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First One to Compact Truck Wins!

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We just told you the Ford Ranger may make its comeback in 2016. That’s exactly the reason I think the first automaker to build a truly compact truck for America again will have a, well, truckload of buyers all to itself.

Vehicles of all kinds — but especially pickup trucks, it seems — tend to get larger with each successive generation. And so it is that we find ourselves with no true compact pickup trucks anymore. Fact is, until the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon twins came back on the scene this year, we survived a stretch where we didn’t have any real hope for midsize trucks to continue to be relevant in the American new-car landscape, either. All we had were constantly developing, always heavily advertised “full-size” pickup trucks that were considerably “fuller-sized” than their namesakes from 15 or 20 years ago.

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This is a 2015 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X. It looks 10 years old because it is, in every way except its model year designation. Photo: Lyndon Johnson

At some point, the ever-larger-trucks trend was sure to leave a lot of truck buyers lacking either the desire to drive such large beasts or the funds to purchase them, because with size increases also came price increases. Today, it’s nothing to see a crew cab half-ton pickup truck priced into the $50,000 range, when 15 years ago, that space in the market was reserved for the then-sprouting crop of full-size luxury SUVs from makers like Cadillac, Lincoln, and BMW. So there was space in the market for a slight return to sanity in truck sizes and prices, and today, a full-zoot Z71 Chevrolet Colorado with all the options will ring the cash register somewhere in the low $40,000s, depending on where you live.

But let’s ignore the top-end trucks for our purposes here. The problem with pickup trucks in this country resides not at the top of the price spectrum, but at the bottom. There are no $15,000 compact pickup trucks anymore — mostly because there are no compact pickup trucks at all. The new Colorado/Canyon twins have nearly the same footprint as a full-size Silverado or Sierra from just a generation or two ago, and they start in the low $21,000 range for a basic work truck with zero options.

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The 2014 Toyota Tundra SE, seen here in extended cab long-bed configuration, is enormous — like all so-called “full-size” trucks today. Photo: Lyndon Johnson

Want to know how ridiculous that is? Consider this: In February of 2007, I bought a year-old Ford Ranger XL — that’s the basic work truck with vinyl seats and a rubber floor mat, air conditioning, regular cab, and a manual transmission — for $10,000 cash. The truck had just 15,000 miles on it. Had I wanted a brand-new Ranger, I could have bought one with considerably more options for around $18,000 after incentives at the time. But, being a broke college student, even the $10,000 Ranger was going to drain my finances more than I preferred.

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My trusty Ranger was quite a lot smaller — not to mention a lot cheaper to buy — than the new Ranger likely to grace our shores in the next few years. Photo: Lyndon Johnson

That Ranger served me well for just shy of eight years. It was with me when I got married, and it helped me and my wife move into our house when we bought in the housing slump circa 2010. We used it as a motorized wheelbarrow for all kinds of projects at the new house. And I stubbornly hung onto the Ranger even after we had our first child. It was, shall we say, not the ideal vehicle for transporting three of us on its tight bench seat. However, life marches on, and we learned last December we would be having a second child. I could not squeeze two child seats into the Ranger. It was time to find something else for a daily driver.

But here’s the thing: Nobody made a trucky little thing with four doors that was in our budget. And thanks to the dearth of new compact trucks — as in, there weren’t any — the used market for compact pickup trucks had appreciated considerably in the intervening years. Where my $10,000 had bought a 15,000-mile Ranger just eight years earlier, last winter it barely bought a 150,000-mile crew cab midsizer like a beat-up Nissan Frontier or first-gen Colorado.

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The 2015 Ford F-150 Platinum feels like it ought to have its own ZIP code, it’s so much larger than the pickup trucks I grew up driving. Photo: Lyndon Johnson

Here’s what I propose: The first automaker who gets back to building a true compact pickup truck starting in the $15,000 range will have an entire segment to itself. There’s surely pent-up demand from working-class homeowners like me who want a truck for light-duty use but who have neither the desire nor the budget to park a $30,000 behemoth in the driveway only to drive it to work empty of cargo 99% of the time. I heard Nissan had considered this kind of strategy before gas prices dropped — the plan being to update the old D21 Hardbody pickup truck’s platform for modern safety regs and sell a smaller-than-Frontier truck in the States. However, that plan never produced fruit. It remains, so far, the only time I’ve heard an automaker consider re-entering the compact pickup class.

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The Ford Courier name was last used in America on a captive import Mazda compact pickup truck in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but the name lived on in the form of hardworking, front-wheel drive trucklets like this one south of the border. Public domain photo: Wikipedia

Small trucks exist. Ford recently sold front-wheel drive Couriers in Brazil. Fiat sells the Strada, which is also front-wheel drive and has been rumored to be the basis for a new Rampage, but it will likely be beefed up in size before making production if it ever sells in America in the first place. And with the cornucopia of cheap, front-wheel drive compact cargo vans entering the U.S. of late, I’m sure the underpinnings for something along the lines of a Fiat Doblo WorkUp are there for the picking.

So, automakers, get to picking. A vast, unserved market awaits.

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson is a husband and father of two who has now spent more of his life as a journalist than as a non-journalist. He serves as assistant editor at his hometown weekly paper in rural Tennessee and freelances in the automotive journalism world.