By Aaron Bragman, PickupTrucks.com
Ford's long-lived compact pickup, the Ranger, is no more - at least in the U.S. What has been a longtime favorite of many ended U.S. production in December 2011 after more than two decades of appealing to both fleet and individual buyers with its tight dimensions, relative frugality and appealing sticker price. Sales in its last year were for fleets only, to companies like Orkin's pest-removal service. In fact, the very last Ranger built in Minnesota was an Orkin-white regular cab model, destined for termite eradication duty somewhere in North America.
Which led us to wonder: Now that the Ranger, once the best-selling compact pickup, is truly dead, who is getting its sales? Have buyers moved on to the few remaining competitors in this rapidly shrinking segment (including Toyota and Nissan), or have they stayed Ford fans and moved up to other products such as the Ford Transit Connect or the F-150? How will Chrysler's departure and GM's new offerings affect buyers? Talking to some industry representatives, we've started to develop a picture of what the compact pickup segment looks like today versus its high point in the 1990s, and what the future may hold.
Can We Interest You in a Bigger Pickup?
As recently as 1999, Ford sold almost 350,000 Rangers in the U.S., a number that dwindled to just more than 55,000 in 2010. The segment has shrunk from 8 percent of the overall U.S. automotive market to just less than 2 percent, and Ford insists that the reasons for that are clear. "Buyers of compact pickups basically could be divided into two groups," said Mike Levine, Ford Truck communications manager, "those who bought them for their relatively good fuel economy and cheap price, and those who needed fuel economy plus utility."
Ford's position is that the proliferation of inexpensive, fuel-efficient small cars caused frugal buyers to leave the compact pickup behind and move into compact cars like the Fiesta and Focus. Utility-minded customers migrated up into the bigger F-150, which as Levine points out, now actually gets better fuel economy in V-6 form than some competitors do, including the smaller V-6-powered Toyota Tacoma.
And small trucks are not the bargain they used to be. Today's compact pickups from Toyota and Nissan can easily be optioned out to reach the mid-$30,000 range, which puts them squarely in competition with the lower end of the full-size pickup market. Worried less about fuel economy and more about purchase price? Ram will happily sell you a 1500 Tradesman with a standard Magnum V-8 for just $22,640 plus destination or a Hemi V-8 Express model for just a few grand more. If you can spend about the same, get decent fuel economy, and reap the size and capacity benefits that come with a full-size truck, why wouldn't you step up?
Thanks, but No Thanks
Well, because not all buyers want a big pickup, says Toyota. "There are many buyers who believe small trucks better serve their needs," said Mark Oldenburg, Toyota National Fleet marketing mobility and strategic planning manager. "They do not need a larger truck and they like the fuel economy provided by small trucks. As the pricing narrows, consumers are making the choice to buy larger trucks for roughly the same amount of money as a small truck. Therefore, it is important to offer a small truck at lower price points to maintain sustainability of the small truck segment."
While the V-6 fuel economy comparisons may have equalized between compact and large trucks, some smaller ones still offer inexpensive four-cylinder regular-cab models. One can get a base Toyota Tacoma regular cab four-cylinder for $18,470 (including destination); it offers 21 mpg city/25 mpg highway for nearly $6,200 less than the cheapest F-150. Toyota says that it has seen sales increases for the Tacoma each time one of its competitors has left the market - not only the Ranger, but also when the Ram Dakota was discontinued, and when sales ended for the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon as well.
(To download a pdf of this chart, click here.)
Nissan's story is slightly different. Where the Tacoma is aimed at consumers, Nissan pushes the Frontier for commercial uses too. Nissan says that it also has seen an increase in sales since the Ranger's demise, but interestingly, it has noticed commercial customers also choosing to go with the subcompact Versa hatchbacks, giving credence to Ford's claim that some compact pickup intenders are happy going into fuel-efficient small cars. "Many businesses have realized that a small hatch is a great alternative [to a pickup], providing improved fuel economy, much lower total costs and ease of driving for their employees," said Nissan's Mike Hanley, director of marketing, Nissan Commercial Vehicles & Fleet.
From the data supplied by IHS Automotive, we can see that Tacoma has experienced increasing sales over the last two years, spiking when Ranger and Colorado/Canyon inventories dwindled. The Frontier has not enjoyed such a climb, with sales on average only flat since Ranger ended production. On average, since the announcement of their demise, the American-brand trucks have sold roughly 8,000 units a month. It would seem that much of that lost volume has indeed been picked up by the Japanese brands, with Tacoma alone demonstrating a nearly 7,000-unit monthly gain from the same point two years ago, selling largely the same truck.
Most automakers are tight-lipped about their conquests, making it difficult to know for sure from where these customers are coming, but it would seem safe to say that many are merely switching over to competitor trucks. What is harder to judge is how many are abandoning the segment entirely and switching to compact cars or larger pickups. But consider that just in 2011, the last year of sales for all of these trucks, total volume came to just less than 300,000 units - a volume the Ranger alone used to sell as recently as 1999, meaning buyers have most certainly left this segment behind.
The Rebirth of the Compact Pickup?
With only two automakers really playing in the small pickup segment (and we consider the Honda Ridgeline more of a midsize pickup) in the U.S., and every domestic player currently sitting it out, the future seems rather bleak for compact truck fans. But not so: In just a few years' time, we should see an expansion of players, if not quite a segment rebirth. Most significant will be the return of GM to the segment with the new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. As for Chrysler, all we have is rumor that Ram is planning to bring something new to the lineup to slot below the 1500 pickup, but those rumors suggest a unibody, car-based platform.
This is not going to be the same segment that GM and Chrysler left. These new GM trucks will not be like the ones that we last saw in 2011; the new ones are based on international designs and are also being sold overseas. They are likely to feature diesel engines, more interior room and higher prices than the trucks they replace. As such, these are no longer compact pickups - they are midsize pickups, more similar in size to the Ram Dakota that Chrysler yanked from the lineup last year and nearly as big as their full-size counterparts. Ford's new Ranger, sold in many overseas markets, has taken the same approach.
Ford's Levine describes the new global Ranger as "nine-tenths of an F-150," in size, function and content. The problem with this, and the reason Ford will not be bringing the Ranger back to the U.S. anytime in the foreseeable future, is that it would likely be priced similarly to the F-150 - meaning that any new midsize Ranger in the U.S. could cannibalize sales of the F-150's lower-spec V-6 models. And since those trucks work best for Ford's bottom line, especially when the company makes as many as it can, any plan that might jeopardize F-150 sales is dead before it can begin.
How GM will deal with the problem of cannibalizing Silverado and Sierra sales as it introduces a new diesel-powered midsize truck remains to be seen.
Stay tuned Ranger fans, as the segment for smaller (but not small) trucks is about to get some attention. But unless fuel prices skyrocket into the stratosphere, truly small, truly efficient compact pickups (which roam many roads overseas) are not likely to return to U.S. highways.
(To download a pdf of this chart, click here.)