2005 Toyota Tacoma
2005 Toyota Tacoma. Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

by Jeremy Cato

Kemptville, Ontario – Here atop a plowed-under corn field at the local agricultural college, Chikuo Kubota is doing donuts in a bright red 2005 Toyota Tacoma four-door pickup, spewing mud, fertilizer and bits and pieces of old cornstalks in every direction.

“Normally it is the chief engineer who is waving his arms, saying ‘no, no,’ but in this case it is the chief engineer driving,” says Toyota Canada managing director Stephen Beatty, wearing a bemused smile. He shrugs his shoulders in resignation at the enthusiastic antics of the executive chief engineer, who came all the way from Japan to explain what is so new about his mid-size pickup.

There is, in fact, an almost celebratory air as Kubota spins in the grey gloom of a fall day just outside the nation’s capital. Most of the world’s big automakers are now trumpeting their renewed efforts to wake up the dozing business of pint-sized pickups; Toyota officials are downright giddy about what they believe to be their prospects.

2005 Toyota Tacoma

2005 Toyota Tacoma
2005 Toyota Tacoma at Kemptville Agricultural College, October 2004. Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

“With the 2005 Tacoma we’re throwing down the gauntlet,” says David Brimson. The slender, transplanted Briton is the national advertising and public relations boss charged with crafting a marketing campaign not only to sell Canadians on the renovated Tacoma, but also set the stage for Toyota’s impending mammoth push into light trucks in general. “Look, half the (new vehicle) market is trucks, but only 25 per cent of our sales are in trucks. We’re number one in cars, but we’re not getting our share in trucks.”

If Brimson and the Toyota crew want midsize truck buyers, they’ve got their work cut out for them. Consumers have been hit with a wave of new entries in recent years, including the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon; the re-made Dodge Dakota; the all-new Frontier from Nissan; and an upcoming Dodge-based midsized pickup truck from Mitsubishi. Only the Ford Ranger remains on the market without a comprehensive restyle and major growth spurt: Ford apparently thinks it can keep the truck unchanged for as long as it did the Model T.

All have been designed to take the “compact” out of a pickup segment which, over the years, has been largely fuelled by penny-pinching contractors and financially-challenged young men. The compacts are now becoming midsized, although prices are remaining essentially the same.

The Dakota, for instance, is not only bigger – it already was the largest in the segment — but is now available with two versions of the 4.7-litre V8 engine. The Tacoma and Frontier may not have a V8, but their V6 offerings have 245 and 265 horsepower respectively, more than the standard 230 hp Dodge V8 and even more than the 250 hp Dodge Magnum High Output 4.7-litre V8.

2005 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab

2005 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab
2005 Nissan Frontier. Photos: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

Whether or not this makeover of the midsize pickup market will goose sales is another question. Nissan marketing manager Ian Forsyth doesn’t think so. He believes the small truck segment of Canada’s new vehicle market, which at 42,810 units in 2003 accounted for about two per cent of all vehicle sales, will not grow substantially despite the new entries. “I just don’t see it. It’s a small segment and it’s not getting larger,” he says.

That is because, in recent years, a number of excellent new full-size pickups have made their way into showrooms. At the same time, low-interest loans and fierce price competition have kept monthly payments on the big trucks within shouting distance of their smaller cousins. “In most cases the difference in monthly payment is twenty, thirty dollars,” says Forsyth.

The truth is, small pickup sales peaked 15 years ago and have been on a downward spiral every since. Since 1999, the segment has held steady in the 40,000-unit range and shows no signs of growing substantially in the near to medium term. In Canada and the U.S. combined, compact pickup sales in 2003 totaled less than 800,000 units. That’s about half what they were at their combined peak of about 1.5 million units in 1986.

In 2003, with sales of 202,793, the compact pickup market was one-fifth the size of the full-size pickup market. In the U.S., the 741,993 compacts sold in 2003 represented 24 per cent of all pickup sales.

