My high-school buddy's Ford Courier, a hand-me-down from his family's auto parts business, suffered from multiple drivers but went everywhere without complaint, repair, or a big gas bill. Pickups like that deserve a comeback, but that won't happen without a gas tax. In the early 1990s, Detroit executives insisted there was no market for four-door pickups, but at least eight manufacturers -- platform twins not included -- offered a real compact pickup. Many had a big four-cylinder that would crawl up a hill at 200 rpm and came with optional sixes for speed, but they were light and small, and got decent fuel mileage.
Now that the Tacoma and Frontier have grown to the size of the Dakota, which has been gone since the 2010 model year, there are no compact trucks left. Why?
Manufacturers say they don't sell. In 1994, we bought about 1.2 million compact pickups; by 2012 that dropped to about one-quarter million, or roughly 80,000 units fewer than 1994 Ranger sales alone. They didn't sell because resources went to profitable full-sizes that claim the same fuel economy ratings. The emphasis is on ratings, not real-world use.
A base 2011 Ranger weighs 3136 pounds, while the base F-150 is 4685 pounds. With newer engines and a six-speed auto, the F-150's 17/23/19-mpg fuel-economy rating echoes the Ranger's five-speed auto's 19/24/21 number (it goes up to 22/27/24 with the manual). Only in CAFE-land does one extra gear net a 4700-pound truck the same mileage as a 3150-pound truck with less frontal area.
The Ranger sold well for 10 years, despite a lack of serious product development. The last significant chassis change was the addition of rack-and-pinion steering, conventional IFS, and a boxed front frame for 1998. In 2001, the 2.3-liter Duratec DOHC I-4 arrived, the 4.0-liter V-6 went to SOHC, and a five-speed auto replaced a four. The 3.0-liter was gone in 2009, the year after the government definition of a compact pickup went from a truck with a GVWR of less than 4500 pounds to a GVWR below 6000.
Compare that with the F-150, which got cammer motors and a complete redesign four years earlier, another new platform in 2004, and all-new engines in 2011. Imagine what Ranger sales might be today with an optional 3.7-liter V-6 crammed between the shock towers, a 2.0-liter EcoBoost, a 2.2- or 3.2-liter diesel, or a chassis that was designed this century.
Oh, wait. The "global" Ranger has that, but with the same wheelbase as a regular-cab short-bed F-150, that Ranger is nearly as large and won't be sold here. According to Automotive News, Ford reported 23 percent of its customers in January who traded in a Ranger picked an F-150.
Consider the Ranger's competition. The Colorado/Canyon were new in 2004. Their engines were upgraded in 2007, and a V-8 was offered in 2009. The Tacoma got a new engine range in 2005.
Like Ford, GM and Ram apply gas-saving ideas to pricier, more profitable pickups. A Hemi offers more power and economy than a 4.7-liter with the same transmission. A 5.3-liter AFM Vortec/six-speed auto gets 17 mpg combined, the same fuel economy as the 4.3-liter/four-speed combination, which has 125 fewer hp and 70 fewer lb-ft. That 17 mpg is better than you would get in a Colorado with the 5.3-liter, and is just 2 less than in a five-cylinder Colorado. Again, in CAFE-land, smaller 3400-pound and bigger 4400-pound trucks use the same gas.
I hold EPA, DOT/NHTSA, and the manufacturers responsible. Federal fuel-economy rules are largely written by industry lobbyists, are loophole-laden, and protect bread-and-butter pickups. Consider that the fuel-economy regs for the European Union consume the space equivalent of an issue of Truck Trend, while CAFE requires 2000 pages.
Current gas-saving theory is footprint-based: Smaller vehicles require higher mpg targets. If you want an easier target, build a bigger vehicle that uses more gas. Mazda and Subaru don't bring us wagons anymore because a lifted Legacy becomes an Outback "truck" for CAFE purposes, and a Mazda6 wagon would require higher mileage than a CX-5. We'll never get a Fusion or Cruze wagon while Detroit makes more money meeting lower targets with Edges and Equinoxes.
Washington is talking about unification of some standards. This may end the "chicken tax" that slaps a 25-percent tariff on imported "trucks" (defined with equal confusion) rather than 2.5 percent on cars, but manufacturers can get around that by building vehicles here. But don't plan on any big changes to the fuel economy rules that might encourage the return of genuine compact trucks.
As it stands now, the manufacturers have every reason to avoid selling compact pickups and very few reasons to build them. I applaud GM's decision to bring us a new Colorado, even if it is only 10 percent smaller than a Silverado. After all, better EPA ratings on the same footprint can only help GM's CAFE scores, fuel prices may go up and demand better real-world fuel economy, and some of us don't need 90 inches of overhang to call it a pickup.