Avoidable Contact #99: If loving the Maverick is wrong, I don’t want to be right

Maverick Truck Club

Here’s an ancient tribal parable I just stole and/or made up: A grizzled old mountain biker was sitting at a trailhead with a teenaged hotshot. This seemed like a good time for a lecture, so our venerable cyclist decided to give one.

“Within me,” he said to the young rider, “are two car-buying wolves. One car-buying wolf wants a low-slung sports car, with serious aerodynamic attachments and a lot of tire contact patch and enough motor to spin the wheels from the exit of one corner to the beginning of the next one. The other car-buying wolf wants to be able to carry his bikes, his gear, and his tools across the country without constructing some Rube Goldberg mechanism outside the car or permanently staining every carpeted surface of the interior with Ebola-infected river mud. Only one of those wolves can win. They fight within me … and they also fight within you.

“Which wolf will win?” the kid asked, a quiver in his voice.

“The wolf,” the old man replied, “with the higher FICO score.” The irony here, of course, is that the logical end of the road for both wolves is the same. The sports-car-loving wolf, if he has enough starch in his pants, will eventually become a club racer, at which point he will want a proper full-sized pickup truck to pull his race car. The adventure-sports wolf, whether he rides a mountain bike or paddles a kayak or just likes to hunt the backcountry, will also eventually want a full-sized pickup truck just because it’s almost always easier just to throw things in the bed of a truck.

Most young people aren’t charmed by today’s Iowa-class domestic fullsizers, however, and I can’t blame them. The prices are sky-high and it’s a hassle to park them on campus or on the street. Nor is there much romance in the modern truck, largely because romance requires an obstacle of sorts (cf. Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe, Quavo and Saweetie) and today’s trucks are just so globally competent at what they do. Somehow it’s easier to love a vehicle for its faults than for its virtues.

Therefore, it’s reasonable for our twin-wolf-hearted buyers to look for a different solution to their sports-car/sports-with-car conundrum. In my youth, I noticed that a lot of my friends solved the problem by having two cheap-ish cars: a four-cylinder sporting car and a four-cylinder compact truck. My pal Sidney was typical; he had an Acura Integra and a Toyota Xtracab. As I recall, he bought the car new and the truck used, but it also might have been the other way ’round. Twenty-five years later, Sidney has a Lexus GX460 SUV and a sports-package GS350 sedan, basically the same package of virtues only for a middle-aged millionaire instead of a twenty-something hunter/motorcyclist.

Alas, it’s no longer quite as easy for young people to own two cars as it used to be. Some of that is macroeconomic—lower wages, higher rents, everything costs more in 2021 except flatscreen TVs, you know the drill—and some of it has to do with rising transaction prices across the automotive market. In 1989, you could have bought a new Integra and a decently two-wheel-drive Toyota truck for about twenty-four grand together. That’s $49,800 in today’s money. I don’t see any way to assemble a similar pair of vehicles for under sixty-something thousand dollars now.

It doesn’t help that used cars retain far more value nowadays, a product of many factors ranging from the good (we now expect an effective 150K–200K lifetime out of a car, rather than the 75K–100K of thirty years ago) to the bad (very few young people can earn a living wage right out of school now). Oh, and it’s also more expensive for young drivers to insure, fuel, and maintain their cars now. Put all of these factors together, and it’s no wonder that many twentysomethings end up setting for a compact SUV that doesn’t do anything particularly well.

You’d think that the auto manufacturers would be falling all over themselves trying to obtain the goodwill of these young buyers, but most of them are letting their ideological addiction to electric vehicles take precedent over any goal as mundane as selling a car to someone who has forty years of new-car buying ahead of them. Ford is the happy exception. Their new Bronco is the most exciting affordable(ish) vehicle to hit the market in a very long time. It has all the right moves, and the rightest of those moves is that the cheapest variant (two-door, stick shift, steel wheels) is going to be the one that attracts the most envy out on the boulevard. The Bronco has just one problem: Ford won’t be able to make enough of them fast enough. The rampaging reception given the mere idea of an affordable, enthusiast-focused vehicle for $32,000 or so is in and of itself a damming indictment of an auto industry that just plain forgot about real young buyers some time around 2005 or thereabouts.

