The pickup truck has been a fixture in North America ever since the days of the Ford Model T. Back in the early 1980s, skyrocketing interest rates and a dodgy economy led to massive popularity of compact trucks such as the Ford Ranger and Chevy S-10. They were inexpensive, fuel efficient and big enough to haul bikes, tools and construction material. Their low box height and reasonably compact frames made them easy to load and ensured that they fit standard garages.
Jump forward three decades, and Ford has announced that 2011 is the last year for the Ranger in North America, while General Motors hasn't offered the S-10 compact since 2004. Even former compact car giants like Toyota and Nissan are pushing bewilderingly massive trucks in the USA.
The dearth of small trucks is especially strange when you consider that all of the major auto manufacturers have recently introduced affordable and very fuel efficient sub-compacts in North America -- the Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2 and Toyota Yaris, to name a few. They seem to recognize that small and affordable vehicles will be the cornerstone of their product lines in years to come. So why hasn't that thinking impacted the truck segment?
My guess is that the marketing teams at Chevrolet, GM and Chrysler crunched the numbers and concluded that full-sized pickups are far more profitable in the short-to medium term than spending billions on new compact platforms.
After all, a new compact truck would be priced lower, offering a reduced profit margin. New compacts might even trigger a costly price war as the manufacturers jockey for market share. And there's a very real risk that a good compact truck lineup would decimate full-size truck sales.
However, this is a woefully short-sighted strategy. If fuel prices continue to rise and disposable income continues to fall, many tradespeople and truck enthusiasts are going to find themselves unable to afford a massive 6.7 L-equipped 4x4 stump-puller. The only option will be something smaller and more efficient -- a product that no longer exists.
An empty market segment offers a massive opportunity, and I fear that foreign manufacturers may be the ones to fill the gap. Back in 2007, Kia Motors president Cho Nam-Hong remarked, "Isn't it time for Kia Motors to make inroads into the pickup truck market?" As the photo above attests, it probably is.