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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    I currently have a 1995 Toyota T100. Single cab with 8 ft bed. I use it to haul motorcycles. Yes, motorcycle with a S. More than one. Can’t find a pickup now a days with a decent sized bed and a single cab. I don’t haul my family with it, it’s my work truck. 4 cylinder simplicity and good MPG. Working ac and heater, low bed height, and cheap cheap insurance. Also has 189K miles and doesn’t leak or burn oil. Your new F150 4 door with a 5 ft bed can’t come to close to what I have or need. Bring back the affordable small pickup that actually will fit our needs!

    Small pick-ups are great. I use a 2004 Mazda 2wd in the spring > fall.
    My only vehicle when there’s no snow here. 4 cyl. and 5 spd.
    (Will T. – Toronto ON) – the back-up car for trickier weather is
    a Ford Focus… it gets snow-tires in winter… no problems.
    Both are great on gas & insurance.

    The other reason you didn’t mention is profits. Ford to this day handcuffs the Ranger into this imaginary “lifestyle” corner instead of offering something that buyers might consider in leu of an F-150.

    This still doesn’t come close to explaining why you can’t buy a Maverick with a 6+ foot bed and a single cab (which would be the exact same footprint). These are the staple of the small time work truck market for handymen, pool guys, lawn care, etc. who live in more congested areas and have to parallel park occasionally. I have daily driven a regular cab 1st gen Colorado for 17 years now because I can park it, and I can haul lumber, or motorcycles, or furniture in it when needed. My only real option for a replacement is a 2012 Colorado or Ranger

    I’d give Ford some credit and assume that they’d build it if they thought they could sell it in big enough numbers (assuming there are no regulatory barriers). That extends to regular cab pickups, period. No one makes then anymore because they wouldn’t sell in numbers making it worth their while.

    Short answer: as these are unibody, the cab structure needs to continue to at least the midpoint of the vehicle in order to prevent the vehicle from folding in half. This was the reason the 1st gen Ridgeline had the “sail pillars” that sloped from the cab to the rear until they found a better way (copied by Ford) and the Santa Cruz just stuck with the sail pillars. Single cab, long bed configuration is only possible with frame rails, and as detailed in the article, there is no incentive for them to make this as the demand is small, the cost is high, and the federal regulations prohibitive.

    This article doesn’t make sense. If light trucks were given a pass on fuel economy standards with Title 49, and the Outback and HRV are part of that group, then why wouldn’t true small compact trucks of the past (updated for today) also be included in that category? An Outback can’t be that much longer/heavier than a compact truck that would be built today with all the modern safety features that would make it weigh just as much as an Outback.

    In my part of the world a ‘small pickup’ is a half-tonner and, sad to say, the only survivor is the Nissan NP200 after competitors from Mazda and Opel dropped out. That’s a pity because there are still plenty of potential buyers for little trucks but just the one offering that not everybody feels love for.

    So weight is a major reason for no one selling a small truck in the usa? and 3,800 lbs is light?? imho, neither the maverick or santa cruz are small light trucks. yes, maybe by comparison to ‘full size’ trucks. to me, the full sizers are behemoths. My daily is a Nissan hardbody 1-ton std cab w/ 7 ft bed & v6. it has a full box frame compared to the lighter hardbody’s c-channel. it tipped the scales at 3,485 lbs which included myself (220 lbs) and a full transverse bed tool box. i think there’s more than just a weight issue i.e. side impact & offset head-on collision standards, amount of shared parts with other vehicles, etc. every manufacturer does their research in marketing and will gladly build what the market will buy, but when there is a profit. bottom line, if there is not enough profit predicted by the bean counters, most if not all manufacturers selling in the usa won’t waste their time.