Still, the automakers – with Ford the glaring exception – are loath to give up on attempts to mine profits from the segment. So as they get ready to hit showrooms, Toyota, Nissan and Dodge are all pitching their new models as big trucks in only slightly smaller bodies, compared to full-size models. “We’re larger in virtually every dimension versus the 2004 Frontier, we have a flexible interior and storage configurations, and a high-utility bed,” says Forsyth.

Chief engineer Kubota says size matters, so the ’05 Tacoma is 101.6 mm wider and up to 475 mm longer at the wheelbase than the ’04. But size is not the only thing. “I wanted the new Tacoma to leap-frog the competition with a generation and a half of evolution and refinement,” he says.

2005 Dodge Dakota Club Cab 4X4

2005 Dodge Dakota Club Cab 4X4
2005 Dodge Dakota Club Cab 4X4. Photos: Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

Dodge, meanwhile, can boast of the only V8 engine in its class and more towing capacity than anybody at 3,175 kg. Dodge officials argue their new Dakota is closer to the brand’s popular full-size Dodge Ram pickup than it is to lesser rivals like a Tacoma or a Frontier. Appearance-wise, the 2005 Dakota is the spitting image of the Ram. As one Dodge official says, “We certainly wanted to bring some of that Ram DNA down to Dakota, so you’d recognize it as part of the Ram family.”

Forsyth and others, however, remain skeptical about whether the new entries will be enough to resuscitate the entire midsize truck segment. Most analysts expect a small bump in sales of perhaps 3 to 4 per cent at most, with overall volumes dropping back to 2003 levels by decade’s end.

Still, give these manufacturers credit for making an effort to update and reposition their small trucks after years and years of neglect. Consider that the Tacoma was introduced as a new model in 1995 and received just a minor facelift for 2001.

It is a similar story with the others — except for Ford, of course. It has no plans for a substantial upgrade to the Ranger until at least 2007 or 2008. That is bad news for Mazda, which bases its B-series compact pickup on the Ranger.

Ford officials do not believe there are significant profits in small trucks to justify major new investments in upgrading the product. In a sense, Ford is remaining true to the general view of compact trucks held by all the automakers in the 1990s.

Back then, they all considered these trucks as nothing more than stripped-down work tools for the budget-conscious. But now, most manufacturers are hoping to remake small trucks into well-equipped lifestyle appliances with loads of horsepower and ride quality aimed at the daily office commute, rather than regular runs to the job site or the dump.

“Our focus groups tell us the typical Tacoma customer is male, married and active,” says Brimson. “He’s into sports and outdoor activities, and considers himself youthful and sporty but with a refined edge. Yes, he’s looking for the versatility of a pickup, but he also wants the comfort, style and amenities of a car or SUV.”

Clearly, Dodge has seen similar research, dumping the traditional workingman’s two-door truck entirely and moving to sell only extended-cab models with two rows of seats.

Some manufacturers are also attempting to tap into the “urban style” sensibilities of hip-hop-inspired buyers. For instance, Chevy is offering an “Xtreme” package for its Colorado truck. It delivers a street racer look with bucket seats, aluminum wheels and a sunroof.

What none of the automakers can sell is fuel economy. The new crop of midsize trucks just doesn’t have much of an advantage over their full-size cousins.

The typical four-wheel-drive, extended-cab midsize pickup with a V6 gets roughly 15.0 L/100 km in city driving and 10.9 on the highway. The four-by-four version of Toyota’s full-size the Tundra is rated at 16.7 city/12.5 hwy with a V8. Neither, obviously, are fuel misers.

On the other hand, a midsize pickup is much easier to park at the mall and much friendlier in city traffic. That may not sound like much, until you try to shoehorn a full-size pickup into your downtown, underground parking space.

So will this crop of new midsize trucks lure in wealthier buyers who want more truck in every way, while also boosting returns in what has recently been a barely profitable segment for automakers? We’ll know within the year.

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