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.

Ford About the Trucks

Alas, the last American Ford Ranger will reach the end of the line in a couple months, which leaves Ford without a compact pickup for the first time since the early 1970s. However, the Ranger lives on around the world. The truck for other markets is on a wheelbase about 118 inches long, comparable with our lame-duck Ranger's. The new global Ranger's length is also comparable with that of the outgoing model. It still looks like a Ranger -- or like the Ranger should have looked here with some actual updates. The new model goes on sale in 180 markets, including Australia, where the truck was designed and tested, as a regular cab or SuperCab, rear- or four-wheel drive, with a choice of two four-cylinder engines.

Will They or Won't They?
Ford can, but it probably won't. If Ford wanted to, it could bring the Ranger here, and avoid the chicken tax. One of the countries where the Ranger will be produced is South Africa, which is exempt. This would save the company the extra 25-percent charge. But there would still be costs involved in shipping the global Ranger here, costs that would likely make the new Ranger more expensive than the base-model F-150. And thanks to the new 3.7-liter V-6 in the F-150, the bigger, more capable truck is also fuel efficient.

Lassa's Take...
Even if you walk into your Ford dealer intending to buy a new Ranger, how could you not drive out in an F-150 instead? If Chevrolet has the strongest case for this segment, Ford has the weakest. New 3.5-liter EcoBoost and 3.7-liter V-6 options have been a runaway success in the F-150 this year. You'd need to buy the 2WD four-cylinder manual Ranger to get more than a 1-mpg highway advantage over the most efficient F-150.

The F-Series is the truck of choice for construction fleets, while the Ranger is the truck of choice for daily rental fleets. Still not convinced? Ford launched its F-100 tweener-truck program a couple years ago, then promptly dropped the idea when program managers concluded the truck's cost/price and fuel-efficiency advantages over an F-150 would be negligible.


Chevrolet About the Trucks

Strong rumors suggest the current version of the Colorado and Canyon will be discontinued after the 2012 model year. However, as one truck ends production, another one begins. In this case, it's the global-market Colorado. Chevrolet has presented concept versions of the midsize pickup at auto shows in Bangkok and Buenos Aires, both huge markets for global trucks. (According to GM, Thailand is the biggest market for midsize trucks worldwide.) We don't know much about dimensions or engines, but the concepts were shown with a 2.8-liter turbodiesel and 20-inch wheels on one and 18s on the other. The production version of this truck goes on sale in Thailand later this year.

Will They or Won't They?
They might. If Chevrolet does revive the Colorado, it would likely be for the 2014 model year. At that point, it would make the most sense to manufacture it in the USA, which precludes the chicken tax and helps keep UAW employees working. In addition, if the launch of Chevy's upcoming diesel in the 2013 Cruze catches on, it could pave the way for a compact/midsize in the U.S. with diesel power. That engine could possibly even migrate to the Colorado. The diesel-powered Cruze could net 50-plus mpg on the highway; if that engine were in a pickup and only got, say, 40 mpg highway, it would go a long way to help meet CAFE regs. GM's decision whether to sell the next Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon here likely will depend on how the EPA writes the 2017-25 CAFE rules later this year. The rules may not give automakers any advantage in building smaller trucks. In fact, smaller trucks may be a disadvantage when measured against full-size pickups with more efficient powertrains.

Lassa's Take...
Of all the small midsize American pickups about to disappear from our market in the next year, the Chevy Colorado is the one most likely to return. GM's Shreveport, Louisiana, assembly plant closes next summer, and the truck could return after a year off the market. When Chevy unveiled its new foreign-market Colorado with a 2.8-liter diesel in Thailand last summer, there was much speculation that the truck would remain here after all, perhaps to pick up the tens of thousands of Dodge Dakota and Ford Ranger customers left with no place to go. Yet, those customers do have someplace to go: EcoBoost Ford F-150s and mild hybrid Chevy Silverados. Even if Chevy sells a 2.8-liter Colorado here for fuel efficiency, the cost of clean diesel would erase much of its price advantage versus bigger trucks. I'd give the 2014 Colorado a 50/50 chance of returning to the U.S. market. If it does, will anyone notice?

