The Unlikely Return of the Compact Pickup | Edmunds

The Unlikely Return of the Compact Pickup

Today's smallest trucks aren't very small at all. As many drivers have discovered, they're really midsize trucks with near full-size proportions. This has led to some nostalgia for the "mini trucks" of the '80s and '90s. Some buyers — we'll call them men between the ages of 38 and 58 — complain that if only Chevrolet, Ford, Nissan or Toyota offered something smaller, more efficient and easier to fit in a garage, they would be interested in a compact pickup again.

The problem is, they're forgetting why the Chevy S-10s, Ford Rangers, Nissan hardbodies and Toyota trucks of the '80s and '90s were so popular.

It wasn't because they were small. Instead, it was because they were cheap. Or at least as cheap as any car.

In 1989, Chevrolet's least expensive car, the Cavalier, had a base price of $7,375. A fine sedan for some, but for $99 more you could score a base Chevy S-10. Had you polled any number of men ages 18-34 at the time, 100 percent of them would have chosen the S-10.

It was a similar story on the import side. If you wanted an inexpensive Toyota, there was the two-door Tercel for $7,338. But for $660 more you could have had a Toyota truck. Nissan offered buyers the choice of a two-door Sentra for $6,849 or its "hardbody" pickup for $7,549. Who wouldn't choose a hardbody for $700 more?

The allure of those trucks had little to do with their capability. They had anemic four-cylinder engines with barely over 100 horsepower, so they couldn't tow or haul much. They also had bare-bones interiors and didn't ride very well.

But if you were young, most likely male and didn't have much money, a pickup truck had far more appeal than a Cavalier or a Tercel.

Today, those same buyers would still rather drive a pickup than a car, but they can't afford them. The least expensive truck Chevrolet sells is a base Colorado extended cab that starts at $20,055. If you're willing to drive a car instead, that same Chevy dealer has the Spark LS with a starting price of $13,000.

Like the Colorado, the Toyota Tacoma is no longer offered as a regular cab, so the least expensive model is a base, two-wheel-drive extended cab that starts at $24,320. That's a tough pill to swallow when the Toyota Yaris hatchback starts at just $15,250. Nissan offers the least expensive pickup on the market at $18,390, but if you just need cheap wheels there's the Nissan Versa with a base price of just $11,990.

There's an opportunity here for automakers, but the focus has to be on affordability. And if that means building a front-wheel-drive truck off a car platform, that's fine. It's not about tow ratings and torque; instead it's about choice.

Male Chevy buyers aren't looking to pull a ski boat; they're looking for an alternative to the Spark. Ford loyalists might not be able to afford an F-150, but they don't want to drive a Fiesta either. Offer either of these buyers a rugged-looking pickup that starts at $15,000 and they'll be hooked.

Both elements of that equation are equally important. A soft-looking "lifestyle truck" won't cut it. Keep it simple and make sure the price undercuts the current midsize trucks by a significant margin.

At that price level, profit margins would be thin. The average price of a new vehicle in the U.S. is now over $34,000, and even those models don't always make much money. But as a brand-building exercise, entry-level mini trucks at entry-level mini prices would be worth the expense. They have the potential to reinvigorate a once-thriving category that has lain dormant for nearly 30 years, and more importantly, they would inspire brand loyalty in young males that could continue for decades thereafter.

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