Why do the Japan-based importers continue trying to sell low cab-over-engine trucks when North America is conventional-cab territory? The short answer is that LCOEs are what they have to sell.
The Mitsubishi Fuso Canter is one of several low-COE trucks coming to North America. (Photo by Tom Berg)
The Mitsubishi Fuso Canter is one of several low-COE trucks coming to North America. (Photo by Tom Berg)

The longer answer, gotten in interviews of executives during the NTEA's Work Truck Show in Indianapolis and with others previously, is that Mitsubishi Fuso, Isuzu, and UD have carefully looked at designing and producing conventionals for this market. But they've concluded that potential sales are much too small to justify the expense.

How come it works for Hino? It forsook its low cabovers a decade ago when it introduced a complete line of conventionals. It did well with some of them. Sales went up substantially, and Hino continues to assemble the trucks in the U.S., first in a Toyota-owned plant in southern California and now in a dedicated facility in West Virginia.

But that's for heavier Class 6 and 7 models. Missteps by entrenched domestic competitors in those segments left an opening for Hino, which jumped in with feature-rich and reliable products. However, Hino recently dropped its lighter-duty models. The given reason was that the four-cylinder diesel used in the lighter trucks couldn't meet 2010 emissions limits, but the actual reason is that they sold poorly against domestic trucks.

Hino is bringing back its Class 3-5 Japan-made low COEs to resume competing in those classes. New models, shown at the Work Truck Show, should do well among buyers who favor the cabover. So should new Canter models from Fuso, also unveiled at the WTS, and recently revised LCOEs from Isuzu and UD. Executives of these companies and their dealers are genuinely excited about these products.

All of these builders say they have analyzed the pros and cons of fielding conventionals here, and all reached the same conclusion: While North America is a big market for trucks, established domestic competitors do too good a job with their light- and light-medium models to allow major inroads by the Japanese. Their potential sales would be too small to make major investments worthwhile.

Besides, the Japanese successfully sell their LCOEs almost everywhere else in the world. Producing a few more for the U.S., Canada andMexico makes good sense. And as population continues to grow in the United States, by far the biggest country, congestion in urban areas will get worse. That's where the compactness, maneuverability and easy maintenance of LCOEs gives them a big advantage, and the Japanese are hoping that their sales will rise along with population.

Will LCOE sales increase dramatically? Probably not. For various reasons, most buyers and drivers still prefer North American conventionals. But the Japanese and their American sales and service organizations, which are very lean in structure and staffing, can make some decent money by selling what they have. And that's what they'll continue to do.