The Mighty Pickup Slims Down

The Mighty Pickup Slims Down

Country music staple. V-8 power. Hulking can-do attitude. Apple pie might be the only slice of Americana that the pickup truck doesn’t check off. The three most popular vehicles sold in the Home of the Brave, historically, have been the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado and Ram 1500, in that order. Need to drag a house off its foundation? Hand me that recovery strap and turn up Blake Shelton.

Over the past 40 years, while that triumvirate cemented a hold on the market, trucks bulked up. Today’s midsize models, like the Colorado, Tacoma and Ranger, are similar in size to a 1970s F-Series. The days of single cabs are largely over, as buyers have overwhelmingly demanded crew cabs to haul the clan.

But something interesting is happening in a category where brute strength is a chief selling point. Looking to expand sales, makers are offering smaller trucks, adding special features and electrifying new models. Your dog may love the result.

Reducing mass could be smarter than hiding a truck from a vengeful ex. The latest census shows Americans continue to migrate to cities, where drivers of large pickups face white-knuckle moments like dense downtown streets and claustrophobic parking structures (hmmm, is my truck under 6’7”? Am I feeling lucky?).

The big news in small is Ford’s 2022 Maverick. Built on the same crossover architecture as the Bronco Sport and Escape, the Maverick slots under the Ranger in size. Long before Ford acknowledged the Maverick’s existence, spy photos made it clear that the company had a new compact truck in development. But the official unveiling dropped jaws like undampened tailgates — base models, starting around $21,450 when they arrive this fall, run with a four-cylinder hybrid powertrain. Let’s see how Brad Paisley works permanent-magnet electric traction motor and lithium-ion battery pack into his lyrics.

The front-drive Maverick hybrid (all-wheel-drive requires an optional 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine powertrain) is expected to deliver 40 miles per gallon in city driving, 33 highway. Perfect for people who buy on functionality, not testosterone. The company already has “100,000 reservations in big costal cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and Orlando,” according to Mike Levine, a Ford spokesman.

Let’s reframe the definition of small though — the Maverick may be Ford’s most compact truck, but at 200 inches long, it still stretches an inch past the three-row Explorer S.U.V. But at seven inches narrower, parking in the Macy’s garage should be a cinch.

When Ford famously announced it was dropping sedans from its lineup, it was playing to its strengths. “We know trucks,” said Jim Baumbick, Ford’s vice president for product planning. “We watched consumers try to hack their sedans to haul bark and building materials and that’s not pretty. Maverick will have commercial appeal but we targeted individuals. With a four-and-a-half-foot bed, it easily hauls bikes and gear but has the interior room of a Fusion sedan.”

Hyundai’s 2022 Santa Cruz gets a four-foot open bed, but the company’s senior product planning manager, Trevor Lai, insists it doesn’t compete in the pickup segment. “We extensively focus-grouped Santa Cruz and these people came up with the ‘sports adventure vehicle’ name. It’s for urbanites that have limited parking options but want to haul big things, bikes and surfboards.” Focus groups aside, people on the street call it a pickup.

The Santa Cruz gets compared to Honda’s unibody Ridgeline and the not-so-lamented Subaru Baja trucklet. Based on a lengthened Tucson S.U.V. architecture, the Santa Cruz’s design is swept and sleek compared with the awkward Baja and traditionally styled Maverick. The Hyundai has an in-bed trunk compartment that doubles as a tailgate party cooler much like Ridgeline, but the Santa Cruz is 14 inches shorter (and four inches under the Maverick). With straps and a couple of six-inch boards, owners can haul 4×8 sheets of plywood and drywall. The 2.5-liter turbocharged all-wheel-drive model tows up to 5,000 pounds (all other powertrains stop at 3,500 pounds).

Pro tip: The Santa Cruz is most useful equipped with a lockable self-retracting hard tonneau cover that’s factory installed on all but the base model. The E.P.A. classifies it as an S.U.V., but owners with the cover will quickly find that the working dynamic is much like a sedan with a trunk lid that rolls out of the way to haul Ikea furniture that won’t fit into an Elantra (or S.U.V. for that matter). The sky’s the limit here.

Traditional pickups are getting more attention from the automakers. Left to languish by many manufacturers after the turn of the century, the midsize segment is a whole new rodeo, with Ford and General Motors bringing models back.

Trucks like the Ranger Tremor and Colorado ZR-2, with a focus on off-road abilities, appeal to the Jeep Wrangler crowd. Or like-minded buyers could turn to the Jeep Gladiator, the brand’s first pickup since 1986. Nissan finally has a new and much more refined Frontier after 16 years of pushing the fossilized version. Honda has changed the design direction of Ridgeline from suburban hauler to square-jawed masculine to shed its “soft-roader” reputation (one that it doesn’t quite deserve, by the way).

Even the full-size market is primed for change. Changing the F-150’s steel body panels to aluminum in 2015 seemed like a gutsy move for Ford. Now, the most popular vehicle in the country since Dolly Parton starred in “9 to 5” is getting a full electric powertrain. The F-150 Lightning is expected to crank out up to 563 horsepower with a range of about 300 miles, and towing capacity of up to 10,000 pounds.

“Electrification isn’t just about the environment, it can make the truck better, more useful and practical,” Mr. Baumbick said. To his point, in place of the emission-spewing gas engine is a yawning space larger than some S.U.V. cargo holds.

For its part, GMC is resurrecting the Hummer in an fully electric version. The pickup, expected to ship at the end of 2021 (if you’ve reserved one) should bolt from rest to 60 miles an hour in three seconds, a very quiet “hold-my-beer” moment. It can also “crabwalk” sideways in awkward parking situations. The Hummer’s architecture will underpin fully electric pickups from General Motors sister brands with ranges estimated at 400 miles.

America’s pickup obsession has newcomers rushing in, as well.

Rivian, a start-up, intends to begin deliveries of its innovative RT1 pickup this fall. One high-end option is a slide-out camp kitchen, complete with stove and custom cooking set. Can it do a stovetop apple pie?

Rivian’s quad-motor FT1 will be serious drag race competition for the Hummer EV and is expected to travel more than 300 miles on a charge, 400 with the $10,000 Max Pack. Prices start at an estimated $67,500. Add five grand for the trick kitchen.

Need something bullet-resistant? Tesla insists the trapezoidal Cybertruck is coming, but it has been pushed into next year. Bollinger’s tough-looking B2 with 200 miles of electric range looks like the best project to ever emerge from a sheet metal fabrication shop. Canoo’s EV with its sci-fi form factor has an origami bed with sides that fold to become workbenches plus an extendable back end that holds full loads of drywall.

And country lyricists might rethink lines about V-8s, because those are no longer a sure bet going forward. G.M. offers a turbocharged 2.7-liter four-cylinder in its Silverado. Ford has been pushing turbocharged V-6s hard and, more recently, hybrid powertrains. Electrification can be a huge advantage to owners. Ford made headlines last winter when its Texas dealers lent hybrid F-150s with integrated PowerBoost generators to those who had lost power to their homes. The most capable units can provide 7.2 kilowatts of juice. That’s enough to supply a house with necessary current, keep the wife from leaving, the dog from dying and Carrie Underwood playing on the sound system.

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