Plea to Automakers: Bring Us Your Small Trucks

In a time when work-oriented pickup trucks are commanding luxury car prices, there’s an increasingly large subset of buyers who really just need a smaller, easy-to-live-with truck for odd jobs and who are becoming more disillusioned with today’s full-size offerings that, when properly equipped, can fly north of $40,000, $50,000, and even $60,000.

It’s not to say that buyers aren’t getting their money’s worth — today’s trucks are more capable, larger, more fuel efficient, and more feature-loaded than ever before, and for buyers who spend a lot of time in their trucks, those are all positives. But at what point does a truck become less of a workhorse and more of a luxury SUV with an open bed? Take auto journalist Ezra Dyer’s recent piece in The New York Times, for which he drove a $64,500 GMC (NYSE:GM) Sierra 2500 HD Denali. Yes, a nearly $70,000 pickup that Dyer promptly loaded up with mulch from an eager skid-steer (you wouldn’t do that with your Cadillac, would you?).

“I grew up with trucks that came from the factory with dents and rust, trucks that had vinyl seats and cardboard roofliners,” Dyer writes. “Those were trucks that you didn’t feel bad about putting to work. … the chief economist at Edmunds.com, Lacey Plache, ran the numbers on car and truck prices over the last decade and came to the surprising conclusion that, adjusted for inflation, overall vehicle prices actually dropped by 8 percent. Full-size trucks, though, took the opposite path, soaring 37 percent in raw dollar figures, or 9 percent when inflation-adjusted.”

Quality has gone up, as well as capabilities, and so on and so forth. But let’s look at the state of entry-level trucks: you have the choice of the Toyota (NYSE:TM) Tacoma, an affordable hauler that performs admirably but is quite dated (to say the least), and the Nissan (NSANY.PK) Frontier, which makes the “Taco” look like a spring chicken. There’s also the Honda (NYSE:HMC) Ridgeline, but that hasn’t enjoyed the same kind of success as the other two.

That’s it: no more Ford (NYSE:F) Ranger, and the Colorado and Canyon have yet to be released. In a country that prides the pickup above all other vehicles, it’s the Japanese who have made the small pickup market their own. Is it because these trucks were really that much better than the their American counterparts (the Ranger, the earlier generations of Colorado and Canyon, the Dakota)? Perhaps, but that distinction falls into the court of personal opinion.

Alternatively, look at it from a traditional economics point of view. If the demand is there, automakers will readily supply it. But if not, the supply — or the money, time, and research and development — goes elsewhere. This school of thought would indicate that enough buyers were gravitating toward the larger trucks that automakers didn’t find it permissible to remain playing in the small truck space when light-duty pickups could generate all the profits they needed as prices took off.

This, though, makes for an unusual implication: That over the last several years (the Ranger was phased out in 2011, so the decision to do so was made far earlier than that; the Canyon and Colorado departed the year following), buyers have been favoring larger trucks even as fuel prices continued to climb. This is a reversal of the trend seen in SUVs and small crossovers. Large, truck-based SUVs have seen their sales shrink, while crossover sales have never been better.

Many who work with and in their trucks are in their trucks a lot. A lot. To accommodate those people, automakers have started to outfit higher-end models with all the accoutrements that one expects in a Mercedes-Benz or an Audi: Pandora radio on the app-savvy infotainment system, vibrating lane-departure seat warnings, 4G connectivity with Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities, etc. But what about the “casual” truck driver? The one who might need to make a dump run every other week, tow his or her small boats to the launch, grab a few bags of soil instead of a skid-steer’s worth of mulch?

If the Tacoma or the Frontier don’t appeal for whatever reason, those consumers found themselves shoe-horned into a truck much larger than they needed at a price they couldn’t afford. They’re now paying for more in gas, more in insurance, and have more features than they could ever take advantage of on the five-minute hike to the hardware store.

What’s more is that even the small-truck stalwarts like Toyota and Nissan haven’t been great about keeping up with the market. Toyota has put lots of energy into updating the Tundra, and Nissan is preparing with its long overdue release of the next-generation Titan next year. But the Tacoma and Frontier continue to suffer from corporate neglect, with only small, middling changes to keep them breathing.

The reason is being brought up is because Nissan on Wednesday unveiled it latest Navara pickup, the global truck that we know in North America as the Frontier. It’s built on Nissan’s multi-decade history of tough trucks, naturally with some modern touches — but it’s still small, rugged, and unafraid to get dirty, at least per Nissan’s marketing materials (above). Autoblog reports that Nissan denies that the Navara is in any way correlated or suggestive of the next Frontier, but considering the current Navara is virtually identical, it’s a safe assumption that the two will be related.

I’m concluding this piece with a plea to automakers: Bring us your small trucks. Bring us your new Frontiers and your new Rangers, your Amaroks and your diesel-powered HiLuxes. Give us the cardboard trim and vinyl seats, and a truck with which we can leave the windows down in the rain and not care. If the demand for these vehicles is truly absent, then fair enough — but I think it’s there. The Colorado and the Canyon, and their scheduled diesel power plants, will provide a nice litmus test of America’s small pickup appetite, so now we’re just at wait-and-see mode.

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