Small SUVs are one of the hottest vehicle segments right now, and it’s easy to see why with their spacious cargo holds, available all-wheel drive, good fuel economy, abundance of high-tech features and family-friendly passenger space. However, small SUVs only have so much capability when it comes to driving off the pavement and towing, and their cargo holds are only so big. That’s where trucks come in. Small trucks are trying to making a comeback, and the newest batch have many of the same selling points as small SUVs, as well as off-road-oriented models, better towing capacities and a bed that expands the limits of what you can haul.
The Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon and Toyota Tacoma are three redesigned or refreshed small pickup trucks in the segment, and automakers want shoppers to know these aren’t the small trucks you may think you know from many years ago. Automakers are trying to erase the negative memories owners may have with older small pickup trucks, including a harsh ride, cheap cabin materials, a tiny back seat and a lack of tech features.
[Truck Rankings: Compact Pickup Trucks]
So why are some automakers building small trucks again? “There’s always been this demand there for the small truck,” says Tony Johnson, marketing manager for the Chevrolet Colorado, which was reintroduced as a 2015 model last year after a three-year hiatus. “The problem is, there wasn’t really a small truck to meet that demand. The Tacoma and Frontier are the main competitors. Everybody else kind of left the segment and the Tacoma and Frontier haven’t been updated in a decade. So there are customers who really wanted this small truck, but they didn’t want an old truck. They wanted the new technologies, the refinement, the comfort -- the things they’re getting in their garage-mate vehicles, like sedans and crossovers that have come a long way in the past few years as far as infotainment and fit and finish on the interior.”
The GMC Canyon also came back as an all-new model last year after being gone for three years. Kenn Bakowski, marketing manager for the GMC Canyon, agrees that shoppers wanted more out of their trucks that they just weren’t getting. “From what we can tell, there’s a whole lot of people out there that went elsewhere, that now are going to come back and look at our trucks because the fuel economy is much better, our trucks are quiet, the ride quality is really good, it’s got contemporary technologies now and styling and the rear seats are bigger than the old trucks’,” Bakowski says.
“The challenge for us, and it’s a fun challenge, but it’s very real, is that they all have a different frame of reference now when they look at our truck. They’re not going to want to compromise all that stuff they’re used to in their other vehicle to get back into a truck.”
Some automakers, like Toyota and Nissan, have kept their small pickup trucks in the segment continuously for many years. Toyota introduced a heavily refreshed 2016 Tacoma at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this month. The Tacoma was last fully redesigned for the 2005 model year. Jack Hollis, vice president of Toyota marketing, says that some small truck owners didn’t choose the crossover SUV and sedan route, but instead waited for something better to come along.
“I don’t know if they’re actually gravitating more toward [small trucks] again, but I’d look at it this way: They almost feel like they have more permission to go there,” Hollis says. “I don’t think they ever necessarily went and bought anything else. They kind of waited, and with the gas prices coming down a little bit, people feel like there’s permission to feel like it’s ok [to buy a truck]. I think people decided to withhold their choices, maybe save a little extra money, and now they’re bringing that money to the marketplace.”
Fuel economy for compact pickup trucks has made some progress in the past few years. The 2012 Chevrolet Colorado 4WD with an automatic transmission and four-cylinder engine gets an EPA-estimated 17/23 mpg city/highway, while the similarly equipped 2015 Colorado gets 19/25 mpg. Though that increase in fuel economy is not earth-shattering, shoppers will likely notice the biggest improvement in the compact pickup class is the features list.
The 2016 Toyota Tacoma will be available with features like wireless phone charging, proximity key, push-button start, a power moonroof, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, an easy lower tailgate and a tonneau cover that folds in three ways and locks. The 2011 Tacoma has few standard features, and when it was new, buyers had to upgrade to get things like power windows, door locks and mirrors, as well as satellite radio, a CD changer, Bluetooth and a rearview camera. These kind of features are standard equipment on many new vehicles right now.
Now that many consumers are in the market for a new vehicle again, automakers plan to focus their marketing efforts for these small trucks on truck buyers who left the segment, as well as first-time buyers. Chevrolet’s Johnson adds, “These customers really have an active mindset. They’re ready to be on the go, they’re always looking for things to do, and that’s really sort of how we zeroed in on our demographic and who our customer was.”
Toyota is also targeting its Tacoma toward shoppers who lead an active lifestyle and might throw their bike in the truck and hit the trail, or pack their truck up for a camping trip. Hollis says, “We have always loved the youthful mindset male, and that’s where we’re going to continue to go [with our marketing efforts]. This vehicle is much more about the lifestyle of having fun. Also, young women [are] really interested in Tacoma, and that’s exciting for us.”
Will the better fuel economy, better ride comfort, higher-quality interior and new high-tech features sway crossover shoppers over to the new batch of small trucks? It’s too early to tell from recent sales figures, but will you be considering a small truck when you’re ready to buy?