One of the most enduring formats in automotive history has been the coupé utility, or, as the Australians call it, the ‘ute’. Although its target market segment is admittedly razor-thin it remains enormously popular with collectors and as a platform for customising.
The end of the line for the production ute occurred last year in Australia, while American versions were retired in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Still, ute concepts periodically pop up at car shows, where they enjoy a great deal of attention from public and press alike.
One of the more interesting was introduced by Toyota at the 2008 NAIAS in Detroit. Like many a ute concept before, the A-BAT was meant to provide car-like comfort and truck-like utility when needed.
The name A-BAT, which seemed to evoke a vehicle from the Batman movie franchise, was actually a more benign acronym for ‘Advanced – Breakthrough Aerodynamic Truck’.
The A-BAT was intended for suburban and ex-urban dwellers with significant commutes, as well as a desire to have a utility vehicle for weekend projects and the occasional off-road trip.
“Driving from beyond the suburbs to the city is a way of life for many people,” said Kevin Hunter, president, Calty Design Research, Inc. “We’ve taken Toyota’s truck heritage to a different level by envisioning a vehicle capable of manoeuvring in the suburbs as well as on dirt roads. This compact truck is as comfortable for long commutes as it is for road trips. It can accommodate outdoor toys and home improvement supplies. Plus, customers benefit from the hybrid powertrain’s low emissions and fuel economy.”
The A-BAT was of unibody construction, not a body-on-frame solution like a traditional truck, which allowed for a smoother car-like ride and easy adaption of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive.
The A-BAT’s conceptual place in Toyota’s lineup was just beneath the Toyota Tacoma midsize truck, making it a hypothetical compact suburban hauler with very little competition. It was approximately the size of Toyota’s RAV-4, the platform of which it probably would have adopted.
As originally envisioned by Ian Cartabiano and the Toyota design team, led by Creative Designer Matt Sperling, the A-BAT was an extreme cab-forward vehicle with the windscreen integrated into the front mask, somewhat reminiscent of the Toyota Previa MPV.
But a more truck-like hood and front emerged as the design process .A more brawny form was also adopted, with trapezoidal forms that were seen on the Prius.
“We studied the ‘trapezoid’ silhouette from the side profile of the Toyota Prius and applied it to create an entirely new truck image,” said Sperling, also noting that the the trapezoidal profile was further enhanced by pushing the cab forward, and using sleekly angled A- and C-pillars. Like the Prius, the A-BAT featured shortened overhangs, and a bold front windscreen.
As the name suggests, the A-BAT was meant to be more aerodynamic than the average truck, but with its bold nose and mask it seems that the overall gains were modest, especially compared to the Prius which was (and still is) a textbook example of aerodynamics applied to a compact car.
The interior contained seating for four with two buckets in front and a stowable bench seat in back (the seat part slid under the truck bed behind). The colorway was bright aluminum frames and butternut squash yellow (a creamy, slightly orange, yellow). The yellow was on the seats, doors, instrument panel and console. The seats and IP had exposed frames reminiscent of premium bicycles, which were assumed to be a part of the gear of the A-BAT’s target demographic.
The IP featured a dramatic angled panel with display screens for instrumentation and controls. On top of the panel were solar panels that would power the instruments. The steering wheel had a flat top and curved underside. The centre console had a removable AC/DC power pack.
As one might expect, the A-BAT contained very clever loading and hauling variations. The standard bed configuration was four feet (1220mm) long, With the ‘midgate’ folded down and the rear seat folded under, that length was increased to six feet (1830mm). And with the tailgate folded down, that length was increased again to eight feet (2440mm), long enough for a sheet of plywood or dimension lumber.
Also, the translucent rear roof panel slid forward to open up the bed for tall items, a feature that GM would incorporate on some SUVs a few years later.
The rear sides of the truck contained storage bins and adjustable tie-downs, and the tailgate contained a flashlight and a first aid kit. Beneath the bed was a sliding drawer, accessed from the tailgate.
The A-BAT was introduced as a pure concept then, given its popularity, was mentioned as a possible future offering in Toyota’s truck lineup. The concept had its critics though; some compared it unfavourably to the Honda Ridgeline and the ill-fated .
Also, with the hybrid drive, trapezoidal design cues and unibody construction it was easy to characterise the A-BAT as a Prius Pickup – a death sentence in many US markets outside California. Others noted that, like most utes, the market was just too small for such a specialised vehicle. In the end, the project was cancelled. No doubt the financial crisis that unfolded in late 2008 had some influence on the decision as well.
Hyundai unveiled a similar concept in 2015, the Santa Cruz, and it too has been rumoured to be destined for production, supposedly coming in 2020.
But in the past few years there has been no real need for truck concepts testing new or expanded markets; Trucks are doing very well, even displacing some luxury cars with their increasing comfort, power and, of course, utility.
As the A-BAT concept celebrates its tenth birthday this year, it would be interesting to see the concept reborn as an electric ute, perhaps in the original extreme cab-forward version. It would be an interesting alternative to the standard pickup model, and with electric power, would be powerful and very useful for life in the ’burbs, and beyond.