Half-ton and heavy-duty pickups keep growing larger. Whither the versatile compact pickup truck? They were a popular mode of transportation for many of us in high school, college, and beyond. The compacts were affordable, easy to work on, and had enough room in the bed for gear. Unlike many modern half-tons, compact pickups easily fit in the garage. So how come nothing major has happened in this truck segment in a decade? Why do we hear about all these great trucks around the world that aren't coming here?

First, understand that bringing global-market trucks to the United States isn't as easy as putting them in crates and shipping them. In addition to making the trucks comply with safety and emissions standards here, there is also the issue of the "chicken tax." This was originally imposed in the 1960s on products imported to the U.S. as a response to a tariff on products (including frozen chicken) exported to Europe. While the 25-percent tax has since been lifted on other products, it remains on light trucks. That is why vehicles such as the Ford Transit Connect are shipped to America as passenger vehicles, and reassembled here as light trucks.

With all that in mind, Motor Trend Detroit editor Todd Lassa says, "Compact trucks are dead." I disagree. Not only is there demand for compact trucks; there is a need for them, as fuel-economy standards continue to toughen. We have interviewed people in the know to get the latest news on compact pickups in the United States. Keep in mind that as of press time, the new CAFE rules weren't yet finalized. They could determine the fate of compact pickups.

Toyota About the Trucks

The Tacoma is Toyota's only compact in the U.S. The last time we got our hands on sales numbers, the Tacoma had 40-percent market share, tops by far in the segment. The Tacoma continues to sell well, and the truck gets a refresh for 2012 with revised front-end and interior styling, and possibly new engines.

If Toyota wants to bring other trucks to the United States, there are a few options. Most likely would be the Hilux, the best-known Toyota truck not sold here. The Hilux has nearly the same variety of cabs as the Tacoma and comes with diesel engine options. Its wheelbase is 6 inches shorter than that of the regular-cab Tacoma, and the biggest Hilux is about 15 inches shorter than the longest Tacoma. The current Hilux has some of the Tacoma's design cues, but its smaller size puts it on par with pre-1995 Tacomas.

As Paul Wiliamsen, national manager of Lexus College at Toyota, explains, "The Hilux is a traditional small Japanese pickup truck. It is built much in the mold of a pre-1990s half-ton pickup [literally a half-ton payload], and reflects how pickups are used in rest of the world. Four-cylinder gas engines suffice for most markets, along with a manual transmission and two-wheel drive. That keeps cost and weight low, and fuel economy as high as possible. That's appropriate to serve the needs of developing countries, but not as much for the United States."

Toyota builds its trucks to reflect the needs of the local markets. That American truck buyers ask different things of their trucks helps define what the Tacoma is here. Williamsen explains: "People want to take a dirt bike and buddies to the desert, and the Tacoma has a short enough wheelbase for better breakover, fuel economy, and smaller and lighter packaging than a Tundra. Features like 4WD, automatic transmission, and air-conditioning would be burdensome on a Hilux."

Will They or Won't They?
If fuel economy requirements work in its favor, Toyota might bring the Hilux here, which could provide a more affordable option in a slow economy. However, the company would face two issues: First, would it leech sales from lower-end Tacomas? Second, would the added cost of importing the trucks, emissions and safety certification, and production pay off with enough sales, or would it make more sense to put that money toward making the Tacoma lighter and more fuel-efficient? For now, the answer remains Tacoma.

What about a unibody Tacoma? Williamsen sees this as a hypothetical. "More discussion would have to happen, but there is more of a possibility of something unibody in the future. Even so, if Toyota were ever to consider making the Tacoma a unibody, the only way it could do it would be to retain the off-road capability, towing, and all the things that are expected of a Tacoma. That move would improve fuel economy, and if in the future a single platform could be shared with a midsize SUV, it would double potential fuel-economy savings." We would expect that going to a unibody would improve fuel economy, but as has been the case with all sport/utilities that abandoned body-on-frame platforms, either some capability is lost, or weight stays about the same and fuel economy doesn't improve all that much.

Less theoretical and more realistic is the idea of making a production version of the A-BAT concept, perhaps as a Scion or Prius. That would provide room in the bed, all the fuel savings a smaller truck can offer (including hybrid power), and, under an edgier badge, could give Toyota the opportunity to redefine what pickups are, for a new generation of buyers.

Lassa's Take...
To say there's a small market for compact and midsize pickups isn't to say there's no market. Toyota and Nissan own this space. For the first half of 2011, the Tacoma outsold the Tundra, 52,895 (+3.4 percent) to 39,848 (-12.6 percent); while the Nissan Frontier at 23,439 units, up 27.2 percent, nearly tripled Titan's 8878 units, off 20.2 percent.

The question of whether Tacoma and Frontier can maintain these sales numbers for the rest of calendar 2011 will reveal a lot about whether the shift to smaller models has any permanence. If gasoline remains below $4, the two smaller trucks probably won't double their half-year numbers for the full year. One analyst requesting anonymity says that because the Tacoma doesn't share its platform with any other high-volume model, Toyota is "questioning" the small pickup's future. The Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier make up most of the small truck market, and it's not growing.