Small trucks have never really found lasting success in the American market. It certainly hasn’t been from lack of trying – major automakers as diverse as Volkswagen, Toyota and even domestic players like Ford and Chevrolet have all tried their hand at selling U.S. drivers on the idea of a true compact pickup, no bigger than the average sedan but offering a modicum of cargo hauling and towing ability. Almost without exception, each of these efforts has failed.
Certainly, small to mid-size trucks have their champions, but looking at their sales numbers as a piece of the overall pickup truck market paints a dismal picture. According to Edmunds, between 2000 and 2009 sales of the seven leading trucks in this segment fell from 763,553 to 265,513 – an almost 66 percent drop. In fact, only one small truck managed to post six-digit sales figures in 2009 (the Toyota Tacoma). The previously mighty Ford Ranger, the only “true” compact pickup still on the market and an aging design due to be retired at the end of the current model year, has seen its own sales numbers plummet from an impressive 272,460 in 2001 down to a paltry 55,600 in 2009.
Why this sudden lack of interest on the part of the truck-buying public when it comes to compact pickups? In some ways, the industry has been a victim of its own success. With the exception of the Ranger, small trucks have grown in size over the past ten years, and full-size fuel efficiency has increased to the point where the mileage differential between most mid-size pickups and full-size models is negligible. Add this to similarly thin differences in pricing and the higher towing and hauling capacities of their larger cousins, and small trucks are frequently passed over by utility-minded buyers.
This brings us to the question of what the future holds for small trucks in the United States. At first glance, things might seem fairly dark. Plunging sales have caused companies like Ford, which essentially owns the full-size market, to pull the plug on the entire Ranger concept and not bother replacing the vehicle in America when it bows out for the final time at the end of this year. On the other hand, Toyota has explored a potential return to its mini-truck roots, teasing buyers with vehicles like the A-BAT concept in 2008 and then hinting in broad strokes that the compact unibody truck could find its way to the market as either a Scion model or even under the Prius brand within the next few years.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that American truck buyers would be interested in a small, unibody pickup truck. The reasons are several. “Tundra Headquarters” took a detailed look at why people buy pickups in the first place and found that in the overwhelming number of cases, towing and the need for rugged utility were the primary criteria for making a truck purchase. A compact pickup without a full frame would most likely see its towing capacity fall into the 1,500 lb range, a segment already occupied by crossover vehicles that offer more day-to-day practicality for the average driver. Similarly, such a small truck would also offer an equally diminutive cargo area and low hauling capacity, further knocking it down the list when pickup buyers start taking a hard look at vehicle specs.
The one area where a compact unibody pickup truck might offer an edge versus a more traditional truck is in the area of fuel mileage – in particular, if Toyota is able to shoehorn its Prius hybrid drivetrain into a platform that doesn’t sacrifice utility as a result. That being said, fuel prices have rarely caused buyers to move away from large trucks and start purchasing smaller ones – as evidenced by the gradual shrinking of the compact and mid-size pickup market over the course of the past ten years despite gasoline costs rising at a steady rate.
Ultimately, the deck appears to be stacked against unibody compact trucks making a comeback in the United States. Although Toyota may be able to create a niche for a Prius-flavored pickup, the general disinterest in the market shown by its major players, combined with the lack of true utility offered by smaller platforms and the ten-year death spiral of small truck sales would seem to indicate that like the full-size van craze of the 70s, the compact pickup ship has sailed.
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Photo: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.