Small Truck Market Heating Up

Two top-level product planners at two major automakers must be looking at the same data: They both say that there’s a big potential market for small pickups.
Both see the potential for fun, compact pickups aimed primarily at younger male buyers. It’s not exactly a new phenomenon: Small pickups were all the rage in the 1970s for college-age Boomers, especially imported Toyotas and Datsuns, with the name later changed to Nissan.
Joe Veltri, Chrysler’s vice president of product planning, says, “Based on our data, young males still aspire to own a pickup. … Historically, if you go back to the ’80s, the compact or midsize pickup segment was bigger than the full-size segment.”
Independently, Mike O’Brien, product planner at Hyundai Motor America, said the same thing last month. He sees the potential for the comeback of the small pickup, but in no way intimates that Hyundai, a brand with no pickups of any sort, will be the one to bring it back.
Interestingly, automakers had begun to write off small pickups. Ford killed its small pickup in the U.S. last year, the Ranger, after deciding it had grown to just a shade under the size of its best-selling full-size F-Series. General Motors is going to deep-six the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon.
The planners note many millennials — or people born after 1980 — have outdoor hobbies such as riding personal watercraft, mountain biking and fishing and are looking for a fuel-efficient pickup at an affordable price.
Then, Veltri contends, Baby Boomers will soon want to trade in their full-size pickups for something smaller as they age:
“The trucks today, they are big, they are fuel-inefficient,” Veltri said. “The formula, in my opinion, doesn’t meet the needs of the market.”
Chrysler ended production of the midsize Ram Dakota last August, but is studying the business case for a so-called lifestyle pickup.
The automaker showed a concept called the Dodge M80 in 2002 and another one called the Dodge Rampage in 2006. Chrysler also talked about plans for a compact pickup in November 2009 when it revealed its five-year plan.
Tuesday, Veltri insisted that a final decision has not yet been made even though engineers are busy studying several platforms for a small Ram pickup.
He said the new pickup would be built on a unibody, or car platform, rather than a body-on-frame structure of traditional trucks and off-road SUVs.
“Based on the research we’ve done of the customers and their needs … we can do something in a unibody,” Veltri said, adding that there are consumers who don’t need or can’t yet afford something bigger. “Truck buyers are very loyal, so if you are able to sell one of your smaller trucks to a young buyer, you have a high probability of getting them to buy a full-size truck when they get older,” he said.
While sales of compact and midsize pickups once topped 1.5 million annually, sales have declined in recent years.
Veltri said small pickups fell out of favor because they became larger and more expensive. Many consumers opted for the larger trucks that in many cases weren’t much more expensive.
GM has said it plans to re-enter the small pickup segment with a new Chevrolet Colorado, but has not said when.
That leaves an opening for someone.
This year, Toyota has sold 67,150 Tacoma pickups, or 27% more than the same six-month period in 2011.
“We are enjoying the fact that some competition has exited the market,” Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota division, said Tuesday. “Also, consumers are taking a look at that segment because of the inevitable fuel savings on midsize pickups vs. full size.”
However, two other smaller pickups — the Nissan Frontier and Honda Ridgeline — are not doing as well. Nissan has sold 29,385 Frontiers this year, and Honda has sold 7,269 Ridgelines.
Analysts say the Ridgeline struggles because it is Honda’s only pickup and, at a starting price of more than $29,000, costs too much.
“There is a vacuum left in the small pickup category,” said Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence for “If (Chrysler) can come up with a highly fuel-efficient, more urban-outfitted small pickup, I think they can do quite well with it.”

1 Comment
  1. John Martin 6 years ago

    Bring on that G8 ute that got scratched when GM shut down Pontiac. I’ll dump my F150 for it.

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