The Triton has become the latest four-door pickup to get dressed up with an array of cosmetic upgrades. Can it work in a highly competitive market?

As many Thais these days are using pickups like ordinary passenger cars, they sometimes want to be seen in something stylish rather than utilitarian.

Which is why practically all pickup makers are now offering dressed-up versions at the top of their respective model ranges.

And apart from satisfying mass-market buyers with money to spare, stylised pickups can help draw people into showrooms and allow them to settle for the more basic models instead should they find one million baht or so for a pickup outrageous.

Take a look at the Ford Ranger Wildtrak, for one. From what used to be a bottom-tier player is now in the top three rankings in terms of annual sales. Sure, the basic Ranger already looked good in its own right, but many of its fans have always aspired for the Wildtrak cosmetic upgrade.

      The gate spoiler is one bespoke feature outside.

Right after spotting the success of Ford’s pickup strategy (the just-launched Ranger Raptor has created another strata by being priced near 1.5 million baht), Chevrolet and Isuzu followed suit with the High Country and X-Series moniker for their Colorado and D-Max relatives. And just late last year, the Mitsubishi Triton Athlete and Toyota Hilux Revo Rocco have been introduced to join the fray.

That leaves Mazda as the only player to not find success with such an emotional pickup. The BT-50 was once available with the Eclipse cosmetic makeover, but sales ceased because it really didn’t sell in numbers required for it to exist on a sound business case.

Which is why we’re now putting attention on Mitsubishi’s latest effort to see whether it can cut the mustard in this lucrative corner of the pickup marketing game. The Athlete, company executives stress, is not a limited-edition model and will continue in showrooms as long as customers are demanding for it.

Although there are three body colours to choose from in the Athlete – white, grey and black – the cosmetic touch-ups are uniform including orange stickers and black moldings on the front grille, bumper and wheel arches. As well, the Athlete’s cargo bed has been fitted with gate spoiler, styling bar and bed liner. Mitsubishi has also consistently used orange hue to decorate the Athlete’s interior for the seats and stitching.

The end result is a more of street-racer feel just like in all of its Japanese compatriots, the now-defunct Eclipse included. That’s probably why the Athlete has no roof rails, a key feature the American brands use to emphasise a rugged, off-road feel in their respective pickups.

It’s probably all a matter of taste, but quick conversations with testers from the Thai media during the driving trials last week revealed that Mitsubishi could have done a little more on the Athlete’s exterior appearance. The 17-inch wheels shod with high-terrain tyres, as the primary example, look too small to really help fill the wheel arches and give the vehicle a balanced stance. Bigger alloys and all-terrain tyres may be of some remedy, although they could contradict the Athlete’s on-road appeal. 

And for buyers, rubbers measuring at least 17 inches in sizes already cost much when they need to be replaced, so anything bigger than that could distract rather than attract. But hey, when a pickup goes for one million baht, money can sometimes be of no object.

       The 17-inchers feel too small in diameter.

And the irony continues because Mitsubishi is making some noises about how capable the Athlete is off-road. As in the regular Triton (and the Pajero Sport SUV derivative), the 4×4 version of the Athlete boasts the so-called Super Select 4WD II transmission which has more driving modes than any other pickups available from rival brands.

The Athlete is also available in 4×2 format driving just the rear wheels. Conceptually speaking, the Athlete makeover may suit this particular Triton best because potential buyers are too unlikely to hit the jungle. Maybe an off-road package for the Athlete in 4×4 trim would have been nice, although it might still be early days for Mitsubishi to rationalise the costs in production between two potential outfits.

Visual aesthetics aside, can the Athlete prove to be any better than its intended opponents on the move? To cut to the chase, the Athlete is just like the regular Triton whereby it isn’t really that outstanding.

Perhaps the best thing the Athlete can boast about is performance. Mitsubishi only makes one diesel engine available for its pickup family which is no other than the 181hp 2.4-litre unit. It’s the 430Nm of torque on tap that beckons giving the Athlete plenty of usable and tractable power in practically all kinds of real-world driving conditions. Sure, the Wildtrak has a unique five-cylinder developing a class-leading 200hp, but it doesn’t necessarily outperform the Athlete in subjective terms.

But what could definitely be better in the Athlete is fuel economy. With a circa-11kpl average, the Athlete can’t be considered as frugal by class standards. This could probably be the result of the dated automatic transmission. While the Pajero Sport has already been granted eight forward gears, the Athlete (and the regular Triton) still comes with five – the lowest around.

       Number of off-road driving modes is unrivalled.

The driving characteristics in the Athlete are equally so-so. While a relaxed steering may have its merits during off-roading, it can feel vague on the black tarmac and imprecise when tackling corners. In terms of handling, the Wildtrak is still the one to beat. The same goes for the ride in which the Athlete joins Nissan’s version with a relatively stiff rear suspension. This should make the Rocco from Toyota the comfiest four-door double-cab to sit in because it has the same setup as in the stock Hilux Revo.

Speaking of the amount of doors, the Athlete isn’t available in single-cab form yet which might be a deterrent in sales because nearly all of its competition is serving two body styles for buyers to choose from. Although the manual gearbox version is attractive at 879,000 baht, the automatic variant going for 1.111 million baht in top spec form is competitive rather than eye-catching.

All said and done, the Athlete appears to be more appealing in the eyes of Triton fans rather than making a formidable job of converting those from other brands. 

Chunky steering wheel with paddle-shifters is nice to hold onto.

Athlete hugs to the road well but comes with a stiff rear suspension.


News Reporter

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