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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    Yes, Congress killed this segment with its 25% tariff because it got breathed upon by the big 3, which didn’t want to invest in it and wanted a free pass from better products made overseas. That makes “government regulation” an enabler, but not the root cause. Guilty, in other words, but is the hit man more or less guilty that the guy who hired him? That would be GM, Ford, and Chrysler. Let’s not forget who really is to blame here. Having said that, get rid of the tariff and bring back genuine free market competition, a true American value defeated in this case by powerful private interests breathing upon Government to do its bidding.

    I’ve read this several times and something just doesn’t sound right with this footprint thing. Why wouldn’t a smaller truck fit in this broad light truck category if almost anything small can qualify. A smaller truck would get much better mileage now with modern engines. I think this whole thing is a smoke screen to force buyers into bigger, consequently lower fuel mileage gas hogs. Big oil is happy! Big auto is happy!

    Well, the only thing I could find with a reasonable price tag that would fit a 4X8 inside with the tailgate shut was a Toyota Sienna. No mater how much I wanted the Tacoma it just didn’t fit my needs as well as the Sienna. Bonus, the Sienna has a lot more enclosed lockable storage space than the Tacoma. 19 MPG isn’t wonderful, but the much lower price because it screams Soccer Mom was pretty nice. It does a great job at Home Depot and Dump runs and so far there hasn’t been anything I couldn’t fit into it including 10 foot gutter sections and 12 foot pieces of vinyl soffit. Try that with the Taco.

    The interesting aspect of this is what might happen in the future. As more and more manufacturers announce plans to eliminate sedans, coupes and small hatchbacks and move toward a full lineup of SUV/C
    UV based vehicles, will the EPA modify the CAFE formula to eliminate the loopholes that encouraged the death of traditional small trucks? I hate the fact that the only way I can safely carry an 8 foot board in my Frontier 4 door is to open the sliding rear window and put it through to the dashboard. And forget about hauling my own gravel…the bucket on the front end loader the yard uses is longer than my “bed” (cot).

    Love my vw rabbit truck. I get constant comments about it. It has a 1.9 aaz turbo diesel motor, 5 spd, and a/c. 43 mpg isn’t bad either

    I’ve had a ford Maverick on order for 11 months!. You can’t tell me there isn’t a market for small, efficient trucks

    This is a total joke. In 2012-2015, Ford preached that the small truck market was dead because they wanted everyone to buy the more profitable F150. In reality, they let the Ranger die on the vine by not updating it for many years while the F150 was continually updated with modern powertrains. Fast forward a few years, and just try to go buy a new Maverick today. Good luck finding one without paying $10K over sticker. There has always been a market for small trucks.

    Above all else what drives large corporations is GREED. Why waste time and effort on small-margin vehicles if you can persuade your buyers to open their wallets wider? It is a modern affliction, the greed of the corporates and the foolishness of those in the pick-up market.

    I use a 2003 Tundra for a work truck (handyman). Reminds me a lot of my old Jeep J10 in size — low enough that I can reach over into the bed (I’m 6′) without climbing in the back. I can almost reach to the middle… about 1/3 of the way across the bed. The new full size trucks are just to damned tall in the back to practically work from! I don’t want to have to climb up on a tire or drop the tailgate and climb in to retrieve a small item. But they look tough, and looks is all most people, who never haul more than a trash bag in the back anyway, are concerned about. The “midsize” trucks aren’t big enough. A friend bought a Tacoma a couple years ago and it’s just not comfortable — seats are too low to the floor, mainly. Trucks just aren’t really used as trucks any more, more concern with style than function. My next truck will probably be a 2006 Tundra, if I can find one without too many miles. Mine’s approaching 300K now, but I expect it to last another 100K or until I fully retire in 3-4 years. I’m just disgusted with the truck market, period! A small truck like the old late 80s/early 90s assortment would be great though. A king cab (not a four door, but something like the Access Cab I have now) might even be big enough for me to work from.

    I was part of the S-10/15 replacement, the Colorado and Canyon. There were the last of the truly “small” pickups from GM. The real reason they died? The market moved away. We had to get the extended cab to have a real back seat, not jump seats. It was terrible. Isuzu was given responsibly for executing the truck and they were not up to the challenge, ended up taking back the build. An even bigger problem was the requirement to use the OHC I-6 from the Trailblazer. Good engine but would not fit into the truck, so they wacked off a cylinder. Hey, Audi had a great 5 cylinder engine why not GM. Had such a big balance shaft, it created a big hole in the power curve. The last ones had and LS option, they were a blast.
    All the time the market for trucks was growing, but customers wanted car like room. Even the crew cab didn’t meet expectations. Just look at the sales numbers. Those that wanted them were truly few and far between. No sales, no truck.

