Five Reasons Car-Based Pickups Will NEVER Sell in The USA

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To some, the pickup truck design goal of the decade is to come up with a ‘workable’ small pickup truck that’s small, inexpensive, and decent in terms of fuel economy. Many smart commentators – including Car Guy Dad most recently – have advocated for this type of truck.

See these images of this heavily modded Scion xB dubbed Scion El xBamino.

However, there are at least 5 reasons that we’ll never see a successful small, car-based pickup in the U.S.

1. Truck buyers expect a 6′ bed and 5,000 lbs towing. If you look at pickup truck demand, you find that many U.S. pickup owners (about 44% according to a study conducted by Ford) are hauling boats, bikes, and ATVs with their trucks. Since ATVs and bikes won’t fit in the back of a 4′ bed, and since a decent boat is a 3-5k lbs affair, you end up with the minimum standard being 6′ in length and 5k lbs. 5k lbs means you must go body-on-frame or use an over-built unibody platform (like the Ridgeline).

What about the 56% of truck owners who aren’t towing? About two-thirds of them are buying a truck for work…and work trucks almost always have a 6′ bed. The remainder? They’re image buyers (more on them in a second).

2. Weight and aerodynamics are the great equalizers. As soon as you put a 6′ bed and a heavy frame on the table, your fuel efficiency goes out the window. If you work really hard, you end up with a truck like the Ridgeline: In exchange for a 5-10% improvement in fuel economy, you’ve got to sacrifice 2 cylinders, 100+ hp, and 3-5k lbs in towing capacity…and the price isn’t much better.

3. As a society we ALWAYS buy bigger than we need. It’s the American way. Why get a perfectly good 27″ TV when a 42″ is available? Why buy a decently capable little truck when a much more powerful truck – which is only slightly more expensive and slightly less efficient – is available? It’s perfectly rational to buyer a bigger truck than you need – why risk having to make two trips?

4. The gas mileage issue isn’t as big as it’s made out to be. I’ve done some digging on my own and found that, over the last few years, small truck demand has been mostly independent of gas prices. As much as people complain, I think your typical recreational truck owner (who, by the way, usually has a garage full of expensive toys) can easily afford an extra $100-$300 a month in fuel expense. Work truck buyers are likely the most gas-price-concious, but again they often buy bigger than they need in order to keep from making two trips.

5. More than ever, trucks are symbols of status and wealth. I’ve been following the truck market for years, and one thing that really surprises me today is the number of luxury pickups I see on the road. If you go back to 1990, you didn’t see a lot of Lariat F150s. Fast forward 20 years, however, and truck manufacturers are offering a full bevy of luxury options – King Ranch, Raptor, Laramie, Denali, Platinum edition, etc. As fuel costs climb, owning a truck is going to be a way for people to send the message “I’m rich cause’ I can afford to feed this beast.”

Counterpoint: The best small truck strategy I’ve seen is to embrace the customization opportunities that pickups offer. Scion’s new pickup (rumored to debut at the Jan. 2011 NY auto show), might be a workable concept. If they focus on keeping vehicle costs down, making a truck that’s off-road viable, and then offering lots of accessories – like lift kits, big wheels and tires, etc. – Scion has a shot at making a small truck work. Of course, what that describes is a Jeep Wrangler with a pickup bed…and that idea seems like it has legs.

Bottom Line: A lot of CAR people seem to think that a car-based pickup could be a really strong seller. Truck people? They point to a long line of failed psuedo-trucks (Ranchero, El Camino, Subaru Brat & Baja, VW Rabbit pickup, Ridgeline) and say “No thanks – that little thing won’t really work for me…but it’s a great idea.

Comments? Do you think a car-based pickup truck will ever sell successfully?

Filed Under: Auto News


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  1. Steve H says:

    The Ridgeline is definately not in the same class as those other “trucks”.

  2. Mickey says:

    Jason I agree with your article. I guess the luxury comes with age also. As I progressed in trucks the more goodies were added in. Now I’m near the top of the line I’m really satisfied. I enjoy the goodies knowing well that’s more things to break. As far as money I don’t flaunt myself to give that image. But we know preception is what people see. Now as the small trucks they seem okay because I started off with a 92 Sonoma ST. A little 4 banger with a 5 speed manual tranny. It was great for me while I was in the Navy but now I like the room.

    Steve you need to let it go. We hear you, but the Ridgeline is fading away.

  3. rich says:

    LOl…can’t pull my 8,800 lb. toy hauler with that thing! Suppose you could folded up and put in your wallet!

