April 2014 S M T W T F S « Oct 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
Chrysler–or rather Chrysler’s truck line RAM–has ended production of its mid-sized Dakota.
Ford has ended production–at least in the U.S.–of its mid-sized Ranger.
Other brands are seeing a reduction in sales of their mid-sized models; General Motors’ Canyon/Colorado, Nissan’s Frontier and even Toyota’s Tacoma–though the Japanese brands are absorbing sales that once went to RAM and Ford. The big question is why?
Both Ford and RAM suffered reduction in sales of their mid-sized models primarily because buyers saw little difference between the mid-sized trucks and their full-sized cousins for the price. Ford specifically complained that the Ranger had become too close to the size of the F-150 while its price was little lower–forcing direct competition between two too-similar trucks. While RAM didn’t state as much, this problem most certainly was identical. If you look at GM’s offerings, separately they see relatively low sales compared to the full-sized trucks and even combined don’t come close to the total numbers of either brand–GMC or Chevrolet–full-sized truck.
If you go back to the origins of these mid-sized models, they were the offspring of much more compact models. Ford’s original Ranger in the U.S., built by and in partnership with Mazda, stood little over 5’ tall for the 2WD model and maybe 5’ wide, allowing you to carry a full sheet of plywood or wallboard between the bed walls, albeit with the tailgate down. Minor ingenious shapes stamped into the bed sides and wheel wells made it easy to rig boards or other devices to let those panels lie flat and usually included simple yet logical tie-downs to secure the load. Dodge had the Mitsubishi-built D-50 and GM had the Isuzu-built Luv. Japan offered at least 4 different models; Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and Isuzu of which only Nissan/Datsun didn’t have an Americanized version. As that market matured and the gas crunch that triggered their import in the first place died away, the American Big Three decided to build all-American compacts that were a little larger than the Japanese-built trucks yet still visibly smaller than their full-sized trucks.
Of course, Americans being Americans, buyers flocked to the American-designed trucks. During the subsequent years, those now mid-sized trucks took the market away from the Japanese imports to the point that the Big Three dropped their compact models. Mitsubishi chose to stop importing their compact truck entirely, choosing instead to keep their truck compact where it was more efficient in the heavy traffic and tight streets of Japan. Isuzu, too, chose to end import as the brand itself had too little foothold in the country to support the model. Mazda stayed tied to Ford, but chose to simply share technologies and assembly plants for years as the B-series trucks grew with the Ranger. Nissan chose to compete size for size–dropping the older Hardbody model, a decision that Toyota made as well. Interestingly, however, that compact Toyota is still very popular across Asia even though it has grown somewhat from its origins. Still, the point is that all of these were notably smaller and less expensive than the American full-sized trucks and held their own in the market.
The problem is that rather than settling on that smaller size, GM, Ford and Chrysler kept growing their mid-sized trucks in a mistaken belief that people wanted ever-bigger size and horsepower (well, bigger engines always did sell better with Americans) and started to ignore the economy–the gas mileage ratings–that the smaller bodies offered. Americans had become used to paying almost three times as much for gasoline and didn’t complain as much about poor gas mileage. That is, until the mid-2000s when gas prices surged to double the previous average and then rose at one point to nearly $5/gallon in some areas. Economy suddenly became important again. Unfortunately, not one manufacturer had a truck that could offer decent economy and for a while sales of full-sized trucks fell drastically–along with nearly every other full-sized vehicle they carried. Of course, the market being the market and politics as they are, that precipitous rise peaked and settled down again and once prices fell below a certain point, large-vehicle sales began to rise again. Those mid-sized trucks which had seen a momentary boost due to their slightly-better fuel economy ratings slipped back to secondary status and saw one more generation growing just that little bit larger.
Now that those mid-sized trucks have become too close to the full-sized size and price, their market is dying. American fuel prices will continue to rise in fits and starts, but by each plateau rising only a little at a time compared to the huge jumps we previously experienced, I personally don’t expect to see a resurgence of the compact truck. On the other hand, economy regulations may force a paradigm shift in manufacturer plans which in turn could encourage the return of a smaller, significantly more efficient truck at least for the consumer, if not for the professional. Ford has introduced a more compact van that offers the same cubic capacity as their old Econoline with a smaller engine and aerodynamic shape that offers higher gas mileage. Chrysler now offers a cargo-van version of the Town and Country minivan which again offers good capacity yet better gas mileage than its full-sized predecessor. Even the Japanese companies are looking at more compact and efficient models for use as utility vans. Strangely, some of these concepts are at least being considered as a replacement for the pickup with a “tray” platform not too different from the old stake-side trucks that used to be built on pickup truck frames.
What will we see in the future? Personally, I don’t know. What I would like to see is a return of the compact pickup; I, for one, have no need for a full-sized truck even though I now own one. I would like to see a return of the car-bodied trucks like the El Camino and Ranchero. And before you complain about their size, remember that for a few years the Ford Ranchero was based on the American Ford Falcon–not the larger Fairlane and later Gran Torino platform. Sure, maybe such smaller trucks might be classed as a “lifestyle” truck today, but there are people who want them and the auto companies are ignoring them.
I don’t deny there is some need for the larger, so-called “Heavy Duty” pickups now used to tow loads less than trailer sized for the big rigs and they certainly offer better gas mileage than those big rigs even when towing lighter loads than those HDs, but the average pickup driver simply doesn’t need a truck so tall that you can’t park it in an underground garage or so long you can’t park it in the average two-car garage at home. In fact, some communities have gone so far as to ban parking full-sized trucks where they can be visible from the street or even by a neighbor. Pickup trucks have simply grown too large.