How regulations made the small-pickup segment a dinosaur park


One of Toyota’s top U.S. execs, Jack Hollis, told the trade rag Automotive News recently that the company has “continued to look” at the small-truck segment, acknowledging that Toyota has “continued to look for a long time” even while others have acted. The Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz are two new entries in a once-sleepy corner of the market, and together they racked up over 50,000 sales in the first six months of 2022. Meanwhile, Toyota and Nissan, which practically invented the compact pickup in the 1970s and forged empires from their popularity in the ’80s and ’90s, seem to be dozing.

Those who look fondly on the truly compact pickups of yore, the Hardbodies and Hiluxes and LUVs, have suffered through a long drought. After Ford killed off the Ranger in 2012, the segment went into hibernation. Its main entries, the U.S.-built Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier, were left to molder from lack of competition, even as small-truck production soared overseas—especially in Thailand, where several automakers build new compact pickups for foreign markets (the U.S. is walled off from these by a 25 percent tariff on pickups).

2020 Ford Ranger Lariat CN driving hero front three quarter
Cameron Neveu

The Ranger returned in 2019 to join the Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon as “mid-sizers,” while the 2022 Frontier is all-new and the Tacoma finally gets an overhaul for 2024. Hollis promises that it won’t grow, but nor will it shrink to anything approaching what many consider to be peak Tacoma, those of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Those trucks, very hot items today in the resale market, were nearly a foot shorter, about 8 inches narrower, and roughly a thousand pounds lighter than the current Tacoma. Anybody wanting a pickup with that degree of garageability (and fuel economy) has only the Maverick or Santa Cruz as options. And those are not the body-on-frame workhorses of olden days but effectively four-door, car-based, crossover SUVs with exposed cargo areas.

Why can’t we have new little trucks? One answer: the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard. It has several inputs to its complex calculation, including sales of a particular model as well as the model’s footprint. When the formulas were rewritten in a 2008 revamp of CAFE, domestic automakers argued that they were unfairly penalized because their product mix tended toward large trucks (which are safer, they noted), especially the kinds of essential work trucks favored by the heartland. The argument, however patriotic, disguised a growing truth in 2008: Trucks were increasingly purchased as family vehicles. Nonetheless, light trucks and especially the higher footprint classes were let off the hook with lower fuel economy standards.

Seeing a loophole, automakers rushed to redesign more products to meet the incredibly broad definition of “light truck” specified in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Today, vehicles ranging from the wee Honda HR-V to the Subaru Outback to traditional pickups like the F-150 are all classified as light trucks, the sales of which have consequently swelled to three-quarters of the U.S. light vehicle market.

2022 Ford Maverick front three-quarter action
Cameron Neveu

The footprint rule endures, effectively discouraging carmakers from building body-on-frame trucks in smaller sizes owing to the cost and difficulty of meeting tougher mileage standards. Being car-based, the lighter Maverick and Santa Cruz (both circa 3800 pounds) skate through with four-cylinder engines and hybrid options. They’ll even tow up to 4000 and 5000 pounds, respectively. But buyers don’t have the kinds of choices in cabs and bed lengths that they once did with compact pickups.

Lovers of small trucks must pin their hopes on hybridization and electrification, two technologies that would make it easier for brands to reenter the segment. However, the prices of such trucks likely wouldn’t land far enough under those of full-size trucks to prevent most buyers from just stepping up to a larger offering. In the future, if you can even get a small pickup, you’ll have to pay through the nose for it.

This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.

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    Wow; Good luck to us who love the old S10, Ranger or even better the older Toyota or Nissan small pick ups. you know, back when they were small. 🙂 I have no desire for a hybrid or even less desire for an EV. Guess I’ll just continue to buy old vehicles.

    Exactly! I was searching for a low mileage clean Chevy S10 regular cab short bed 4 cylinder 5-speed manual transmission and A/C. Took me about a year but I was successful! Only 47k miles and like new. I love the little truck and will never sell it!

    This is only part of the story.

    The other issue is this. The mid size truck is a limited profit model. It cost near as much to build a mid size as it does a full size. The trouble is there is much less money to be made in the, as once you get over $40k sales drop off fast.

