Almost-Trucks: 10 Non-Traditional Pickups
Many Have Tried, Few Have Succeeded
Over the last several decades, many automakers have attempted to build light-duty haulers that depart from the conventional pickup mold of body on frame, front engine, rear drive, and live rear axle. At least in the U.S., each of these attempts up to this point have ended up on the scrapheap of history as interesting, innovative, but ultimately unpopular, variants. The established pickup convention has stood the test of time and remains the preferred platform for truck buyers. However, Honda remains undaunted, introducing a second-generation Ridgeline. In the Brazilian market, Fiat has just introduced the Renegade-based Toro compact crew cab unibody truck, a model that many think may find its way to the U.S. market as an entry-level Ram. Will either of them have any better luck this time around?
Below, we take a look at 10 unconventional approaches to pickup trucks and their history.
If we take a look at the overall longevity of the model run, the Ranchero is among the most successful on this list, running 22 years from 1957 to 1979. The first-generation Ranchero was a variation of the Courier sedan delivery two-door wagon. The second-generation Ranchero shrunk considerably when it transitioned to the Falcon platform from 1960 through 1965. The 1967 model with its vertical headlights is highly sought after by collectors. The 1968 model went back to being a fullsize model based on the Torino. Ultimately, the rising popularity of smaller import trucks and the Mazda-based Courier spelled the end of Ford’s car-based hauler in 1979.
Chevrolet El Camino
The El Camino came out two years after the Ranchero in 1959 but out-lived it by eight years to 1987. The first-generation’s swoopy styling, based on the Impala, helped the first-year model out-sell the Ranchero by a substantial margin. A more conservative look for 1960 saw sales take a precipitous slide, and the model was temporarily discontinued, to return for 1964 based on Chevelle. The ultra-rare LS6-equipped El Camino is highly sought after by collectors for its 450hp 454ci big-block V-8, offered just one year in 1970. The fourth-generation model that debuted in 1973 was the largest and arguably least-sporty El Camino to date, with the formerly powerful engines beginning to feel the noose of tightening smog regulations. The fifth and final-generation El Camino rode on GM’s ubiquitous G-body platform.
Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup
The Rabbit pickup had a six year model run out of Volkswagen’s Westmoreland, Pennsylvania plant from 1978 to 1984. However, it lived on in other markets, built in Sarajevo until 1992 and South Africa until 2007(!). Interestingly, the original Rabbit pickup evolved to become the Volkswagen Caddy compact utility van in Europe, roughly equivalent to the Ford Transit Connect today.
Dodge Rampage/Plymouth Scamp
Like the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon on which they were based, the Rampage and Scamp were Chrysler’s answer to the Rabbit pickup. Although on-paper the Rampage appeared considerably more powerful than the Rabbit pickup, its performance was still described as “leisurely.” A 96hp 2.2L I-4 was the only engine offered. Sales were modest, and it was discontinued after the 1984 model year.
The Subaru BRAT (Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter) is remembered with a fondness by many that the Rabbit pickup and Dodge Rampage were not. Among its fans was former president Ronald Reagan, who owned a 1978 BRAT that he rode around his California ranch property. Among the BRAT’s unique features were rear-facing bed-mounted seats. The seats were supposedly a ruse to circumvent the 25 percent “chicken tax” on imported pickups, classifying the BRAT as a passenger vehicle. Amazingly, the exterior rear-facing seats did not have seatbelts but only grip handles. Where’s Ralph Nader when you need him? Early models had only 70hp from a 1.8L flat-four. However, later models offered an optional 94hp turbo.
Although its model run wasn’t quite as long or illustrious as the El Camino, the Chevrolet Avalanche nonetheless enjoyed an 11-year model run and two generations. The first generation, notorious for its great expanses of unpainted lower plastic cladding, was offered in either 1/2-ton or 3/4-ton configurations with up to an 8.1L big-block V-8. Later models had cleaner, more streamlined styling echoing that of GM’s fullsize trucks. The second-generation model had much smoother styling that was based on the Tahoe and Suburban. Second-gen models were exclusively 1/2-ton and were offered with an available 6.0L Vortec V-8. The Avalanche also had an upscale cousin in the form of the Cadillac Escalade EXT, which was also offered from 2002 through 2013. The Caddy offered larger engines and more opulent trim.
GMC Envoy XUV
Here’s another oddball that’s sure to go down in history as one of GM’s more unusual models. Essentially a shrunken Avalanche, the Envoy XUV had a more SUV-like profile thanks to its side glass and sliding rear roof panel. Otherwise, its function largely mirrored that of the larger Avalanche with a folding “midgate” and removable center glass. Unlike the Avalanche, the Envoy XUV had a dual-mode tailgate that opened downward like a conventional pickup, or swung to the side. The long-wheelbase XUV could be ordered with an available 5.3L V-8.
Hoping to rekindle some of the enthusiasm for the BRAT, Subaru took another crack at an alt-pickup with the Outback-based Baja. Reportedly inspired by off-road–racing trucks, the Baja featured a quasi-midgate dubbed the “Switchback,” which opened up the center section of the back of the bed to allow for pass-through of long items such as surfboards and lumber. However, unlike the Avalanche, the Baja could not accommodate the standard 4x8 feet sheet of plywood with the tailgate closed. Although owner surveys by J.D. Power and Consumer Reports showed Baja owners loved their vehicles, the larger marketplace showed decided indifference and the Baja was discontinued after the 2006 model year. A 210hp turbocharged 2.5L engine was offered from 2004 through 2006.
The Ridgeline came onto the truck scene in late 2005 as a 2006 model. Its unibody construction and transverse powertrain set it apart from its more conventional competitors, the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier. Sales for the first several years were respectable, peaking at 50,193 for 2006. Although its unibody construction gave it a significantly roomier and more comfortable interior than the Tacoma or Frontier, its 3.5L V-6 didn’t offer any better fuel economy than its rivals’ 4.0L units, and its towing capacity and payload were both less than the Nissan and Toyota. 2014 was the last model year for the first-generation vehicle. Many thought Honda should pull the plug on the Ridgeline. However, the company vowed to bring back the Ridgeline, and true to its word, we now have the new 2017 model. More fuel efficient and more conventional looking, Honda is hoping the new model will have wider appeal and higher sales than the polarizing first-generation model.
Right now, the Toro is just a Brazil-market trucklet based on the Jeep Renegade platform. However, cladded mules of the Toro have been spotted around Auburn Hills, and we don’t altogether hate the idea of a sub-1500 Ram pickup. For the Toro to be a success in the U.S. as a Ram, it has to offer enough power (more than 200 hp with an optional engine) and offer some real practical capability in the form of at least a 1,000-pound payload and 3,500-pound towing capacity. The Toro is currently rated for 2,200 pounds. However, we wouldn’t mind seeing the optional 2.0L turbodiesel, which serves up a respectable 170 hp and a beefy 280 lb-ft of torque. For the States, might we suggest the 2.4L Tigershark as the standard engine, the 2.0 diesel as an option, and either the rumored forthcoming 2.0 gas turbo or the 3.2L Pentastar out of the Cherokee?