Could Compact Pickup Trucks Have A Future In America? We Make The Case

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There are no longer any compact pickups in the U.S. market. The new 2019 Ford Ranger and its peers are all larger mid-sized trucks. Could automakers be missing a golden opportunity?

Americans like trucks. They buy them in great numbers for use in businesses and as personal and family vehicles. Toyota is one of the few manufacturers who has consistently offered a smaller than full-size truck over the past decades.

However, even Toyota’s top-selling midsize truck, the Tacoma, is significantly larger than the entry-level small trucks of the past. It’s also much more expensive.  The 1990 Toyota pickup (it didn’t have a model name) had an MSRP of $7,998. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $16K today. A new 2018 Tacoma starts at $25,400. Mitsubishi was selling its Mighty Max pickup for about $500 less than Toyota’s pickup, but dealers were offering bare-bones Mighty Max Pickups for around $7,000.

The inflation adjusted price doesn’t tell the whole story, of course. In 1990, some bare bones trucks were so stripped you needed to buy your own rear bumper. A 2018 Tacoma comes with power windows, power steering, power locks, air conditioning, a decent radio with Bluetooth connectivity and a four-way adjustable power seat with lumbar support as standard equipment. So when you adjust for inflation, a similarly equipped truck from the 1990s is pretty close to what you’d pay for a 2018 edition. But at the end of the day, $25,000 is still a lot of money to finance.

Small pickups have many of the same advantages of large pickups. During the time of their sale, landscapers, construction companies and other businesses, large and small, used them as runabouts, parts and supplies chasers, and to get workers to job sites throughout the day. These small trucks had advantages small cars didn’t. You can’t load mulch or grass clippings into the back of a small car, but small pickups could handle that with ease. They were also great for moving items like refrigerators and other large bulky items.

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Full-sized pickups are growing ever larger. Chevrolet’s latest press release on its Silverado proudly proclaims that it has the largest cargo bed in the industry. While this is certainly important to many buyers, GM’s smaller midsize Colorado and Canyon trucks’ sales have been limited only by manufacturing capacity. Toyota’s smallest truck, the Tacoma, is also selling at full capacity. A capacity that Toyota increased by 50% over the past three years.

With Ford and other “domestic” brands struggling to find a way to cost-effectively produce entry-level vehicles, compact trucks may be one way to continue to offer domestically-produced affordable entry vehicles. Unlike small imported cars, small imported trucks are protected by a 55-year old 25% import duty imposed by President Johnson.

We reached out to one small pickup truck owner to get his input on who drives the few remaining models still available on the used market. Bill Griffith is our colleague, writer, mentor, and a New England Motor Press officer. Bill told us, “I’d always wanted a small pickup. I traded my ’97 Camry sedan for a ’08 Tacoma. The Tacoma was a beautiful truck but just a tad too big to comfortably park in our yard. I set out to find a good used Ranger, Sonoma, or S-10. Funny, but these trucks seem to be an ‘old guy’s’ vehicle. Driving through rural New England—New Hampshire, Western Massachusetts, parts of Connecticut—I’d see one of those 3 small trucks (not for sale) seemingly in every other driveway.”

Bill continued to look for a smaller truck and found one in Subaru’s Baja. The Baja is a unit-body constructed small pickup that shares much of its workings with the Outback. Bill told us how he uses his Baja, saying, “For me, a small pickup solves the problem of lugging yard debris (weeds, leaves, branches, old plants) to the compost dump and carrying the occasional odd item. In the fall, the Baja, with bed extender, can take 9 or 10 fully stuffed leaf bags. I’ve got to make a half-dozen trips like that each year. Another example: I bought one of the heavy (40 pounds?) Adirondack chairs for my wife as a birthday present. With the Baja, I was able to bring it home assembled from Goffstown, NH, using a few Bungee cords and the tie down hooks in the standard all-weather bed.”

This story would all be just conjecture, except that Ford recently let it be known to Automobile magazine that the company is considering a small pickup for the U.S. possibly based on the Focus platform. Ford’s egregious mistake in pulling the Ranger from the U.S. market will be corrected later this year when Ford begins building the new Ranger. Ford has been losing out on literally hundreds of thousands of annual unit sales of smaller than full-size trucks to Toyota, GM, and Nissan. GM has even passed Ford in overall pickup sales.

The new Ranger will almost certainly be a huge hit for Ford. However, the new Ranger is much larger than the old Ranger which has legions of adoring fans and owners. The old Ranger had a length as short as 184 inches. The new Ranger will have a length of about 213 inches (based on the current Ranger now for sale in other markets). In addition to being about two feet longer than the older more compact truck, the new Ranger will be about a half-foot wider. Ford has plenty of room to build a smaller than Ranger pickup and to attack the entry-level market – which is currently wide open.

As great as compact trucks are for “old guys,” they also can work great for young people. For instance, in this ad from the Spokane Chronicle in 1990, a Toyota pickup was about $600 — or about four bucks a month in a typical loan — more than a Toyota Tercel.

But with its pickup bed, it was a whole lot more useful in schlepping your roommate’s futon to your next apartment, hauling mowers for a weekend job or dragging junk to the dump than the Tercel ever would be.

There’s certainly room in the market for a less expensive, smaller, less-equipped truck. The question is, do companies that thrive on high-profit pickups care?

John Goreham

John Goreham

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