Every now and then in this business, I come across a concept car that an automaker would be crazy not to build. After seeing it for myself at the Japan Mobility Show today, I'm convinced the Toyota EPU Concept fits that bill. If Toyota doesn't build this compact electric pickup truck, then it must not enjoy making money.
Now, Toyota won't say whether or not the EPU Concept is headed for production or not. "These two vehicles, please consider why they're on the same stage," said chief engineer Tsukasa Takahashi, also referring to the Land Cruiser Se electric concept situated nearby. But one of those vehicles looks a lot closer to production-ready than the other, and I have to wonder what that says about future plans.
I don't have to wonder whether the EPU Concept would be a success or not. Sized nearly identically to a Ford Maverick but powered by batteries, it would fit the needs of a lot of buyers who don't necessarily need a huge and expensive truck but occasionally like to tow and haul some things.
"It's not meant to compete against Tacoma," said Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota Motor Corporation's North American design studio, Calty Design Research, which produced the EPU Concept. "That's just a different customer. They're doing extreme outdoor activities, off-roading. So this is designed for more casual users."
Gallery: Toyota EPU Concept
He said the EPU Concept was designed for people who love outdoor hobbies, but may live in a city or have a small house where a big truck isn't the best option. And the EV platform brings some distinct advantages here, including as much cabin space as a Tacoma. Indeed, maximizing interior volume was a major theme of most Toyota and Lexus EV debuts at the Japan Mobility Show this year. At the same time, and unlike most trucks in America, the EPU Concept has a relatively short and sloping nose that should make it easy to maneuver and park.
"It has enough capability," Hunter said. "We didn't want it to be a toy."
Much of that capability comes from the bed, which has a trick pass-through system like the old Chevy Avalanche and Subaru XT. Takahashi showed me how it works: you fold the rear seats and then a gate opens up to allow access to the bed, perfect for hauling 4x4s or long objects. An underrated feature in trucks, I've always thought.
Hunter added that the EPU Concept normally has a four-and-a-half-foot bed, but that turns into a six-foot bed with the midgate down – and it even becomes an eight-foot bed with the tailgate folded down.
Moreover, the EPU Concept uses a monocoque chassis, not a body-on-frame one like most pickup trucks. That again puts it in line with the Maverick, Hyundai Santa Cruz and even larger Honda Ridgeline, all of which are capable machines in their own right. "You don't have the bed-to-cab separation here," Hunter said. "And you can do a midgate. So it's just more adaptable in that regard."
So will Toyota actually build the EPU Concept as part of its newfound EV push? That seems to depend, company reps told me, on the reaction to this one. Other concepts from Toyota and Lexus were locked in for production; this one, not so much. But there's clearly room in the market for a smaller, hopefully more affordable EV truck – a baby Rivian, if you will. It's hard to see this not being a success for Toyota.
"There a lot of people out there who want to embrace a more sustainable future and this fits with their values," Hunter said. "And you don't have to sacrifice anything. It's got great capability. It's an active truck. I mean, all our trucks and SUVs are designed for an active lifestyle." This, he added, would be no different.