Compact pickups were all the rage in the 1970s and ’80s, when they were popular among young drivers, working stiffs and weekend warriors who loved their flexibility and bargain price. The bed was big enough for ladders and lawn mowers, fishing equipment or horse tack. Fit a cab to the back, toss a sleeping bag in the bed and you suddenly had yourself a camper. And if you parked it backwards at the drive-in on Friday night, you and your sweetheart could watch a movie beneath the stars.
By the 1990s, trucks had gone super-sized and compact pickups had taken a back seat to their brawny gas-guzzling big brothers. But with rising fuel prices and a push toward more fuel-efficient and eco-friendly vehicles, the compact pickup is making a big-time comeback.
“The compact pickup truck once was everywhere, the young guy’s vehicle of choice,” said Michael Jordan, executive editor of Edmunds.com. “But then, as the big pickup became more affordable and more fashionable, the compact pickup became less [attractive]. The big pickup took over the truck market and the compact pickup began to disappear.”
Of course, Toyota, Ford, Chevrolet, GMC and Nissan have continued to manufacture and sell compact pickups in both the U.S. market and abroad, especially in places like Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Southeast Asia where the smaller trucks’ popularity never waned.
America’s best-selling compact pickup is the Toyota Tacoma. Like its recent predecessors, the 2012 version is powered by a 2.7-liter 159-horsepower four-cylinder engine with an optional 236-hp 4-liter V-6. There have been some design tweaks for 2012, including a revamped hood, grille, fog lamps, headlights and bumper. Inside there’s a new instrument panel and gauges, and 18-inch aluminum rims are available. Entry price is around $16,900.
Tacoma’s biggest rival has long been the Ford Ranger, manufactured for nearly 30 years in the U.S. market. With a starting price of around $18,000, Ranger offers gas mileage of 22 miles per gallon in city driving and 27 mph on the highway, slightly better than Tacoma. Despite its modest size, Ranger’s standard 2.7-liter engine (which can be bumped up to an optional four liters) easily delivers enough oomph to haul a boat or trailer.
Ford has already announced that after the 2011 model year, the truck will no longer be offered in the U.S. Foreign production, however, will continue with a brand-new model called the Ranger T6.
General Motors produces two compact pickups: the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon.
Colorado comes in three distinct models: the two-door regular cab (seating for up to three), the two-door extended cab (seating for up to five) and the four-door crew cab (seating for up to six). Three different engines are also offered, ranging from the standard 2.9-liter four-cylinder version to a husky 5.3-liter V-8. The base model sells for $17,400.
GMC’s Canyon is nearly a carbon copy of the Colorado, available in the same configurations (regular, extended and crew cab) and with three similar engine choices. And the sticker price also starts at around $17,400.
Like the Ranger, both the Colorado and the Canyon are about to end their North American runs. But unlike the Ford pickup, they are expected to be replaced by updated versions based on GM’s new GMI 700 body-on-frame global small truck platform.
For his part, Jordan believes that the times are “perfect” for renewed interest in compact pickups.
“Americans still want utility — we are the people who invented Home Depot, after all. But we are also embracing smaller, more affordable and more fuel-efficient vehicles.... Moreover, as full-size pickups have [grown], so too have they become a little more unfriendly for maneuvering in traffic. A compact truck seems like a better deal.”
—Joe Yogerst, Brand Publishing Writer