The price of gas here in the metro Detroit area has been on the rise again, jumping up more than a dime a gallon in just the past few days. But with fuel costs still hovering around $2.60 per gallon, it's easy to forget that '” in theory '” the end times cometh in terms of inexpensive gasoline.
Which might help to explain why heavy duty pickups continue to make big news and compact ones continue to face the axe.
The latest move in the HD arms race came from the Blue Oval, which has now announced the payload/towing numbers for its Ford Super Duty pickups. These are the next size up from the full-size Ford F-150, offering the kind of capability needed in true work trucks: The Ford offers two engine choices, including an absurdly powerful 6.7-liter Power Stroke V-8 diesel that makes 390 hp and an absurd 735 lb-ft of torque, boasts a maximum payload of 6,520 lbs, and can pull up to 24,400 lbs.
So much for the proposed Chevrolet vs. Ford tow-off.
As for fuel efficiency? Well, if you have to ask.... Seriously, though, Ford does seem to have made an effort to improve things, offering a rear axle option with a final drive ratio optimized for better mpg on the "smaller" big trucks and reducing frame weight in the biggest Super Duty. The result is a claimed double-digit improvement in fuel efficiency, although Ford hasn't mentioned specific numbers '” and doesn't have to, because those EPA stickers are only required on light-duty vehicles.
Of course, the difference between "light" and "heavy" duty pickups is in the eye of the beholder, and I've beheld plenty of F-250s and F-350s being used as personal transportation, too.
Now, it's easy to pick on these people for their fuel-inefficient ways: Do they really need a big pickup with a payload large enough to hold two small pickups when they usually haul no more than the week's groceries? I mean, a Ford Ranger weighs a little over 3,100 lbs, and the Super Duty's payload is more than twice that.
And that brings up the real problem in the truck market. It's not so much that the automakers continue to push ye olde envelope with their biggest pickups, it's that they seem to be moving their small ones to the dead-letter file.
That Ranger, which hasn't seen a major redesign since the previous millennium and gets just about zero marketing support, still manages to outsell the much-hyped Ford Flex. Ford sold 55,600 Rangers in 2009 and 38,717 units of the Flex; in January, the score was Ranger, 4,143 and Flex, 2,452. Yet the Blue Oval, which is prepping a much-improved new Ranger for its global markets, and has consistently worked to align its U.S. products with those from overseas, continues to say it won't sell its next-gen small pickup here.
At General Motors, the latest Bob Lutz-sourced rumor is that the small Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon pickups could be on their way out. It's true that combined 2009 sales for the duo were well under those of the Ranger alone, but we're still talking about moving more than 40,000 trucks per year.
There's even less good news at Chrysler, where the Dodge Dakota seems unlikely to break 1,000 sales in any given month in 2010 and unlikely to survive much beyond that. There had been plans for a unibody Dakota replacement, something along the lines of a Honda Ridgeline, but that program has been back-burnered for the foreseeable future.
What makes this trend toward eliminating small pickups so unfortunate for U.S. companies is that foreign automakers like Nissan, Suzuki and Toyota are bucking it. The Nissan Frontier has a dedicated following and saw 28,415 sales in 2009, the Suzuki Equator (based on the Frontier) offers a good value and the Toyota Tacoma is by far the segment's top seller, racking up more than 110,000 sales in 2009. And none of these products are slated to go away any time soon.
Let's connect the dots now, shall we? U.S. small pickups represent more than 100,000 annual sales that will soon be up for grabs, as will at least some sales from former Tacoma customers/intenders (due to the Toyota recallathon problem). And their only remaining small-truck options could very well be the Frontier/Equator.
That's a large-sized boat that Ford, GM and Chrysler seem to be missing, but it's an opportunity that a small-sized, open-bed vehicle could help catch. And maybe that's the key: All three U.S. OEMs are getting adept at platform sharing, as exemplified by Ford's plans to build 10 separate vehicles off of the platform underpinning the new Ford Focus.
My suggestion: Turn the volume up to 11 instead and make the new product a truly small, Focus-sized pickup. I'd bet the result would have a surprisingly big impact on the marketplace.