America's love affair with pickups gets new midsize dimension
America's torrid love affair with pickups is getting even steamier.
For the last several years, the Ford F-series, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ram full-size pickups have dominated the industry as the first-, second- and third-best-selling vehicles in the US, according to Autodata Corp.
And that's not changing anytime soon.
But the full-size pickup category's raging success has given birth to a new generation of pickups for customers who want something just a bit smaller: the midsize.
That pickup segment is turning heads in the showroom and attracting automakers who want a piece of the riches.
Buyers of midsize pickups typically don't need the giant towing or hauling capacity of a full size and often view the smaller truck instead as a purchase that reflects their lifestyle choices.
"What people are looking for in a midsize pickup truck is something they feel like they can drive every day that isn't going to break the bank at the gas station, that's super comfortable, and that they can show up to a more formal event in and not feel like they're dressed inappropriately, so to speak," said Rebecca Lindland, a Kelley Blue Book analyst.
Midsize-pickup sales through the first 10 months of the year are up 17.6 per cent to 438,612, outpacing the overall industry's 0.6 per cent increase during that stretch, according to Kelley Blue Book.
That makes it a bigger segment than minivans, for example, whose sales are up 0.6 per cent this year to 410,711. And it's about to get even bigger.
The newest arrival is the Jeep Gladiator, which Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is widely expected to reveal at the Los Angeles Auto Show. It's like the Wrangler SUV merged with a pickup.
Another way to describe it: a virtually guaranteed hit, considering Jeep can do no wrong, industry experts say.
"I think it will be very competitive," Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley said on a conference call October 30. "It's a product that people have been waiting for, for a long time."
Close on its heels: Ford is reviving the Ranger pickup as a 2019 model, less than a decade after it was discontinued.
Having ceded significant territory to archrival General Motors - which surprised with the success of its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon midsize pickups, introduced in 2014 - Ford realised it could no longer afford to limit its pickup lineup to the F-series.
More than 13 million Americans own a Ford pickup, Ford executive vice-president Jim Farley told investors October 24.
"With the Ranger coming and the Jeep product coming, the competition is going to get more intense," said Tom Libby, auto analyst at IHS Markit.
Now, other automakers not known for large vehicles are also considering the space:
- Volkswagen is considering a midsize pickup after stunning the New York Auto Show in March with a concept truck called the Tanoak. As VW discusses a potential alliance with Ford, speculation includes the possibility that Ford will help VW enter the pickup segment.
- Hyundai has confirmed that it will introduce a vehicle that looks like a pickup mixed with a crossover. It's expected to arrive in 2020.
- Tesla is developing a pickup that CEO Elon Musk has pledged will inspire gawking. "[It's] going to reach the next level," Musk said in October on a conference call, noting that it's "the product I'm personally most excited about".
Taken together, the new entries are likely to take the midsize pickup boom to new heights.
The segment has already doubled in size over the last four years, as measured by industry market share, from 1.5 to three per cent, according to IHS Markit.
Midsize pickup sales are expected to increase by 50 per cent over the next five years, according to LMC Automotive's David Franklin.
Just five years ago, if you wanted a pickup but couldn't stomach a full-size model, your options were quite limited.
The Toyota Tacoma ruled the segment. And it still does, at least for now.
Tacoma sales have soared 25.3 per cent this year to 204,443 units. That makes it Toyota's fourth-best-selling vehicle for 2018. By comparison, it's nearly three times more popular than the Prius hybrid car.
"Their volumes are very, very strong," Libby said.
And Tacoma buyers are faithful to the nameplate, Lindland said. She predicted that they will be hard for competitors to win away.
But Toyota North America CEO Jim Lentz told USA TODAY earlier this year that he expects the Tacoma to lose some market share, even as overall volume grows.
"Are we going to maintain 50 per cent market share?" he asked. "Likely not. I think those days are probably over."
Other existing vehicles in the segment are the Nissan Frontier and Honda Ridgeline. But their sales add up to less than half of the Tacoma's.
Full-size vs midsize
For years, industry executives were worried that midsize pickups would swipe sales away from the even more profitable full-size pickups, which are the golden goose of the industry.
But those fears proved to be unfounded - at least with the national average price of gasoline below US$3 a gallon for the last four years.
Charlie Gragg, 60, of Bloomfield Township, Michigan, represents the kind of new customer midsize trucks can attract. Gragg sometimes needs to haul lumber, but he does not need to tow the heavier loads possible with a full-size pickup.
Gragg has a three-year lease on a Honda Ridgeline.
"It's my first truck, and I love it. My wife enjoys driving it, too. We call it a 'car-truck'," Gragg said, noting that he had "had [his] eye on trucks" before taking on the lease. "The back seats in this truck are more comfortable than many cars I've been in."
During a trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula this summer, Gragg and his wife, Julia, were able to haul bikes on a rack, kayaks, and their luggage with the Ridgeline.
One factor that's attracting buyers to the midsize segment: It's cheaper.
Midsize truck buyers' income is about US$10,000 less than those who buy full-size pickups, according to Cox Automotive. Midsize prices range in the mid US$20,000s to the low US$40,000s. The Ford F-series, by contrast, averaged a record-high price of US$47,300 in October, or about US$2,000 more than the average full-size pickup for the industry, according to Ford.
But Toyota Tacoma chief engineer Sheldon Brown said price is not the only consideration for midsize buyers. Some concerns are purely practical.
For example, many shoppers want to make sure they can fit the vehicle into their garage, he said. And some full-size pickups must be left in the driveway.
"It really comes down to how people use it," Brown said.