We've seen it coming. For all of this decade and most of the last, compact and midsize pickup truck sales are on the endangered species list. With aggressive pricing on full-size pickup trucks, it didn't make any sense to settle for a less capable pickup that had less power, was smaller, and didn't have the cool factor of a full-size.
In fact, for those companies that did invest in redesigning their smaller pickups, they typically went larger, morphing their compacts into midsize players. Use the Toyota Tacoma or Nissan Frontier as examples. Even the Dodge Dakota, arguably the first pickup trying to squeeze into the "tweener" space between compact and full-size pickups, doesn't have any place to grow. GM decided with the 2004 redesign of the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon (started by Isuzu, until it took back responsibility) that it would save quite a bit of money and not invest much into segment, clearly not going as far as it needed to fully compete with the Tacoma. And it seemed to be doing just fine not spending a dime advertising or marketing the truck. We'll see if the coming Pontiac G8 ST can find an audience (our guess is this will get attention from some but won't be functional enough to do any real volume numbers). This could be GM's new SSR?
Yesterday, at a local Motor Press Guild (a local auto writer's professional organization) luncheon, Jim Press, co-vice chairman and president of Chrysler, mentioned that he couldn't imagine a product like the Dakota could last much longer given the changing economic climate, auto industry trends, and current fuel prices. That entire small-truck segment, he said, will likely evolve into something more "lifestyle" oriented. We'd expect that to mean something more like the Dodge Rampage concept vehicle it showed a few years ago, which looked similar to the Honda Ridgeline and the recently "on hold" Ford F-100. "Lifestyle," as near as we can determine, must mean some kind of unibody platform, likely utilizing four-wheel independent suspension and offering a carlike interior. Of course, we'd assume some kind of highly efficient diesel or turbo-ized four-cylinder gas motor for big power and fuel economy. And, of course, that means less payload, torque, and towing ability.
Clearly, Toyota's ABAT (with a pickup bed) and Ford Explorer America (without the pickup bed) concepts are clear signposts heading the charge, and we'd fully expect many other makers to come out with their own vehicles to compete. Naturally, none of this is new. For those of us who've been around a while, vehicles like the Subaru Baja, the early '80s Dodge Rampage, and even the El Camino, are all similar tunes to the same melody.
Have things gotten so bad that we don't want functional pickups? Obviously the answer is no, but how many versions of the same car-based solution are we going to have look at before we learn once again that these "half-trucks" won't work? We're more likely to get better technology into the full-size pickup truck before we're lured into smaller, less capable, car-like platforms. We shall see.