Among the pet segments that enthusiasts hold dear, none has been on a roll the way the mid-size truck market has been. News of the Chevrolet Colorado’s return, along with diesel and manual transmission options, have been greeted with the sort of fanfare that in the glossy buff book era would have been reserved for the newest European supercar.
But this is the age of the internet, the long tail and niches are able to thrive in cyberspace. Our coverage of the Colorado’s debut garnered hundreds of comments, and Phillip Thomas’ excellent analysis piece was our most popular article for a number of days (on the strength of this piece, Phillip will be back with more truck segment pieces).
While it’s easy for us to get excited about the Colorado, the numbers indicate a different story. The mid-size truck market has been in consistent decline, and the Colorado has an even tougher job than it did last time around if it wants to kickstart the segment all over again.
A just over a decade ago, the Ford Ranger accounted for 226,000 units alone. Today, the entire mid-size truck market is worth 225,000 units, in a truck market worth about 1.6 million units, and an overall SAAR expected to hit around 16 million units. with the Toyota Tacoma accounting for 62 percent of the market. The second place Nissan Frontier pales in comparison, moving about 55,000 units.
In 2002, its best year, the Colorado cracked 150,000 units, declining steadily until its demise a decade later, when it sold just 36,000 units. By contrast, sales of the Tacoma have been stable, and consistently stayed above 100,000 units, peaking at 178,000 in 2006, outselling the Colorado that year by a nearly 2:1 margin.
It would be foolish to assume that the market has stayed stagnant since those years, but in many ways, it’s quite a bit tougher. Having rebounded from the shocks of 2009, the latest crop of trucks is the best yet, and many of the key features touted by the latest full-sizers further diminishes the raison d’etre of the mid-size truck.
The two key selling points for mid-sizers has always been fuel economy and the fact that not everyone wants a full-size pickup. But the newest half-tons from Ram, General Motors and Ford offer 6-cylinder powertrains that meet or exceed that of a Tacoma V6 while offering superior performance. Even the latest crop of V8s, as thristy as they are, have set new standards for fuel efficiency in the segment – and the bar will be raised even further with the introduction of the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, which gets fuel economy figures more inline with a mid-size V6 sedan.
Of course, there are those who claim that they don’t want a big truck, and that a mid-size makes sense and is all the truck that they (and sometimes, others) really need. But then again, there are people who claim that crossovers are wasteful and inefficient and that station wagons would meet their needs (and in a spectacular feat of paternalistic solipsism, claim that consumers are too dumb to realize this). In both cases, the numbers come down heavily against them, and it doesn’t look like it’s about to change any time soon. People want pickup trucks for towing, payload capacity, versatility, status displays and even as a replacement for a full-size family sedan or wagon.
Even if the Colorado does take off and ends up reviving the compact truck segment, the regulatory and commercial deck is already stacked against it. The newest CAFE requirements brought into place by the Obama administration place an onerous fuel efficiency burden on small and mid-size trucks, while cutting full-size trucks way too much slack. By 2017, a small truck the size of the outgoing Chevrolet S-10 will have to hit 27 mpg (real MPG, not the confusing CAFE number) combined, rising to 37 mpg in 2025. On the other hand, a full-size truck need only hit 19 mpg by 2017 and 23 mpg by 2025. Add to that the simple fact that full-size trucks are far and away the most profitable vehicles on the planet for any automaker, and the mid-size market’s future prospects appear to be out of step with the amount of fanfare being heaped upon it.