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Who killed the compact pickup truck?

Posted by Craig Fitzgerald  May 16, 2011 01:18 PM

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1958-Datsun-Pickup.jpg

1958 Datsun Pickup: One of the first compact pickup trucks sold in America, this early 1000cc Datsun found fans in California.

Sure, the film "Back to the Future" catapulted the Delorean into tongue-in-cheek superstardom. But think about the final scene in which the central character, Marty McFly, returns to 1985 to find his life changed infinitely for the better. The dream vehicle he finds parked in his driveway? A four-wheel drive Toyota pickup.

1996-Toyota-Tacoma.jpg

Toyota Tacoma: Ever-increasing in size, the Tacoma with a four-cylinder, 4WD, and a five-speed transmission delivers an abysmally bad 17 miles per gallon in real-world driving conditions.

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Nissan Frontier: Based on the full-size Alpha platform that underpins the massive Titan, the Frontier hasn't been a compact truck since 2004.

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Dodge Dakota: No longer a compact pickup. The Dakota is — for all intents and purposes — what replaced the full-size pickup trucks of the last century.

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Isuzu Hombre: Isuzu no longer sells any passenger cars in the US.

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Ford Ranger: The rest of the world gets a brand-new, bigger Ranger for 2012. We won't.

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Mitsubishi Raider: Gone since 2009.

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Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon: Midsized trucks around the same size as the initial Dodge Dakota, which was marketed to folks who thought the Ranger and S10 were too small. Rumor has it GM may kill this truck, too.

Useful, fun, cool, inexpensive: these words described the small pickup truck market in the United States circa 1985. These trucks were ubiquitous throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, providing cheap transportation for first-time new-car buyers, good gas mileage for those who didn't feel the need to purchase a full-size truck, and like Marty McFly's truck, trendy transport for those willing to lay out the money for a fully loaded four-wheel drive. Kids either jacked them up with full suspension lifts, or slammed them to the ground with hydraulics. They were hotter than a three-dollar pistol, and it seemed like they'd be that way forever.

Two and a half decades later, fuel prices are on the rise, the economy continues to sputter along, and yet the entry level vehicles that manufacturers once provided are now gone from the marketplace. Not a single manufacturer builds a small pickup truck for sale in the United States. Trucks that singlehandedly built brands like Toyota, Nissan, Isuzu and Mitsubishi are missing in action. A cruise around the show floor at the New York Auto Show reveals the Jeep Wrangler with a new JK8 Independence kit — an accessory available through Jeep dealers that transforms the SUV into a compact pickup truck — as the only thing even remotely close on the horizon.

In his fantastic book about the auto industry, The Reckoning, the late David Halberstam describes the experiences of Yutaka Katayama — the first president of Nissan USA — enjoying the success of the small Datsun 1000cc truck built in the late 1950s, which gardeners and landscapers in Southern California lapped up. Similarly, Toyota's 1964 Stout introduced the brand to Americans through its US headquarters in California.

As American brands began to catch on to the popularity of small trucks, they launched their own versions, but via Japanese brands they had relationships with. Ford's compact Courier pickup was a rebadged Mazda. Chevrolet's popular LUV truck was a joint effort with Isuzu. And Dodge eventually entered the fray with the Mitsubishi-based Ram 50.

Soon, American brands were building their own small pickups. Chevrolet introduced the S10 in 1982, with a GMC S15 counterpart. Ford developed the Ranger soon afterward, which went on sale in 1983.

Now, almost 30 years later, Ford announced it would cease production of the current Ranger. Ford has a four-door, diesel-equipped Ranger built in Australia that will service 180 markets around the world, but we won't be seeing it here. Ford says the export-market Ranger is about 90 percent the size of an F-150, and that most people bought the Ranger because it was one of the least expensive vehicles in Ford's line — not because it was a pickup. By offering the Fiesta and the Transit Connect, Ford surmises it has covered the low end, making the Ranger redundant. But there's a $7,900 price difference between the Fiesta and the Transit Connect, and nobody's going to be shopping those vehicles against each other.

When the "new" Ranger debuted in 1993, George Bush was president. The first one. Despite the fact that Ford didn't perform a single major revision to the Ranger since the 1994 model year, Ford still managed to sell 75,000 trucks a year. Yet the automaker contends that the American compact pickup market has been declining for the past 15 years, dropping from eight percent of the industry in 1994 to around two percent today.

That's a foregone conclusion — because nobody builds one anymore.

Nevertheless, there's apparently a market for other compact vehicles, because manufacturers seem to be introducing them at a breathtaking rate. The Kia Soul, for example, represents what some manufacturers considered to be a niche a few years ago, but turned out to be a thriving segment that makes up a huge portion of Kia's sales.

Manufacturers have been telling us for years that "Americans are no longer interested in (fill in the blank with one of the following: Hatchbacks, wagons, convertibles, coupes, small pickup trucks, manual transmissions) and have been proven wrong again and again.

Automakers around the world have been struggling with the question of how to attract a younger audience. Yet, simultaneously, they're killing off vehicles that have appealed to a younger demographic for generations, at a time when the case for a small, economical, fuel efficient truck has never been stronger.

Manufacturers like Kia and Scion and have figured out that stylish, inexpensive SUVs can be amongst the strongest-selling vehicles in the product mix. How long before they decide they can unleash the same formula in a compact truck?

Craig Fitzgerald is a former editor at Hemmings Sport & Exotic Car magazine. He can be reached at vespafitz@gmail.com and at facebook.com/YankeeDriver.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
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AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
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Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
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