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 ‘downsized’ from a RAM Quad Cab to a Jeep Gladiator. Looking back, why? Everything is smaller, but gas mileage is no better. I confess – I bought it because my dog wanted a convertible. That you can’t get anywhere else, although Jeep’s implementation is a PITA. Equipment-wise, it’s a great truck for the 20th century, but uh, that was a while back. Back to the drawing board.

    Toyota and Nissan should both make a choice…either make their truck smaller (especially Tacoma) or stop putting weak four bangers in them…in my 20 year pest control career I have driven well over a million miles using either it or the Frontier….GET TIRED OF THE GEAR CHANGING because the engine is too weak for overdrive

    It would be interesting to know what the profit percentage is on a small vehicle and a similar, but larger vehicle. People pay more for bigger, but the cost of making bigger is not as much as the difference in price. All the technology used design and build power trains, to control emissions, and to provide basic safety as well as the entertainment and communication gadgets we seem to love, costs the same whether it’s a Ford Ranger or an F-250. The R&D that each requires costs the same, too. The extra cost to simply make something bigger is mostly in basic raw materials – steel, alloys, upholstery – that really isn’t so expensive for the manufacturer. There are regulatory reasons, driven by environment and by influence in Washington, but there are powerful profit reasons too.

    Larger trucks don’t cost that much more to produce than smaller. They leverage the R&D costs,, the cost of a little more in materials, and then charge multiples of what it would cost to put the same stuff in the smaller trucks. Thus, all of the extra retail cost results in oodles of profit for the car company. The same is true of the largest cars when compared to the smallest.

    I have not read anywhere the facts & figures on the relative costs, and I imagine that this would be a closely-guarded secret.

    Thank you Aaron. It’s the same old BS. The Feds, in their infinite incompetency manage to mess things up
    for those in the market not interested nor have any need for the tasteless monsters out there. There’s a market for small trucks.

    Working on 1940 FORD…restoration…rebuild…Hagerty sends hints for this reconstruction of this 1940 time piece..,thanks Hagerty !

    So many emotional responses here and many that are not factually true.

    Smaller trucks got better MPG in the past False. Many did not and the fact todays trucks with more power and weight can get even better.

    You can over load a small truck with engine parts. False. I used to hall everything. Even in my GMC Sprint SP I had a big block under the hood and a 428 Pontiac in the bed one trip with no issues.

    Mid size and small trucks are cheaper to build False. Mid size cost as much per the head of the Ranger program. This make them more difficult to price and sell at a good profit. They just don’t bring the profits like a full size with greater scale. The small truck we are seeing are just cheap FWD based models that have an open bed and lot of short cuts and missing features. They are not the Ranger or S10 of old.

    I get it everyone pines for a specific thing but economy of scale prevent things from happening. I know some would love a El Camino again including my self. But there is no REW platform to base it on like we had that would make it cheap to sell and profitable. If it were done on a Camaro you would see $50K or more on the sticker. Then they would not sell enough to make it worth the effort.

    Even these small trucks are not going to be big volume. The Ridgeline settled after a strong start and struggled to remain around 30K units per year. The Maverick will see the same once Ford has parts to build them. Add more models to the market and they will need over seas sales to keep the volumes where they need it., I suspect this is what Chevy is planning on the Montana. It will start in South America and then will come in in limited numbers.

    Few complain about 4 doors but even if the companies build them they are so slow of sellers it makes it difficult to make money as most buy 4 doors today.

    Companies can no longer do it all like they used to do. They have to do what makes money and leave some things to the past. We in the public need to adapt like the MFGs are doing too.

    Nobody has made any comments or references to the Dodge Dakota which in my opinion had a lot more to offer than the Ranger/S10 competition – slightly larger and the only small truck available with a V8. The second gen ’97 to ’04 models were an inspiration…unfortunately, the subsequent design was a big letdown.
    My 2000MY SLT is a regular cab, short box, V8 that I purchased new in December of ’99 and I’m nursing it along until someone comes out with a reg cab/shortbox model replacement….please!

