Few will be surprised to hear that Chrysler Group will end production of its Dakota compact pickup truck next Tuesday, as sales of all small-to-midsized pickups have cratered over the last decade. Indeed, the Detroit News reports that the end of Dakota production will result in the layoffs of only 39 employees, although that number may climb as high as 150. In any case, the end of Dakota production is just the tip of the iceberg: Ford’s Ranger goes out of production in December of this year, and GM’s Colorado/Canyon twins will be discontinued sometime next year. Though Dodge plans to bring a minivan-platform-based AWD “lifestyle pickup” to market as a 2014 model, and Chevy is planning to build a North American variant of its new Global Colorado for the 2015 model-year, we’re looking at a several-year interlude in which no American OEM will offer a small pickup in the US. And looking at this chart, you almost can’t blame them…
Well, almost. The reality though, is that the OEMs are as much to blame for the weakness in this segment as consumers. The market for small pickups was born in the oil-crisis and CAFE-wracked 1970s, when tiny, efficient Japanese pickups flooded the market and created a booming segment that had long been filled by old, cheap-but-thirsty used trucks. Compact pickups sold well into the late 1990s, when a strange new dynamic hit the market: with gas cheap and SUV and full-sized truck sales booming, sales of compact truck trucks began to slide. And, strangest of all, when manufacturers replaced aging pickups with larger new (or at least new-ish) models, the sales declines only picked up speed.
First up was the Ranger, which received its last real redesign in 1998. Though it was redesigned with only a slightly longer wheelbase and an extra three inches of cabin length, Ranger sales peaked in 1999 and crashed precipitously thereafter. Of course, Ford was selling jillions of Ranger-platofrmed Explorers at the time, so the Ranger’s decline was not seen as a huge problem.
Though sales of most, though not all, compact/mid pickups were already in decline by the mid-1990s, the 2004 and 2005 model-years marked the real turning point in the market. Colorado replaced the aging S-10, larger, wider, and heavier than the S-10, the Colorado was also offered with a V8, an option that seemed out-of-touch with the compact pickup market brief. Strangely, sales of the S-10 had started to flatten off before the introduction of the Colorado sent Chevy’s small pickup sales into an even steeper tailspin after a slight bump in the Colorado’s first full year of sales. Over at GMC, which never sold many compact pickups, the pattern repeated itself (please note: Chevy/GMC sales combine new and outgoing models during overlap years). If anything, the contrast was even more marked for Dodge, which moved Dakota to a more Ram-related platform for its 2005 redesign. Again, after a one-year pick-up in sales, Dakota sank like a rock.
Nissan’s Frontier and Toyota’s Tacoma are more complicated studies, especially because they grew even more than the domestic counterparts when they were redesigned in the middle of the last decade. Both grew into what we now call the “midsized pickup” class, becoming considerably larger, heavier and more powerful. For the first half of the 200′s, Nissan and Toyota enjoyed largely flat sales in a crashing segment, but after 2006 they took a beating along with the domestic competition. Toyota enjoyed strong years in ’05 and ’06, replacing the Ranger as the top-selling “compact/mid” pickup, but by 2007 the declines were already beginning. Nissan’s sales were already growing when the new Frontier hit, and although its decline was one of the smallest and its 2010 recovery was one of the strongest in the segment, it’s clear that its bigger-heavier-more-powerful redesign did nothing to broaden its appeal.
It’s not surprising that manufacturers grew their once-compact pickup offerings during the cheap gas era of the late 90s and 2000s. After all, what consumer buys an entry-level product and without wishing for a little more of everything? But as gas has gone up, offering the customer more has eliminated the compact pickup’s raison d’etre: affordable, efficient utility. And now, rather than addressing that need anew, the American OEMs are abandoning the entire segment as a stagnant losing game. Perhaps the loopholes pushed into new CAFE laws will justify that approach, and the compact pickup market as it once existed is gone for good. But if you look beyond America, it’s clear that most of the world still appreciates smaller, more-efficient and ruggedly-utilitarian transport. Perhaps at some point, a manufacturer that offers such vehicles abroad will bring them to the US, re-kindling the smothered embers of compact pickup demand. Given the way the market has been abandoned, such a gamble seems worth the risk.