By Tim Esterdahl
For the past several years, truck manufacturers have been adding more double and crew cab pickups to their build orders. They say customer demand is behind this increase, but could a combination of factors — the most important of which is pending federal corporate average fuel economy regulations — ultimately cause the regular cab pickup to disappear? It could, and here's how.
First, understand that the newest set of fuel economy regulations — set to have a major effect in 2017 — penalize truck manufacturers for selling short wheelbase versions of full-size trucks. The reason? The newest regulations are based on a vehicle's "footprint," which is calculated as the square footage between all four wheels.
To figure out a truck's footprint, take the track in inches (width from wheel center to wheel center), multiply it by the wheelbase in inches, then divide by 144 and you've got square footage. Here's a chart that shows the square footage for a handful of 2013 models, sorted by footprint.
As you can see, regular cabs jump to the top of the list, as they have the smallest footprints. This is bad for their future because fuel economy targets are based on this figure, and they're proportional. For example, a Toyota Tacoma Regular Cab with a footprint of 46.4 square feet must achieve 32.8 mpg in 2017, and 45.4 mpg by 2025. A Tacoma Double Cab with a 6-foot box, on the other hand, needs to achieve just 26.4 mpg in 2017 and 35.5 mpg by 2025.
That difference of 10 or more mpg by 2025 is huge in the truck world. A regular cab is a little bit smaller and lighter than a double cab, so it should do a little better in terms of mileage, but not 25 to 28 percent better.
Whether looking at a regular cab short-box Ford F-150 or regular cab short-box Toyota Tundra, the story is the same: A full-size short-box regular cab has to get from 8 to 13 percent better fuel economy than a double cab or crew cab version of the same truck. And if it doesn't? Every regular cab sale hurts a manufacturer's fleet fuel economy rating, to the point where the truck's manufacturer will owe millions in fines to the government.
In other words, that becomes an incentive to stop building short-box regular cab trucks before the 2017 model year.
The Case for Regular Cabs: Not So Good
Set aside the new fuel economy rules and consider the following:
Regular cab trucks really aren't any cheaper to design or manufacture than extended cabs. Need proof? Cars.com pegs the MSRP of a new 2013 two-wheel-drive Double Cab Toyota Tundra at $28,805. A 2013 two-wheel-drive Regular Cab Toyota Tundra (8-foot bed & 4.0L V-6) is $26,450 (prices include destination). That's just over $2,000 for the extra doors, sheetmetal, a V-8 and back seats. And that doesn't include the many incentives that could bring that number much closer together.
The problem here is that building a limited number of regular cabs is costly, as it reduces the efficiency of the production line when the line has to support multiple versions of the same vehicle. Truck makers also have to design and manufacture special parts just for the regular cab — and that's not cheap. While Toyota lists the MSRP of the regular cab Tundra as roughly $1,900 lower than the double cab, it doesn't offer the same kind of incentive money on the regular cab because regular cabs aren't any cheaper to build.
About 90 percent of truck buyers opt for double cabs or crews. This is why Nissan decided against building a regular cab Titan from the beginning, and why it dropped the regular cab Frontier in 2002.
Oddly, the short box is popular, which brings us back to the new fuel economy rules. Taking a quick survey of all the 2008 Ford F-150 regular cabs currently listed on Cars.com (255 total), only 25 of them are long boxes. While this isn't the most scientific survey (we've heard the take rate on a long box could be as high as 50 percent if you include commercial fleet sales), one can assume that consumers prefer the short-box regular cab over the long-box by a large margin. But if it isn't feasible for truck makers to build short-box pickups because of fuel-economy rules, what happens then?
Prediction: Enjoy the Regular Cab While You Can
There are plenty of reasons to believe that manufacturers will get rid of or severely reduce their half-ton regular cab offerings before the 2017 model year. In fact, it could happen sooner.
Toyota could be first since it doesn't do a lot of fleet business, and a lot of regular cabs are fleet trucks. Ram would likely be the next to drop the regular cab, as it is going to struggle to hit CAFE requirements this year, let alone in 2017. However, it probably won't happen for Ram until 2017 or 2018 when an updated model arrives.
Ford and GM will probably keep building regular cab trucks, but buying a short-box regular cab Ford or GM truck is going to be hard by 2020. It isn't that much of a stretch to say these trucks could be more expensive than double cabs, likely requiring a special order, and they might only be offered because there's a commercial need for them.
Will you miss the regular cab?
[Tim Esterdahl grew up in Michigan surrounded by the automotive industry and has been writing about trucks for several years. He is currently an associate editor at Tundraheadquarters.com and Tacomahq.com.]