The Bronco Sport is not nearly as cool as the Bronco, and you can argue that releasing it into showrooms a full eight months before the actual Bronco was probably a stupid idea from a brand-strength perspective, but if you look at it on its own merits it’s actually a hell of an idea. For $29,000 you get something that looks kind of like an old Land Rover Discovery but works just as well as the Ford Escape on which it is based. More importantly, choosing the Bronco Sport over the Escape sends the message that you actually give a damn about what you’re driving, the same way that choosing a CRX over a four-door Civic sent that message in 1995 … or choosing a Mustang over a Falcon sent that message in 1965.

Happily, Ford has an even better idea coming down the pike in the next few months. It’s called the Maverick and it appears to be a cost-optimized version of the Bronco Sport with a four-door cab and a five-foot pickup bed in place of the Bronco Sport’s cargo area. The rumor is that it will be priced in the low twenties, which would be nice. Taking a $5000 discount from the Bronco Sport puts the no-frills model at $21,900 and the popular-equipment variant at $23,800. How will they save five grand? It’s always slightly cheaper to make a pickup than it is to make an enclosed, carpeted, and insulated SUV. It’s also highly likely that the base Maverick would be FWD, while all the Bronco Sports are 4×4.

As a working truck, the Maverick probably won’t impress; the bed isn’t very big, the three-cylinder engine would be unhappy hauling or towing much of a load, and the track record of unibody FWD pickups in commercial service has never been stellar. Who cares? If you want to buy a truck for your local body shop, Ford can sell you a vinyl-seated Ranger for a little more money that will last a long time under those conditions. The Maverick is more of a spiritual successor to the VW and Chrysler pickups that worked so well for entry-level buyers four decades ago. Alternately, it’s a new-age Subaru Baja with a pickup bed that will actually carry five mountain bikes or a Husky 350.

The list of people who could use a truck like this stretches out to the horizon and includes everyone from retired Boomers (who could pair this Maverick with, say, a Corvette to have the ultimate trackday/Home Depot combination) to all the upper-middle-class kids who have decided to skip Zoom University in favor of a few years spent hiking and camping across the country. My own personal circle of friends and acquaintances includes a lot of twenty-somethings who are trying to balance parenthood (even if it’s “dog parenthood”) with a weekend action-sports life using something like a Subaru Crosstrek; this Maverick would serve their purposes much better, and at a lower cost.

If Ford is smart, they will make it as simple, basic, and cheap as possible. And if they do that, I can’t see how it won’t be a runaway success, just like the Bronco and Bronco Sport. A $22,000 small pickup is as much of a “segment buster” as the original minivan. Maybe more so. Sure, it’s an old idea. Yes, it’s been done before. Doesn’t matter.

As they say on TV—but wait, there’s more! It cannot have cost all that much to engineer the Maverick out of the Bronco Sport, which means that its inevitable success should lead to a few copycats even in today’s electric-obsessed industry. General Motors could spin up an Equinox-based competitor in reasonable time. The rural dealerships could sell ’em. Oh, and there’s Honda, which has made a practice of unibody pickups with the Accord/Odyssey-based Ridgeline. Why not a CR-V based truck? Better yet, what about using the even smaller HR-V as the platform and delivering a compact Honda truck for $19,999? What else are you going to buy at that price? A 2013 Chevy Colorado?

Here’s an ancient parable I just made up: There are two wolves fighting within every automaker. One wolf wants to make nothing but electric toys for a wafer-thin slice of American society best described as “people who do nothing but blog from Starbucks every day.” The other wolf wants to build stuff like the Maverick: simple, practical vehicles that deliver real value to a broad group of consumers.

Which wolf will win? The one we feed. So I’d encourage you to take a look at the Maverick when it shows up. I’ll take a look at it as well. Even if it’s not right for you, maybe you can spread the word to your friends. You know, the ones who are hanging 38-pound downhill mountain bikes off the back of a Subaru wagon, or the ones who are loading their 450cc motorcycles into F-150s that are old enough to vote and about as safe in a crash as the original Wright Flyer. Let’s see if we can get people enthusiastic about an affordable vehicle that doesn’t require a charging port and can’t be “bricked” by pressing the wrong combination of on-screen prompts. Thus endeth the lecture. Go have fun in your cars. Even if the “fun in your car” is more about using a car to get to the right place with the right stuff. It’s a big tent, this automotive-enthusiasm thing. All wheels wild and wonderful; all pickups great and small. All cars fast and furious; your author loves them all.

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