Jeep About the Truck

There isn't one, yet. But Jeep has a couple options: bringing the Egyptian J8 here (at a cost of 25 percent more), or building a pickup on the Wrangler platform. Jeep CEO and president Mike Manley says there is a lot of interest internally, but Jeep has to take a careful look at the best way to use its resources. Were the pickup to be based on the Wrangler platform, Jeep could have a truck ready to go 18 to 24 months after getting the green light. You could also expect that it would be a low-volume truck, without a lot of variants. Were the truck to be based on the Wrangler, power would come from the 3.6-liter, 285-horse V-6. We'd expect it would be based on the long wheelbase that sits under the Unlimited, with an extended cab and a little more overall length to accommodate a short bed. The J8 is less likely, because of the costs associated with bringing it to America.

Will They or Won't They?
Probably. While Jeep has the option of designing a truck based on the current JK platform, it would make more sense to design the Wrangler's platform for it.

Says Manley, "It's safe to say another option would be a next-gen platform that's flexible enough to add variants. We'd want to make sure before the next-generation Wrangler [were finalized] whether there would be variants." He continues, "To make a viable business case, we'd need 50,000-plus units. Not all of those would need to be sold in the U.S. The Wrangler is sold in 120 countries, but the pickup market is very different in those other countries. It's not viable to sell the exact same Wrangler pickup here and there." He likes the idea of offering a diesel engine in U.S., an option that "gets better as emissions standards converge in 2014, when Euro 6 takes effect."

Lassa's Take...
Global sales certainly help make the case for something like the 2005 Jeep Gladiator concept. Even considering the prospect of global sales, and with Wrangler sales through the roof recently, this is still very much a niche model. It doesn't have the passenger space of a crew cab, of course, and it's not likely to have the towing or payload capability of a Ram 1500. Most important, it's not going to have the off-road capabilities of a Wrangler or Wrangler Unlimited.


AND THE REST

It may not seem fair to put all these models together in one place, but the plans for these trucks are constantly changing. Let's begin with the Ram Dakota, which had been rumored to be reinvented as a unibody. Ram would be smart to start fresh with a more efficient engine (Pentastar) and eight-speed automatic, perhaps on the new Durango's platform. However, that truck could end up being expensive, maybe costing more than the base-model Ram 1500, which is larger and more capable.

Then there's the Honda Ridgeline. We heard this Pilot-based unibody truck was going to be discontinued, then Honda announced the Ridgeline is getting updated for 2012, including a new Sport trim level. This may be a refresh of the current truck in lieu of a totally new model, and then it goes away after a few years or, as Automotive News suggests, it may be replaced by something built on the CR-V platform. We just don't know.

As Lassa explains above, the trucks that currently do the best in this segment are Toyota Tacoma and the Nissan Frontier. While there are no plans for a new Frontier for the next few years, we hear Nissan is working on the next-gen pickup based on a global platform, said to be no larger than the current truck.

One of the trucks to cause the most buzz in the midsize truck world is the Volkswagen Amarok. We want it to come here, because Volkswagen's turbodiesels are terrific and the company knows how to build a competent off-roader with genuine towing capacity (Touareg). It would be highly unlikely that VW could bring it here for a reasonable price. Says Lassa, "The brand that launched the chicken tax four-and-a-half decades ago won't build pickups here until Hyundai or Kia gets into the business. Even with Audi planning to add production capacity to VW's Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant, the company will concentrate on Passats and high-profit-margin Audi crossovers, not pickups sized between Tacomas and F-150s (see Ram Dakota). Even with a home office directive to triple VW sales here by 2018, the brand must be successful here with more important, bigger-volume models before it tries to steal Chevy Colorado sales."

Lassa also sums up the Mahindra debacle: "It makes a better lawsuit than a pickup. Global Vehicles USA has filed suit against Mahindra for canceling a North American distribution contract, which is the most action connected to this truck for about three years. Though I haven't driven one, I'm willing to bet the lawsuit is more interesting than the truck. But, hey, wait: It's got the kind of engine light-pickup buyers have wanted for years, a turbodiesel -- a 2.2-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel, coupled to a six-speed automatic, putting the power to all four wheels. Fuel economy must be pretty good, right? The EPA says 19 mpg city/21 mpg highway. Oh. About the same as a two-wheel-drive Chevrolet Silverado mild hybrid. A bigger hurdle than the lawsuit is that Mahindra had planned to sell a sport/utility based off the pickup to take advantage of the huge, sustainable market here for body-on-frame four-cylinder diesel SUVs. Move to dismiss."

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