Frugal Shopper: Money-Saving Compact Pickups A Dying Breed?

October 18, 2010

Compact pickup trucks can make a lot of sense to those who need to be careful with the budget. With a single vehicle, you can carry mulch, a sizable load of firewood, or a weekend's worth of home-improvement materials, and have basic, frugal commuter wheels as well.

But ever since the 1990s, compact trucks have been gradually going out of fashion. Today the popularity of compact trucks is on a pronounced decline, and what had been one of the hottest vehicle segments back in the 1980s is now an afterthought.

Some automakers that once had strong compact-truck models, like Mazda and Mitsubishi, have dropped out completely, and now even Ford plans to jump ship.

A compact market, compared to what it was

Overall, the compact truck segment is less than a quarter the size it was just a decade ago—from one million per year down to about 230,000 this past year. In 2009, Ford sold just 55,600 Rangers—that's less than a quarter of what it sold in 2002—and sales of compact trucks from Nissan, Toyota, and GM are all way down.

"The compact pickup segment continues to get smaller," said Ford spokesman Mark Schirmer last week, replying to The Car Connection's questions about why the company doesn't plan to bring the next-generation 2012 Ford Ranger to the U.S. market.

Schirmer said that years ago a very large portion of Ranger buyers drove one not necessarily because they wanted a compact pickup but rather because they wanted a low-priced, fuel-efficient Ford, and the Ranger fit the bill.

Our Marty Padgett recently found that more than ten percent of Ranger sales are now to exterminators, such as Orkin.

Fleet shoppers going elsewhere?

Historically, many Ranger buyers have been company fleet purchasers, said Schirmer, and today those fleets have alternatives such as the Ford Transit Connect or base V-6 versions of the Ford F-150.

However, city-dwellers might be put off by the width and sheer size of a full-size truck. The F-150 isn't yet as affordable or as fuel-efficient as the Ranger, either. It's close in some trims, but the base Ranger's 22 mpg city, 27 highway EPA rating is still well ahead of even the base 2011 Ford F-150 V-6, which has been rated at 16/23.

Some of these trucks, like the Ranger, are based on aged designs, and safety is no doubt an issue. In a recent rating of five small and mid-size pickups, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found only one of the five trucks tested, the Nissan Frontier, to be 'good' in the rollover-related roof-strength test.

Compact pickups aren't going away altogether, though. The departure of some major automakers from the market. "It leaves some opportunities for potential newcomers," said Jesse Toprak, TrueCar's vice president for industry trends, adding that this will become one of many niche markets instead.

One of those niche entries, the compact, diesel-powered Mahindra Pik-Up, is now up in the air due to a legal battle between the truck's Indian manufacturer and its U.S. importer, Global Vehicles USA.

Just because the Ranger's days are numbered—or because the segment is in a decline—doesn't mean you're going to get a better deal, though. "There just isn't as much of a markup," cautions Toprak. "And there isn't a lot of competition out there either." Furthermore, automakers have finally gotten wise with inventory control, he said, and have really eased up on production to match demand.

Lots of amazing deals on 2010 trucks

But now is an exception. With 2010 models still getting cleared out of dealer lots, automakers are offering bigger incentives than they typically do; a $4,500 Ford factory incentive now applies to the Ranger, making it a steal. According to TrueCar, a 2010 Ford Ranger XL Regular Can that stickers at $18,540 is purchased for an average of $13,643 (for Los Angeles)--and through TrueCar's Best Local Price feature, you can even find one for $12,440 if you're in SoCal.

Among 2010 models, for October, TrueCar has found the Ranger to be the second-most-discounted vehicle on the market (after only the 2010 Ford Focus), with an average discount of nearly 17 percent.

Follow to the next page to see some some of the most frugal compact-truck choices—all of which are currently selling for well under MSRP. Try TrueCar's Best Local Price feature and see what kind of deal you can get in your area.

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Ford Ranger

Looking purely at exterior dimensions, the Ranger is about the only true compact truck left in the U.S. market. The Ford Ranger hasn't changed much in nearly two decades, though minor updates have kept its appearance relatively fresh and its feature set mostly up to date. The Ranger really keeps it basic, with no power windows on much of the lineup, and no bed options longer than six feet or true four-door cab. That said, the Ranger is one of just a few trucks that does just fine with an economical four-cylinder engine—yielding EPA ratings up to 27 mpg highway.

 

Toyota Tacoma

2010 Toyota Tacoma

2010 Toyota Tacoma

Compact trucks used to be one of the core products for Toyota, but in recent years its Tacoma has become more of a mid-size truck. After the Ranger, it's probably one of the most livable trucks with a four-cylinder engine, though. The 2.7-liter four that's offered here has a little more torque than most rivals. The Tacoma isn't very comfortable, especially in base trims, but it has an enviable reputation for reliability and longevity, and resale value is strong.

 

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Nissan Frontier

2010 Nissan Frontier

2010 Nissan Frontier

The Frontier is, in our editors' opinions, one of the most handsomely styled of the compact trucks. With a platform and rugged frame shared with the larger Titan, it's also one of the most capable of the compacts; safety is strong, too. But like most compact trucks, the ride quality is a bit busy; and while this truck is offered with a base four-cylinder engine, it's almost a little too portly to feel usable with the four-banger. You might also take a look at the closely related Suzuki Equator.

 

Chevrolet Colorado / GMC Canyon

2010 Chevrolet Colorado

2010 Chevrolet Colorado

Virtually identical with respect to powertrains, equipment, and even appearance, the Chevrolet Canyon and GMC Colorado were a step up many years ago when they replaced the aging Chevy S-10 and GMC Sonoma, but they've always lived in the shadows of their successful full-size stablemates, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. With a rather cheap, plasticky interior and a thoroughly trucklike driving feel, these compacts fail to wow. Even the introduction of a V-8 to the Canyon and Colorado lineups hasn't seemed to slow their sales slide.
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