Japanese automakers has been heating up.
Toyota Motor received approval from the Thai government in June to invest about 180 billion yen ($1.52 billion) in 1-ton pickup truck operations. The company is revamping its Hilux Vigo for the first time in 11 years and plans to launch it next year. Nissan Motor launched an updated Navara pickup truck for the first time in seven and a half years in July.
However, the Thai pickup truck market faces a major change in the business environment, with a new excise tax regime in the cards. From 2016, the government plans to calculate the levy on vehicles based on fuel economy, not engine displacement.
For 1-ton pickup trucks, the levy will increase by 2 to 3 percentage points if their carbon dioxide emissions per kilometer exceed 200g. By contrast, the levy on fuel-efficient small cars will drop 3 to 5 percentage points from 17%, narrowing the gap with pickups.
Behind the change is the government's desire to steer domestic demand toward greener vehicles.
The huge popularity of the mostly diesel powered pickup trucks has pushed the fuel's consumption up to double Thailand's gas use. Boosting car sales will not only reduce diesel imports, but also encourage more car production, which will lead to greater export opportunities.
For Mitsubishi Motors, the new excise levy is unlikely to have much of an impact, as the new Triton's carbon dioxide emissions per kilometer are less than 200g.
However, the new regime will draw consumers' attention to fuel economy, which automakers are not required to disclose under Thai law. That means fuel efficiency will become a key factor in determining a vehicle's success in Thailand.