    How about the AMC Comanche with lots better choices of options without any forced packages (I was the Pricing Executive). And the indoor arena races? Great times around the early 80’s.

    I remember those. But they didn’t sell well. My hunch is that too many saw them as a Cherokee with cab and bed (which essentially they were). There was too much competition on top of that back then as well (even Mitsubishi was on the small truck train starting in 1978 with the L200).

    I had a 2000 Nissan Frontier for 14 years. I bought it used in 2003 for $5500 cash with about 50k miles on the clock. It was the basic single cab with a 4-banger and 5-speed manual. Great fuel economy as a Home Depot town runner or a small trailer hauler …or even an out-of-town quick weekend getaway road trip vehicle when going to some small mountain town not knowing what I might find for sale and bring back. In any event, I made the mistake of selling it in 2017 as I just stopped using it after buying a Grand Cherokee. Last I heard, the buyer, who bought it from me for $3,500 with ~130k on the clock, sold it for $6k last year. Best truck value ever both the Frontier and Tacoma were back in their prime as REAL small trucks.

    When I think about it, just what good are small pickups? If you want to haul your engine parts to the machine shop, you could overload it, especially if you are hauling a big block Chevy, 427 Ford or a 392 Hemi. And if you are taking your buddy along that help load it up, that extra weight in the cab, well, you will be maxed out and overweight. When I was a public fleet manager, these small pickups were used by meter readers, that carried a shovel and a few small hand tools. The guys that did light maintenance on some public properties such as weed whacking or hand mowing could use them. Other than that, there was no place for them. You cant tow a trailer, three in the cab? I dont think so! If you travel around modern European or Asian countries, you dont see pickups of any kind, so manufactures back in the 60’s began to see pickups as some kind of American phenomenon and decided to go one better, make them smaller! It kind of worked until American buyers figured out they cant haul that fifth wheel mobile home, race car to the track, gravel trailer, tractor or so many other work calling for a heavy hauler.

    You don’t know much about small pickups. Small pickups were perfect, especially the early Toyota Hiluxes. Chinook and Winnebago even used them as the foundation for motor homes. They could haul that 427 and a motorcycle easily and have payload to spare. They were half ton pickups. Most pickup owners only haul what fits in their front pants pocket anyway and typically, the bigger the pickup, the smaller the driver. There’s something else going on there with the huge size of today’s pickups that don’t fit garages or parking spaces.

    Rod, I agree with you wholeheartedly but I had a friend who had a 1988 Ranger 2.3 four banger and overloaded it like crazy with tires, wheels along with engine and transmission parts sent out for repairs from his three 18 wheelers. That little workhorse would compete with the workhorse reputations of the best Japanese offerings and had nearly 300,000 miles of that abuse on it when he retired it and himself. I believe that is the reputation of Rangers that is revered today. I also want to say Toyota built compact trucks in the 80s with ratings up to 1 ton. I remember those as mini Winnebago motor homes.
    You mentioned Europe and Asia not having pickups. Didn’t spend any time there but they are prevalent in the Middle East and I understand in Australia used their versions for decades. I really like the Utes GM and Ford build in Australia, wish they were available in the US market. They can be quite stylish reminding me of the Rancheros and El Caminos of the past but built on truck chassis for durability. And like a standard pick up you can opt for flat bed in place of the pick up box.

    I remember the S10-S15 trucks fondly. Had 2 S10’s, and they did everything a daily driver and weekend trip to the Home Depot a homeowner needed. Now everything has 4 doors and not much bed. I ended up buying a Pilot because it at least has a decent sized bed for a small pickup. Still don’t need 4 doors, but theres no choice these days.

    Without question the small pickup truck serves a purpose. There’s a lot of people like me that don’t use a pickup for a living. We make Home Depot runs, hauling mulch, topsoil, etc. I once had a RAM 1500 quadcab. I hated the mileage. I hated trying to park it in tight parking garages. I hated the blind spots. Got rid of it because in addition to all of those things, I just didn’t need something that big. We just didn’t need a giant truck. The fact that Ford is selling Mavericks faster than they can make them is proof.

    I’d like to see a return of even lighter duty trucklets like the Ram 700 or the VW Saviero.
    The Maverick is a great product from a marketing perspective. Its too bad they can’t make enough of them to satisfy the demand. So they have to close the annual order books shortly after they open. When was the last time Ford had that problem?

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