    It’s always interesting to look back over time with any vehicle segment and see what social and environmental pressures push a segment in one way or another. It seems that the midsize or small segment however one wants to categorize the current segment, has become the new SUV. I see more mountain bikers, kayakers, and other outdoor enthusiasts embracing these newer trucks than the segment tagged as SUV’s. Interesting…

    I am 85 and will leave my 98 Tacoma to family. Bought it slightly used many years ago and have almost broken it in at 108,000 miles. A friend drove one past a couple hunnert thousand miles with causual maintence, such as long oil change intervals. He pretended to be upset when the timing chain finally wore thru the cover throwing oil. Pulled it down and the cylinder bores still showed some of the crosshatching of the final honing. They are hard to kill. Mine is the 2.4 liter w five speed. I have towed a trailer with several vintage garden tractors to shows at 75 mph for hours. Doesn’t have a tach. So looked in the manual, yes, I read the whole thing and forgot most of it, and it gave a chart for maximum speeds in each gear. Fourth is good for 101 mph. I have never tried it but I bet if you stuffed it into fifth it would slow down. I’m now only putting 300 to 400 miles per year and get a special insurance rate. They know because of the tattletale plugged into the diagnostic port. I go the my small towns Ace, Lowes etc. and all the way to my gun club, an easy 8.9 miles. Even keep my vintage military firearms in it for the monthly matches. So it has an easy life and is holding it’s value. People keem coming up and trying to buy it. I don’t need the money, so I am hoping to live long enough to give it to a great grand kid.

    Great tale Gene !! I have a 2001 Tacoma with 285500 miles!! Luv my truck so much!! 2.7 with automatic and 23 mpg just still awesome !!!!

    Opps. Down there I fudged a bit on total miles. It has a tow bar and I have a Brake Buddy handy and it rolled up maybe 30K miles behind our class A motor coach. If you turn the key to the very first click, it will unlock the steering wheel but the speedo will not work. I kept the tranny topped up with Redline tranny lube and had no trouble towing in neutral of course, even though the lower gear set was not turning with the engine off. I don’t tow any more except if I need to pick up a coach for someone. its ready. And I don’t do that much anymore. We downsized to a Roadtrek which I build a custom rack on back to tote my electric scooter.
    When I was going to tractor shows, at the Southeast Ag. Expo in Moultry Ga. several years ago, the Mahindra display area had a small diesel all wheel drive pickup about the size of the Isuzu, spelling? pickup. They were showing it off as they wanted to import it. Never happened. A farmer friend of mine drove an Isuzu diesel pickup rebuilding and repairing it until there wasn’t enough left. He would have jumped on the Mahindra like stink on you know what!

    I had second generation S tens, great little work trucks with four-cylinder engines, couldn’t get out of their own way but great on gas, my trip back and forth to O’Hare from Wisconsin, one hundred miles a day put plenty of miles on in short order, I was a mechanic for American Airlines and other than the usual wear items these trucks held up very well.

    In 2010 I purchased a Ford Ranger 2.3 Standard 5 speed base pickup. This little truck has been so good. 125k and not a door ding in it. Only upgrade was I had a 410 rear end installed. With the stock rear end it was a slug. Little truck scats now and will easily pull a trailer. I would not trade it for a new Ranger, Toyota, etc. It was a shame that they were discontinued but it did drive up the resale market. The 2010 Ranger can sell for more than I paid for it today. A hybrid truck? No way, an electric truck? no way.

    Disagree, I think the hottest market is the small truck as evidenced by the Maverick hybrid. To bad it is offered from a company Tatar is inept at manufacturing ( try to get one – over a year wait ). Eager to see Toyota taking notice – they will eat Ford’s shorts soon in this hot market.

    Trucks are way too large now. And if we are honest, virtually never used to do truck stuff. The old Tacomas and Nissan Hardbodies are the perfect size truck for the majority of people. Something the government yet again screwed up.

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