Volkswagen's Hinrich Woebcken unveiled its Tanoak pickup concept at the New York Auto Show.

There are few surprises at auto shows these days, at least from a media perspective, automakers routinely signaling what they’ve got coming, usually offering press kits and pictures well in advance of a product’s official debut.

Volkswagen managed to pull off one of the rare surprises this year, however. While it did give a heads-up on plans to roll out the Atlas Sport Cross Concept it managed to keep pretty much everyone in the dark about a second introduction at the 2018 New York International Auto Show: the Atlas Tanoak Concept.

While that’s just a show car for now, the big question is whether it signals the automaker’s intent on getting back into the truck game for the first time in decades. If so, it would become only the second modern pickup to be based on a crossover, rather than a traditional, truck-based platform.

“Tanoak draws from the heritage of American pickup trucks while being more of a lifestyle vehicle,” said Hinrich Woebcken, president of VW of North America. “It’s huge.”

VW officials claim the Tanoak is purely a concept, but a company with no pickup truck, that's subject to change.

In this case, as the name implies, that means the same architecture as the three-row Atlas SUV Volkswagen launched barely a year ago – and the two row Sport Cross Concept debuting in New York that will return in production form in 2019, part of what Volkswagen Group of America CEO Hinrich Woebcken refers to as the new “Atlas family.”

(VW poised to launch a pickup truck, possibly in NYC. To get details, Click Here.)

A handful of gearheads might now be piping up, “Wait, Volkswagen does build a pickup already,” and it’s true, it did launch a model in some overseas market, dubbed the Amarok, through its Commercial Vehicles unit back in 2010. And, back in the 1980s it had an El Camino-like model, based on the original VW Rabbit, on sale in the U.S. But that pint-sized, underpowered model didn’t last long and few cared as it slipped into oblivion.

At first glance, The VW Tanoak appears to be far more suited to the American market than either of those pickups. At 214.1 inches, nose-to-tail, it’s about four inches longer than another car-based pickup, the Honda Ridgeline. And it’s actually about the same length as the shortest versions of both the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado. The VW pickup also boasts ground clearance of 10 inches.

That’s about two inches taller than the Atlas, incidentally. Tanoak is also 15.8 inches longer than the three-row SUV overall, with its 128.3-inch wheelbase adding another 11 inches. The pickup concept is 79.9 inches wide, and 72.6 inches tall.

Those numbers speak to the flexibility of Volkswagen’s modular MQB platform. It might seem hard to believe, once you see the Tanoak, but it shares the same underlying architecture as such VW classics as the Golf and Jetta, never mind the bigger Passat.

As for its powertrain, there’s a classic gas engine, rather than the hybrid and all-electric drivetrains that VW has been touting for all of its other recent concepts and production models. In this case, that means 3.6-liter V-6 making 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque. That’s paired with an eight-speed automatic that sends power out to all four wheels with a version of the VW 4Motion AWD system using Active Control. That lets a driver shift between a variety of different on- and off-road modes. VW, meanwhile, claims the Tanoak will launch from 0 to 6- in 8.5 seconds.

The Tanoak appears to be targeting the heart of the pickup market, with a dual-cab, short-bed configuration. And it seems to have learned a lesson it took Honda some time to figure out, opting for a solid and traditional, rather than exotic, design. If you want to appeal to truckers, stick with the classics.

(Click Here to see more about VW confirming plans for I.D. Crozz electric SUV.)

The question, of course, is whether VW really does want to get into the pickup game? Some might counter: why wouldn’t it. The full-size segment accounted for about one in eight new vehicles sold in the U.S. last year, and the vast bulk of the profits earned by Detroit’s Big Three. The Ford F-150, in particular, was not only the best-selling truck in the American market, but the top-selling vehicle, period, with volume coming to nearly double that of the leading SUV, the Toyota RAV-4.

And it would seemingly fit into the German automaker’s strategy, shown by the arrival of the Atlas which was very specifically designed with the American market as its top priority.

“We want to be a relevant player in the market, a full-line player,” Woebcken told on Tuesday evening, following a media backgrounder on the Atlas Sport Cross Concept.

The question, coming out of Wednesday’s debut of the Tanoak is whether it’s intended to be more than a mission statement and tease a product actually under development. Woebcken, for his part, would only say that, “A family starts with two,” refusing to confirm production plans for anything other than the Sport Cross, but he quickly added that the carmaker “always looks at growth potential and other opportunities.”

(To see how pickups are dominating U.S. vehicle sales, Click Here.)

For now, VW says the Tanoak is simply a concept, and Hyundai said the same about another model. When Hyundai looked at the overwhelmingly positive feedback for the Santa Cruz concept a few years back, we’re willing to bet VW will be spending a lot of time reading the tea leaves – and talking to potential buyers – to see if there’s a real growth opportunity for it in the U.S. pickup market.

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