    Sometime over the summer I came across and purchased a 2002 Ranger. I put new rubber on it, tuned it up, changed the filters, cleaned the interior, fixed the back window leak, and replaced the dash bulbs. It enjoys a good dose of rust, but is intact. The transmission occasionally cried out in agony going up a hill, but slips itself into shape and agrees to carry on. The little 4 banger runs like silk and gets 29mpg. Standard cab as God intended, no backseat. No carpet, roll up windows. I can throw whatever pile of s**t in the 6ft bed I want. And you know what?? Keep your oversized gas-guzzling pseudo station wagons with power everything….I f**king love my little paid for pile of rust!

    Purchased a new Mazda B2000 in 1986 and drove that vehicle for 17+ years. After a neighbor backed into it and the wife said it had to go, I purchased a 1999 Ranger with ~100K miles and drove that for another 10+ years. Both were outstanding vehicles and bear no resemblance to the light-duty trucks I see being sold today. That’s a shame.

    Another example of your government at work, with regulation distorting everything. The green new fallacy is the causal effect of people choosing trucks and SUVs which are grossly less efficient than the passenger cars they replaced. Most people are solo driving an F150, when a Maverick would be more than sufficient for their needs; the SUV craze is partially due to the lack of old-fashioned full-size autos, but increased ride height has also been shown to be a contributing factor. The end result of this counterproductive rule making is increased emissions and lower fuel efficiency overall, just the opposite of the goal and objective, and the direct result of government meddling, such as we are seeing the world subjected to as we speak!

    I’ve got a 2003 Toyota Tacoma regular cab, Prerunner. Not a speck of rust, runs like new, 130K miles. I love that little truck. I’ve got an RX350, a Corvette and a Firebird, and the one I always jump in is the Tacoma. My biggest issue with the truck is that I can’t stop at the gas station without someone trying to buy it out from under me. Those Tacoma’s from that era are the only vehicles where someone will say, “It ONLY has 300,000 miles on it.”

    I have a 2006 Chevy Colorado which just turned 101K miles. It has the five cylinder engine that runs great.
    To my knowledge 2012 was the last year Chevy/GMC was the last year GM made the normal size small pick-up before they changed body style to reflect the full size 1/2 ton. I had a chance to buy the 2012 a couple of years ago but decided not to thinking, why do that when my 2006 was and is performing well.

    I’m not following your rationale here. I mean, I get that it’s all the fault of government regulation, but how exactly does that work? The definition of “light truck” is so broad that everything from a Subaru Outback to an F-150 meets it, but not a compact pickup? Something to do with a footprint? As in the length X width of the vehicle? Or are you talking carbon footprint? I feel like someone explained it all to you, and you took away a few key words like CAFE, loophole, and footprint, but couldn’t remember how they fit together to eliminate small truck. You’re just sure it’s a government problem, and not, say, changing demographics where people simply realized that they wanted SUV’s instead of compact trucks.
    But hey, the article was free to read, so you get what you pay for.

    Sold a ton of Mazda trucks in the 80s . The foot print rule was a complete giveaway to the Big 3 . Even worse is the rule that allows cars to be slightly raised on their suspension and suddenly become “ trucks “ . Insane !

    Total crap. You can always make the numbers work. I’ve owned 6 Ford Ranger XLT V6 extended cab 4WD since 1989. 5 bought new. All manual transmissions. My last new one, a 2002 had 325k miles on it when I found a one owner 2011 in Feb. ’21 with only 100k on the clock. Yes, as usual the bed was shot and included a rusty radiator shroud but it was routinely maintained and runs great. They stopped making the Ranger in 2012 (here in the US) because (per my Ford dealer) they (genius’s) felt for a few bucks more you could by a F150.How’s that working out? And the new Ranger? How’s that working out? I pulled into the super market a couple of weeks ago and parked next to a new Maverick. When I came out, I took a closer look and realized both truck’s overall size is within inches of each other. So now my options are a high mileage, high price old Ranger or Tacoma extended cab 4WD w/manual transmission or the Maverick. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they did something, but unless the hybrid gets AWD or the gas one loses the crew cab for an extended cab, I’m not all that interested. A shame

    That is why our 93 Toyota 2WD pickup is staying in the family so far. People look at and just smile every time it goes out.

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