  4. Brian says:

    Its all comes down to economy, and the economy is that I can spend $30K on a 5.7L Tundra and pull 5 tons with it, or I can plop down the same cash and get a Ridgeline with less capability (only 5000 lbs of towing), power, and at the advantage of only a couple MPGs? No thanks. I’ll take my big Tundra, pull my big RV, and pass everyone else on that mountain road. You’re right, Jason. Small unibody trucks will not make it here on any large scale, but the metro set in the urban areas may find a use for it.

  5. Jason says:

    Steve – Your love of the Ridgeline is cool man – keep it up.

    Mickey – I think that’s a good point too – the changing demographics of pickups could account for the increase in accouterments. I wonder – are pickups popular with youngsters now as much as they were 20 years ago? My perspective is that a truck is ALWAYS cool, but obviously I’m biased. Any opinions from the 20 and under set?

    Rich – LOL, I’d like to see that thing in the back of a bigger truck.

    Brian – Absolutely. If GM/Ford/Dodge/Toyota/Nissan have to had thousands of dollars to the cost of a traditional half-ton to meet fuel economy requirements, then perhaps the demand for a small, car-based pickup will improve. However, my guess is that people will simply look harder at used trucks rather than buy something that doesn’t fulfill their mission.

  6. mk says:

    It’s simple to get better gas mpg, say mid 20’s, if the truck mfgs. are forced to by the fed. govt. If the truck mfgs. got back to the basics and if people quit wanting all the fancy non-essential gadgets on the trucks like GPS, power rear cab windows, ABS, VSC, 380+hp not really needed, electronic stability control, rear backup camera/sonar, and the list goes on and on. All I want and need is power windows, power brakes, power steering, A/C not for the heat but to help defrost inside windows so they do not fog up inside, cruise control, 4wd (although I could live without that most of the time as well), and about 315 hp and about 335lbs. of torque will do and a 6’6″ bed length in a DC tundra. I know the technology is out there today to do it, but like everything else, until someone steps in and makes the full size trucks get 25 mpg hwy., the mfgs. are more apt at looking at ways to get the most excessive creature comforts the minority of buyers want so they can make the most profit for themselves.

  7. Jason says:

    mk – Not to be argumentative, but I think the opposite: more and more truck buyers demand car-like qualities and features. It’s not my cup of tea either – a $50k platinum pickup is completely off the scale in my book – but you can’t deny that consumers want these trucks because they sell really, really well.
    As for forcing the manufacturers to get better gas mileage, I’d rather see a market-based incentive. Add $1-$2 in taxes to every gallon of gas, and a lot of these problems take care of themselves. Then, we use the money to research alternative fuels, rebuild roads and bridges, etc.

  8. rich says:

    All the gadgets mentioned really don’t have anything to do with mpgs. If you want a half ton that will pull 10k then you’re going to give up gas mileage. I wouldn’t want to attempt a pull 10k over the rockies with 335 ft lbs and 315 horses. Howie Long would be traveling about 35mph as I pass him up with my DC Tundra pulling my toy hauler! If you want to spend an extra 8k, then you buy a 3/4 ton diesel but even that has its drawbacks. The point I’m trying to make is if you use the truck for the functional side then you give up mpgs, and as long as the customers still buy the “fluff” they’ll keep the mfgs profit margins moving up.
    Jason..I was wondering if my kid could use that little truck in his soap box derby…lol.

  9. mk says:

    Jason, no offense taken, we all have our opinions. I just think 50K with all the gadgets on these trucks nowadays is way overkill. Until we as consumers STOP buying these overpriced houses on wheels with the latest and greatest, then and only then will the mfgs. think about increasing gas mileage to mid 20’s. If we stop buying those 50K trucks (I cannot afford them and pushing a 30K truck now is pushing it), mfgs. can concentrate on better gas mileage or the govt. will try to enforce better EPA ratings. Not a Howie Long fan for Chevy trucks, but Rich if you are pulling anything over 8,000 lbs. pushing 10K, you need a 3/4 ton diesel truck anyways. Anything under 8,000 lbs., I would have no trouble with 335 lbs. of torque. You just won’t be first up the mountain is all.

  10. Mickey says:

    Whatever trips your trigger Mk. Not everyone agrees with that. Personally I like the comforts if I’m on the road all the time. If the manufacturer’s would do what you ask then we would get rid of Mercedes, BMW, etc. I get mpg’s in the lower 20’s now with a 5.7L. It can be done. It’s up to the individual to achieve it. Very few like to drive conservative. Having a 4×4 won’t achieve what you’re talking about.

