Detroit, be afraid, be very afraid, writes deputy editor Graeme Roberts. The V8-powered full-size Nissan Titan pickup truck has only just gone on sale in the US to give a Japanese transplant maker its first attack on a market segment that Detroit's Big Three once thought was their sacred preserve, and already Honda has waded in with the SUT Concept, unveiling at the Detroit show a smaller V6-powered pickup truck concept it will launch into production next year.

We better not even mention Toyota's full-size FTX pickup truck 'concept', also debuted at Detroit - with a petrol hybrid V8 powertrain no less. According to Toyota Motor Sales USA COO Jim Press, the model was "developed to make a bold statement about Toyota's future full-size pickup truck plans... and it's a statement we mean to back up."

There's no word yet on when Toyota, long a contender in the US market sub-full-size pickup business, will debut a 'properly-sized' Tundra (it currently offers a 'nine-tenths' version slightly smaller than the accepted full-size norm as well as the Tacoma line which is smaller again).

On the other hand, Honda has confirmed the all-new SUT Concept, based on its global light truck platform, will definitely be built as a production model in Alliston, Ontario. It's the latest in a potential avalanche of larger-sized Japanese-branded but US designed and built pickup trucks and SUVs aimed at giving Big Three executives sleepless nights (even Mitsubishi is now reportedly eyeing rebadging a Dodge truck).

The already profitable Nissan, Honda and Toyota are, of course, after more profit at the expensive of the red ink-drenched US Big Three. And trucks are profitable. According to the Detroit Free Press, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler sell more than 95% of the 2.2 million pickups purchased in the United States which gives them pricing power and enormous profits, estimated at $US10,000 per truck.

Honda, Toyota and Nissan in particular - Isuzu (which once built Rodeo-based SUVs for Honda in the US) and Mitsubishi are also in the game - have previously honed their skills developing vehicles for the ever-growing US recreational vehicle market on a variety of fine SUVs ranging in size from Honda's relatively small Element through Nissan's mid-size V6 Pathfinder to eight-seat, V8 powered Toyota- and Lexus-badged monsters.

But, until recently, Detroit's Big Three, which had responded to the increasing Japanese SUV threat with some well-received models of its own (e.g. Jeep Liberty/Cherokee; Ford Escape/Maverick), thought the full-size pickup and associated luxury SUV spin-off segments remained its own.

The Honda SUT Concept

But then came the Nissan Titan, whose size, V8 engine and luxury Pathfinder Armada SUV derivative directly target the likes of Ford's market-leading F-150 pickup and its fellow US rivals, the Chevrolet Silverado and Dodge Ram. Given that this is Japan's first attempt on a long-held domestic bastion, projected volumes should not worry Detroit for quite a while yet but it's not that many years ago that the idea of a Japanese car topping the US sales charts month after month, or a Japanese luxury brand unseating Mercedes or Cadillac, were just dreams, too.

Compared with the 845,586 F-150s Ford sold last year (not to mention Chevy's 684,302 Silverados and 449,371 Dodge Rams), the Japanese have modest initial goals for their new trucks.

The Detroit Free Press said this week that Honda plans to sell between 60,000 and 70,000 of its pickups while Toyota can produce 150,000 vehicles at its Texas plant - on top of about 90,000 it makes in Indiana. The paper added that Nissan has announced plans to build 100,000 Titan pickups annually at its Mississippi plant though many analysts expect that number to be doubled to 200,000.

US Honda dealers have long been calling for a decent sized pickup to both challenge their US and Japanese rivals and to keep Honda customers 'in the family'. American Honda executive vice president Dick Colliver this week told the Detroit Free Press: "We are not trying to compete against the domestics. We want to get back those who left Honda to buy a domestic pickup truck."

From 2005, his dealers will have one. With its smaller dimensions and just a petrol-powered V6 engine - Honda doesn't (yet) make a V8 - the full-size F-150 and Titan are safe for the moment but the new SUT Concept sure looks competitive with smaller trucks like those Toyota sells in the US.