    You could buy a mid size V6 Chevy for under $30k and they sold many at this price.

    The real trouble is there is never going to be the volume like the full size to bring the profits to the mid size segment.

    The small trucks like the Maverick have many corner cutting under the skin and are not the Rangers of old.

    I own a crew Canyon Denali and it fit may garage great, mpg is 21.5 mpg average over 18k miles. It has better room than my Sonoma and has been everything I want.

    The full size is nice but bulky and more than I need. The Maverick is not worth my time due to low quality and lack of space and features.

    The next thing is the V6 will vanish from the mid size trucks due to fuel regs. But you can easily tune a turbo.

    Do away with or ease up on the CAFE standards. Do away with the 25% import tariffs on trucks, which will help Ford’s Transit. And while we’re at it, let’s make the regulations on drilling and building new refineries less cumbersome so it can actually happen.

    If I remember correctly, when Ford discontinued the Ranger, their reasoning was low sales and the big trucks were nearly as efficient. And I do remember my little Nissan Hardbody, GMC S15 and Ranger of yore didn’t get very good mileage but were far easier to park and drive…..

    The Ranger was far and away the most fuel efficient truck in the late 2000s when it ditched the old 2.3 for the 16v Duratec 2.3. Ford at the time insisted that customers would flock to the F-150 or the Fiesta, depending on what they really needed. They were in such a dire financial position at this time that they made a conscientious effort to put as little as possible into the product, hence low sales to anyone but fleet buyers. Then the plan was to quit making it when the side impact protection regulations came into effect (2012), and sell the factory because it was in a valuable area of St. Paul MN. Or so I see from reading between the lines.

    Here is why many trucks vanished. The Ranger died of lack of updates. Ford let it waste away on an old design. GM went to a more Isuzu based model that was crap. I refused to replace my Sonoma with one. The others has low sales and just pulled from the market.

    Toyota stuck it out as global sales help offset the losses here.

    Due to the MPG deal and low profits these companies were willing to let go till GM staged a comeback and then Ford followed.

    As for MPG well everyone likes to think the old truck were great MPG but my present Canyon Crew 4×4 with 310 HP gets 2 MPG more than my 97 Sonoma V6 Extended Cab two wheel drive. It was like 193 HP.

    So the mid size trucks really get about the same or better in many cases than the old trucks that were smaller and less powerful. I know I owned both.

    Also these small trucks are being told to us as a home run. Ford has had to shut off sales. Well they did as they can not get parts. Yes they sold ok but not as much of a run away as they like to make you think.

    The Ridgeline sales is amazingly small. 15K to 40K is the range they live in and most years are just over 20K. That is not good.

    Everyone likes to make this segment out to be the truck of old but they are really CUV models with no top on the cargo area. They have many short cuts to lower the price and at the expense of durability.
    They really are a good idea but I really don’t think the market is large enough to support them as more come to market. The pie is small and you can only cut it into so many pieces.

    Re: mileage..Agree.. I had a ’94 Chrysler LHS which got 27 mpg at 70 mph on level ground.. My 2015 Ford Taurus gets around 24 on a trip…. Where are all the improvements ?

    Problem is, the small compact trucks kept getting bigger and heavier. Reliable simple 4 cylinder engines turned into over complicated V6’s. Bring back truly SMALL and COMPACT trucks with small 1.6L I4 engines, and they will sell like hot cakes.

    Regulations have not helped the industry or the user. wow, who would have thought that. I do agree though, the small trucks like the Ranger just never changed and were out of date junk for years. Imagine if they had received meaningful updates.

    I put a 331 cu. in. small block Chevy that twisted 7700 in my ’72 LUV, and it did little 6″ wheelies…the ’72 had 4.56 gears, the later models had 4.11s. It was legendary on the Central Coast of California in ’78/’79…never lost a race (which we ALWAYS did OUTSIDE of town on country roads, thank you very much).

    I miss that little truck!