  11. rich says:

    MK actually I tug 8,800 and the numbers put me well into the safety range. The payload is the only factor that I watch closely. I’ve pulled this load over several mountain ranges and the Tundra is a workhorse. There were several reasons why I didn’t get a 3/4 ton diesel but that’s another story. I think the real question here is how many folks drive trucks just because they like to drive them. I’m sure there is a large percentage that never use the function side of their truck. These folks could care less about torque. If the mfgs decided to offer a truck that can’t tow but has enough horses to push you back in the seat, do you think that would be a good seller…..e.g. lightning, ect. The point here is there is no way to get torque without giving up gas.

  12. danny says:

    The need to buy more truck than you need is basic need for work trucks and some play trucks. Besides having to make a 2nd trip, you never know when the trailer you have to pull is heavier than you thought. I hardly ever haul more than 4500 pounds but sometimes it gets up to 9k. Better to have the reserve ability than having to borrow or rent one that does.
    But, there is a need for the smaller trucks. If that wasnt true, you wouldnt have the Ranger, Frontier or the Taco. Now we’re talking even smaller trucks and i’m sure they could find a place in the market someday. As i mentioned earlier, we bought a HHR as a fuel efficeint cargo wagon. I would have rather had a fuel efficient truck with a topper. The HHR has made the transition from a compact family wagon to a compact delivery wagon. There are more hhr’s here with business logos on them than those owned by individuals. These include; Budweiser, miller beer, the National Guard, Parts suppliers, etc, etc. I’m sure, with the right setup and design, a “micro” car like truck could take that market away from the HHR. I also agree with you about “ego” but in the car market, you now see many more sub-compact cars on the road and almost all of them play no part in “ego”, for example; aveo, cobalt, versa, fit, hhr, smartcar, etc, etc. Over time (a long time), this may happen in the truck market too. I look forward to seeing something like the scion truck. If it wasnt for my line of work, i would only need an “occasianal” truck, then a small truck or a micro truck would be just fine. But for now, i’ll keep my Tundra.

  13. Anonymous says:

    A status symbol. My truck doesn’t move unless the I have to pull my boat out of the slip or taking the RV. I don’t see what thebig thing about trucks are. It isn’t the truck but two other things. The people with you to enjoy to thing behind you. Last year I drove my truck 7 times, the rest of the time it stays in the garage.

  14. Jason says:

    rich – Very true. The gas mileage impact of the extras isn’t too big…it’s the damn emissions and safety regs that add all the weight! 🙂

    mk – I hear that. Just because I think luxury pickups are a growing trend doesn’t mean that I’m a fan. I like luxury accessories as much as the next guy, but a $50k pickup is about $25k too much in my book.

    Mickey – You make a great point too – if you spend a lot of time in your truck, what’s a little more expensive to be more comfortable? That’s the thing about options – it’s really hard to draw the line sometimes.

    Danny – Good point about never knowing what you’ll need and buying more just in case. Also, I don’t disagree that smaller trucks are needed, I just don’t think a car-based truck will work. By the time you upgrade a car-based frame to be able to tow 5k lbs, you’re approaching the weight of a traditional body-on-frame truck…which means the gas mileage benefits of that lighter frame disappear. Still, it’s certainly possible that a light-weight hauler with a pickup bed could be a success – but I’m (obviously) skeptical.

    Anon – Your comment is perfectly valid man – a lot of people I know only use their truck once in a while…which means gas mileage really isn’t a consideration…which means they would rather have a big truck that can haul the boat than a little one that is a decent commuter.


  15. danny says:

    You’re missing my point. If you’re gonna have to upgrade a car like truck to tow 5k, well… then just buy one that can. What I was saying is, not everyone has a need to carry large cargo or 5k towing and a car like truck may fit their needs completely, without any modifications. We also must admit that 100% functionality is not a decision in buying a vehicle. If that were so, then all cars would be truck. Come on’, how functional is a Miata or a Mini Cooper? I think we’re forgetting the concept of the micro car like truck as being a vehicle for the “occasional” light load hauling, which (excluding ego) actually fits a large sector. We can’t consider these in the mid to fullsize truck sector because they fit different needs. This would be like using a Freightliner or a Peterbuilt to go muddin’ or running errands. Different vehicles for different needs.
    Lets consider the HHR. 900? pounds payload and 1000 pounds towing and gets 30+mpg. Now, if it was a truck, how many people actually exceed those numbers? I’d bet that 50% of truck owners will never come close to that. How many people dont have trailers, atv’s or a need for excessively large cargo? Again, I’d bet about 50%.
    Now, if a micro truck could be marketed a being cool and desireable, then they’de sell. I’ll admit its not likely but it’s a different concept from the typical truck. I could away sell my Tundra and have Lowes or Home depot deliver my appliance and lumber but who wants to be at someone else’s mercy. No disrespect to you Jason. Different needs for different people.
    It’s great if you can do that but a lot of people only have one vehicle and you might as well be comfortable on or off the road. I dont consider my truck or any truck i’ve owner as “status” symbols but there many who do. For example, Escalade truck- status symbol.