Honda claims to have taken a clean-slate approach to the light-duty truck segment by combining a roomy and practical SUV-style interior and a pickup-style cargo bed with its traditional strengths including refined styling, superior ergonomics, innovative design and top build quality. Taking advantage of its unibody underpinnings, the SUT Concept is claimed to offer superior packaging efficiency, ride comfort and handling dynamics compared with traditional truck-based vehicles in the class.

"The pickup market is evolving to meet the changing tastes of a new generation of truck buyers," said American Honda Motor executive vice president Tom Elliott. "The SUT Concept takes this evolution to the next level with higher levels of refinement and sophistication in a sporty and socially responsible package with Honda durability, quality and reliability."

The Concept has a spacious cabin with seating for five adults and a five-foot long cargo bed with reduced intrusion of the real wheel arches for maximised load carrying capabilities.

Built around the image of an active young father, the SUT Concept is said to represent a fusion of this "cool dad's" family life stage and active life style - where everyday work life and family responsibilities are combined with weekend sports, hobbies and family activity in one highly practical, rugged and functional vehicle.

The SUT is also designed as the ultimate vehicle for bringing together Honda's diverse line of products, including motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles (ATV), personal watercraft, marine engines and power equipment. "This vehicle serves as the hub of Honda activity," said chief designer Dave Marek.

The styling theme for the SUT Concept was "billet machined aluminium" capturing the idea of a vehicle that has been machined from a single block of metal. The design also takes advantage of the unibody frame to deliver a claimed industry first fully integrated cab and bed (though just-auto thinks Ford, GM-Holden and Chrysler first achieved this decades ago in Australia with their locally-designed light-truck ['utility' or 'ute'] derivatives of unibody passenger cars).

The Nissan Titan

"People will recognise this as a new kind of truck," added Marek. "We wanted to express the unique character of Honda in a vehicle that we think will take all trucks into the next generation, stylistically."

Design details include a roof with a four-panel skylight; a cargo bed with integrated lights and speakers; seats featuring a roll bar appearance; storage bins made with climbing rope; and front door liners with integrated Mag-Lite flashlights.

Said to combine fun-to-drive performance with environmental responsibility, the concept vehicle is powered by a high performance, high torque, all-aluminium VTEC V6 engine coupled to an electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system for claimed outstanding all-weather handling performance and medium-duty towing and off-road capabilities, along with ultra-low emissions and class-leading fuel efficiency.

A wide track and sophisticated four-wheel fully independent suspension, are said to give the SUT Concept a new level of ride comfort and handling capability in the US light truck segment.

Safety features include side curtain airbags with rollover sensors, vehicle stability assist (VSA), front-side airbags with occupant position detection, four-wheel anti-lock brakes and pedestrian safety design.

Of course it remains to be seen how well the new Honda truck will do against established domestic and foreign brand rivals.

While the US Big Three's full-sizers are probably safe from attack for quite a while yet, ageing US smaller pickup lines are fair game. Leveraging affiliate Isuzu's expertise, GM has just launched a long-overdue all-new replacement for its aged Blazer 'small pickup' range but Ford is soldiering on with an ageing Ranger line long since due for complete redesign. Other US and Japanese rivals include Toyota's 'sub-full-size' Tacoma line, which the company updates rather more regularly than the US brands.

Rather than launch a 'me-too' small SUV that directly matched rivals on looks and features, a couple of years ago Honda scored an unexpected hit with the unique brick-shaped Element with its rear-hinged rear side doors, two-piece tailgate and funky, colourful walk-through, hose-down interior. That a new Honda in a new market segment for the brand would be a hit was perhaps no surprise; but the company did not expect the early-20s surfer and active lifestyle young male market it targeted with vigour to be less interested than 40-something family men and 'empty nester' retirees who now account for the bulk of purchases.

Given that history and the new light truck ideas that debuted with the SUT Concept, the Canadian-made production version has to have more than a good chance of making a strong impact in the sub-full size US truck market.

We'll know in a year or so.