    I loved my regular cab S10’s (1988 and 2000). The ’88 was 2.7 V6 with 5 speed and the 200 was 2.2 I4 with 5 speed. Thye had reasonable room and barely adequate bed fro what i used it for. First one was sold with 188,000 and the second with 158,000. Wished I kept the 2000. Little extra maint. Pretty reliable. Also had 2000 4wd S10 extended cab. Liked the truck overall but hated the automatic (and poor mpg). Thought about the latest Colorado, but they are as heavy as a full size truck used to be but with less space. Why buy one since they cost as much as full size and don’t really get better mpg? Considering Tacoma, but they are EXPENSIVE for what I want and manual trans is almost impossible to get. I remember when VW had a little truck based on the Rabbit and Dodge had the Rampage based on the Omni/Horizon platform. Subaru had the Brat. Wish GM had brought the Australian utes to the US as I always liked the El Camino. The SSR was a bloated pig.

    I’m still driving an old 2000 S10 Chevy 2.2L. It gets around 23 mpg on the highway going from Georgia to New Jersey. It’s not great on the long uphill stretches. It’s comfortable practical and reliable. I wish a turbo was available for it. Currently has 245,000 miles and climbing.

    I bought three new Tacomas and should have kept one of them. I would have bought another one but 2014 was the last year Toyota offered a regular cab. Which is the only choice for me. And I refuse to pay the prices that they are now commanding on the used market.

    I would argue that regulations killed the car segment as well. What would you rather drive, your favorite 60’s or 70’s style car with fuel injection that gets 25-30 mpg easily or one of the very few remaining front wheel drive cars. I believe a whole segment of the driving population went to trucks and SUV’s simply because front wheel drive is not an enjoyable driving experience. So the car segment disappeared and we have trucks that as a whole get decidedly worst fuel economy.

    Lively FWD cars, in general, are a much more enjoyable driving experience than a RWD pickup. Except in true high-performance applications, I do not understand the nostalgic fixation many have with RWD.

    “And those are not the body-on-frame workhorses of olden days but effectively four-door, car-based, crossover SUVs with exposed cargo areas”

    I find this statement disingenuous, as the small BoF trucks of yore had no more, and in many cases less, capability than the unibody Maverick and Santa Cruz. Case in point: max tow of the old “Toyota Pickup” (the American Hilux/Tacoma precursor) was 3500 lbs; in the old Ranger it was 5600lbs (only in the largest V6) and under 4k lbs for other options, down to as little as 1300lbs in the 4cyl; old S10/Sonoma maxed at 5200lbs towing. Similarly, payloads in these were around 1200lbs on the high end. Ground clearance for “off-roading” was around 7″-8″ stock.

    Now, looking at the unibody crowd (Honda, Ford and Hyundai): Towing ranges from as little as 2k lbs (Maverick Hybrid) to as much as 5k lbs (Ridgeline and the Hyundai); basically 1500lbs payload for all 3 (give or take 100lbs); and ground clearance of 7.6″-8.6″ from the factory. Gee, sound pretty much the same as the old “body-on-frame workhorses” of yore.

    Someone will comment about “off-road” capabilities, well sad to say those old trucks all had open diffs, so unless you upgraded them, the stock trucks were less capable than the AWD systems of the newer trucks. Trust me, I have gotten stuck in both old Rangers and S10s “4x4s” that didn’t have aftermarket LSD or Lockers. In fact, they struggle in light snow with their open rear diffs. I used to drive a 4×4 Ranger around 200-300 miles a day here in Northern Wisconsin for a utility company, reading meters. It struggled on light mud/gravel and light snow, even when you put it in 4lo. It was a breath of fresh air when we replaced the fleet with Tacoma’s in 2009.

    Seems to me the only thing the new unibody small trucks are lacking in is the option for variable bed/cab configurations and aftermarket off-road kits, that’s about it. Even then, the aftermarket has up to 3.5″ lifts and skidplates for the Honda, and I am sure the others will eventually, and JonDZ Adventuring on YT can demonstrate the Honda’s AWD will get you into supposedly 4wd only trails up to a moderate rating (clearly not gonna rock crawl one).

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