  16. Anonymous says:

    So what one thinks is a status symbol is to anthers comfortable ride nothing more or less. What is really comes down to is does it really matter? I think no more or noless of person nomatter what they drive.

  17. danny says:

    I hear ya. I wished the rest of the world felt the way you do.

  18. TXTee says:

    Ditto to Anonymous’ last post.

    Also, I do see a need for a small truck in the market but not a car-based truck. I thought that was why SUVs began to evolve. And I’m definitely not one of the people willing to shell out 40+ for a truck to have gadgets. I’ve still not spent that much to mod and make mine how I want that I need the extra comforts. Half the comforts in the luxury vehicle and SUV aren’t used as is so I did a pretty bare bones SR5 Tundra that’s been great for my functional needs.

    To each his/her own…..

  19. Jason says:

    Danny – No disrespect taken. A lot of people say that there’s a need for a smaller car-based truck. My thought is, the people who are considering buying a pickup have some sort of need for one, which means that they’ll want the 5k in towing and the 6′ bed…but I have been wrong many times before! 🙂 LOL

    anon – You’ve got that right.

    TXTee – “To each his/her own…” indeed.

  20. danny says:

    I understand what you’re saying but then again, even the base Tacoma doesnt really fit the 5k towing without the towing package and i think a v-6. The 4-door Tacoma only has a 5 foot bed and the crewmax tundra is 5 foot 6 inches not a six foot bed. I know i’m being very technical here and i really am trying to not be a jerk about it, really! People still buy these and they dont fit your requirments exactly. An “occasional” truck person may actually want a car but would like to have the ability to do some of the stuff a truck can do. A compromise between the two. Luckily, i have a Tundra and a HHR to fit our work needs. A fuel efficient cargo carrier and a fullsize tundra to pick up the slack and shortcomings of the HHR wagon. Of course, neither fills my need for speed so thats why we also kept our Buick GN.
    Again, the car like truck is unlikely to be very popular but time and the ecomony, as well as fuel prices will determine the fate of all cars and trucks. When i bought my z-71 in 1995 gas was 89 cents a gallon. I didnt care how bad the mpg was. Now, at 2.78 a gallon, I only drive the Tundra when necesssary. Luckily, we have more than one ride. Many people dont have that option and may have to make a compromise to something like a car-like truck. Who knows.

  21. Jeremy says:

    I am still waiting for Toyota to put the 5.7 in the Yaris. You think that Prius had an acceleration problem? You have no concept of a “run away Toyota”. I may be able to only haul 200 lbs of stuff at a time but the trip back and forth would be VERY short.

  22. danny says:

    That trip would be short, but a heck of a lot of fun! I think you would be replacing tires on a more than regular basis. Would the 5.7 weight more than the car?

  23. Jeremy says:

    Not with the all wheel drive underpinnings and the added frame support. Pure Concentrated Evil. Toyota Yaris PCE, Very cute evil but evil none the less. Comes in 2 colors, Blood Red and Black Heart.

  24. Jeremy says:

    And a special edition Color of My Little Pony Pink

  25. Jason says:

    Danny – Good point. I think that my numbers have a little flexibility, but I get your point. The 4cyl Ford Ranger, for instance, isn’t much of a tow vehicle but it’s a decent selling truck. However, Ford seems to think they can replace the demand for the Ranger with the Transit connect and the F150. Transit Connect offers lightweight hauling, towing, and general delivery type service, where the F150 answers the real truck needs. It could be that Ford believes the compact pickup is sort of a misnomer. Or, it could be that Ford doesn’t think they can make the Ranger competitive with the car-based pickups that are sitting on everyone’s drawing boards.

  26. Jason says:

    Funny – read my notes in the “counterpoint,” then check this news out about a new Wrangler-based pickup from Jeep:

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