Small Pickups Are Disappearing

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2011 Ford Ranger.

If you always thought a small truck like the Ford Ranger was a “just right” size for both work and play, you’re now out of luck. Ford pulled the plug on their little pickup after the 2011 model year. It was essentially the last of the truly compact pickups.

The Ranger had actually survived longer than it really should have, with no major redesigns in an eternity as far as the auto industry goes. To bring it up to modern standards in order to continue on would have been a huge investment, and Ford decided to pass.

All its competitors have grown in their most recent updates, with trucks from Toyota, Chevrolet/GMC, and Nissan now usually wearing the label of mid-size. Just as formerly small cars like the Honda Civic have gotten much larger than their predecessors, so too have entry level trucks.

I have a friend who’s on his second Toyota Tacoma, a 2003 model. When the next generation of Tacoma came out a couple of years after he bought it, he said “That’s too big!” and wondered what he’d do if and when it would ever be time to replace his. (Though in reality, a Toyota pickup is one of those vehicle that you can almost drive for the rest of your life if you so choose, as they tend to be very durable.)

So with those other trucks growing, Ford’s Ranger had an extended life due to many private and fleet buyers keeping its sales up. But now, with that one gone, the next oldest design may pick up some of the slack. That truck is the Nissan Frontier.

Technically, the Frontier is barely smaller than the Tacoma and the GM duo. And Nissan even refers to it as mid-size. But in the grand scheme of pickup trucks, it does seem the most old-school in the size and design department.

I recently got some seat time in a 2012 Frontier, a Crew Cab 4×4 model with lots of equipment, lots of heft, and lots of digits on its window sticker. Base price was $26,970, and a set of floor mats, the Sport Appearance Package, and destination charge sent the bottom line tab to $29,085. To be fair, a buyer can look for a base truck with two wheel drive and the smaller cab and be in the sub-$20,000 range … barely.

The loaded-up 4-door from Nissan’s press fleet was both fun and disappointing at the same time. I truly like the almost retro nature of its interior and its overall feel, but the truck’s length and four wheel drive system contributed to a horribly large turning circle that hindered maneuverability.

Then there’s the gas mileage: rated at 14 mpg city and 19 highway thanks to it being a 4×4. (The two wheel drive example with the same V6 engine achieves number of 16 and 20. Whoopee.) In normal tooling around, the fuel economy gauge showed I was averaging 13.5. So much for the Frontier being economical at the pump.

And that was what may have helped lead to the demise of the Ford Ranger. It didn’t get overly impressive mileage numbers either due to its dated engine and transmission, and lots of potential buyers opted to move up to the Ford F150 for a little more money. (Or even the same money with some of the incentives the high-volume bigger brother often carried.)

The strange little secret to all this is that Ford does have a new Ranger in the pipeline for world consumption, but it’s not going to be sold here. Ford’s Dearborn honchos have decided that Americans aren’t interested in small trucks anymore, though our march toward the dreaded $5 for a gallon of gasoline may be fueling a debate in the Ford boardroom soon.

Will we ever get small pickups again? Well, there’s one built in India that’s compact, has a diesel engine, and could be sold pretty cheaply, but it’s had a few false starts in getting to market here. Again, the rise in fuel prices may write a new chapter and we could see it after all.

In the meantime, if you’d like to have a small Ford Ranger, you’ll have to wander over to the used lot at a Ford dealership. The new ones have all left the showroom.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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