Why America’s Mid-Sized Pickup Trucks are Dying

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.

18 Responses to Why America’s Mid-Sized Pickup Trucks are Dying

  1. TacomaHQ says:

    The growth in the size and weight of the average “compact” truck is shocking, as is the growth in weight and size of the average half-ton. All of these trucks have gotten much bigger than the models of the 70’s and early 80’s.

    Just as you say, with all of this growth, the difference in fuel economy between a “compact” and a full-size was negligible, yet the difference in capability was dramatic.

    What’s more, the manufacturing costs of a high-volume half-ton truck are no more than the manufacturing costs of a small volume “compact”, so it’s harder to make a profit on the smaller trucks (i.e. the Ranger, which costs almost as much to build as an F150, yet sells for less).

    As for the future, I think we’ll see unibody pickups similar to what Ford and others sell around the world. Supposedly, Scion is bringing this type of truck to market in the next year or so…

  2. David says:

    I hate to admit it, but the CAFE rules are why the trucks are getting so big–the rules set the fuel economy standards so that the bigger the vehicle is by “shadow” (footprint on the ground by square feet) the more lenient the ratings. Had they used a more practical standard such as vehicle empty weight I think they would have developed much more practical trucks.

  3. TacomaHQ says:

    Agreed – the footprint rule is wacky.

    Of course, if the CAFE rules would have been more logical, they would have hurt Ford, GM, and Chrysler-Fiat quite a bit, as much of their profit comes from truck sales.

    Therefore, we end up with the wacky footprint for the future and wheelbase rules before that.

  4. David says:

    Still hoping to see a Jeep-branded pickup that I could use to replace my recently-purchased 1990 Road Whale by Ford and then maybe replace my ’08 Wrangler Unlimited with a Fiat 500 or maybe an Alfa Romeo or maybe even a Maserati. (Would love to go Ferrari, but they’re just too expensive.)

  5. TacomaHQ says:

    LOL – Jeep pickup would definitely be cool, but second to a new Ferrari. Either way.

    BTW, I hear the Jeep pickup is coming in 2014 but might be a China-only model.

  6. David says:

    There’ve been rumors of one for a couple years now and Jeep’s “Skunkworks” has been playing with a couple different models while already giving us a conversion kit.

    I don’t credit any rumor of a China-only model Jeep pickup–there’s too much US demand for one and I’m pretty sure European and African demand would make it a worthy product since the “J-8” Wrangler-based pickup (on leaf springs) is already over there. It’s just a matter of adding the model to US plants and tooling the box.

  7. sandman says:

    Is it me, or does anyone else out there remember that Jeep already had a uni-body pick-up truck, with a small diesel to boot! I have an aquantance with one and he regulary gets over 20mpg! in the city and it has 4wd! can carry 1400lbs and tow 4500! and this truck was made in the early to late 90’s, does anyone remember the Pioneer? it was a Jeep Jeerokee

  8. Robert Ryan says:

    Jeep has a problem as a “Pickup” Globally and that is competing with the Japanese who dominate the Global Pickup Market.It’s niche and a growing one is the diesel SUV. Here Jeep can excel.

  9. David says:

    While I don’t remember the model name, I do well remember the mid-sized truck with the Cherokee front end. It competed in a number of road races during the ’90s against all the other similar-sized trucks from Toyota, Nissan, Ford and Chevy. It also happened to be the one I rooted for the most, too. I will admit I didn’t know they had a diesel in it, but then, that was before Daimler Benz got involved with Chrysler and American Motors’ “Eagle” brand was still supported by Chrysler. I really did like the idea of an all-4WD/AWD brand but never bought one because, at the time, I couldn’t afford to buy new cars; I was only making $4/hour.

    While I won’t argue your point, I might want to point out that Egypt and a couple other desert nations are using Jeep J-8 pickups (Wrangler based with leaf-spring rear suspension) and have been for a few years now. Quite honestly, that’s why I’m surprised Marchionne hasn’t gone ahead and let the rig be produced for the US market. My only guess at this time is that American safety regulations (along with pollution regulations) are preventing Chrysler from doing something so simple and there may be some interplay about using what is essentially a Daimler platform for an all-new Jeep model. I’m sure that aside from the engine change we’ll see changes in the rest of the running gear soon to wean the Wrangler off the rest of Mercedes’ hardware.

  10. David says:

    Oh, and Lou the Troll, you might as well forget about spamming me with your GGR noise. I am the administrator of my site and I do have the ability to ban trolls of the sort I complain about on pickuptrucks.com.

    Consider yourselves warned.

  11. Robert Ryan says:

    David a “Pickup” Wrangler maybe viable as a niche product in NA. Globally that is not the case. The larger SUV’s the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee(throw in the Patriot) are the breadwinners for Chrysler outside NA.
    Marchionne is looking to maximize his product range globally. Chrysler does not have the brand image or products to satisfy this growing market, Jeep SUV’s do.

  12. Robert Ryan says:

    This is the current Egyptian Jeep Site it is the same as ours.

    Another Middle Eastern site, the Saudi one.

  13. David says:

    Ok, obviously I can’t argue what you’re saying on a consumer level, but just within the last two years I have read about and seen photos of a military version active–I thought–in Egypt in JP magazine. I no longer have that copy of the magazine but I can try to look it up. When I Bing (Google) Jeep J8 there are links to photos of supposedly active-duty models.

    By the way, thanks for those middle-eastern Jeep sites. The one purely in Arabic looks better to me; but then I prefer a more catalog view as the starting page of a site… even mine.

  14. Robert Ryan says:

    DWFields I would like to write about the current Article on Pickup.com about the Ford Ranger unfortunately the site has been hacked and I have not been able to post anything. Big Al from Oz is also experiencing problems.

  15. Robert Ryan says:

    on Pickup.com Facebook page they have a review done by Jalopnik on a New Mahindra Pickup. Although pretty crude by our standards it had a fairly praisworthy writeup from a US Reviwer.

  16. David says:

    @Robert Ryan: I read that review myself (linked through Facebook) and greatly appreciated his article. I will grant that US regulations require safety equipment the Indian model doesn’t have (or maybe it does?) but at that size and load capacity, it should still make an effective consumer truck at thousands of dollars less expensive than the American full-sized equivalents.

    As for the hacked website: well, there are common-sense ways to reduce that risk which make them much harder to hack. I get almost daily notices of any one of my own sites getting attacked–unsuccessfully. Not saying they can’t be hacked, only that I didn’t make it easy for them. A good password is only the first of several protection methods. You should be able to contact your hosting provider to regain control of your sites and if that doesn’t work, simply create a new site through a different host and stop payment to the existing host and let the account lapse. Eventually that site would get shut down and you should be able to reclaim the domain.

  17. Big Al from Oz says:

    Stop the spamming!!!

  18. David says:

    Can you explain this request?

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