With the end of 2011, the beginning of the end might also have come for a niche truck segment that helped a good portion of the American workforce and private owners get their work done for more than three decades. Once holding 8 percent of all vehicle sales in the USA, the North American mini-truck has been shrinking in market share since its peak in the 1990s, and you might very well see only one or two compact/midsize trucks left on the market by the end of this decade.
In the end, it was simply survival of the most practical.
Let’s step back 30 years. Ford introduces the ’83 Ranger (a moniker previously used on F-series fullsize trucks) onto a new, more capable compact truck to replace its Ford Courier in a fast growing segment of the truck market alongside the Datsun, Isuzu, Toyota, and Mazda B Series. Ford would quickly gain and hold onto second position for all compact truck sales until production ended in 2011.
At the time, Mitsubishi Motors was building the Ram 50 for Dodge to compete with Ford’s (Mazda-built) Courier. While the Mitsubishi-built Ram 50 was similar to the Courier and could compete with the other Japanese offerings, it was no match for the new Ranger. So Chrysler went about designing its own small truck to grab some more of the increasing mini-truck sales. Wanting to trump the others in the compact truck market, Dodge released the Dakota in 1986. It was larger than the rest of the mini-trucks and bridged the gap between the fullsize and compact truck markets. This was the first midsize truck. Not only that, but it came with an optional V-8 that no other mini-truck offered. It was a success, but never beat the Ranger in sales numbers. Though Dodge had the biggest and most powerful, Ford remained number two only to Toyota in compact truck sales. Toyota to this day still has the most mini-truck sales with its current Tacoma (which is much larger than Toyota’s original mini-truck).
As technology improved and demands and needs increased, all compact trucks—or mini-trucks as they were affectionately dubbed—increased in size, capability, and unfortunately price. The market for non-fullsize trucks peaked in the 1990s as the capabilities of the small trucks were starting to catch up with the big trucks, though there was still a big price gap and an even larger fuel economy gap.
But by the first part of the 21st Century, a funny thing was beginning to happen: Truck manufacturers were continuing to build bigger and better mini-trucks to meet customers’ demands while they were also meeting the demand of better fuel economy for the fullsize truck market. With American compact trucks and fullsize trucks both nearing the same course, it seemed inevitable only one would remain. Currently, GMC/Chevrolet’s Colorado/Canyon is the last American mini-truck being produced. In 2011, Dodge announced that they would end production of the Dakota by the end of the year, as Ford announced the same thing for the Ranger (for the North American auto market—compact/midsize truck sales in foreign markets continue to grow for Ford). It seems that the overly-capable compact/midsize truck had made itself obsolete.
Fullsize trucks are getting 22 mpg or better these days. Compact trucks—which had really already turned into midsize trucks—are only a few inches smaller than the fullsizes, and the increased price (due to being bigger and more capable) had actually placed some mini-trucks more expensive than some of the fullsize models.
There are still midsize offerings: Chevy’s Colorado (the last American mini-truck) continues to be available, as does the Nissan Frontier, and of course the Toyota Tacoma is still selling like hotcakes. If fuel prices skyrocket, there could be a resurgence of small truck sales that will make them more popular than fullsize trucks. There is no certainty in what Fate has in store for the mini-truck.
But one thing is for sure: The most popular prerunner platform ever and the truck that first bridged the gap between compact and fullsize have ceased production indefinitely.
We’ll miss you, Ranger and Dakota.
Editor’s Note: I’d like to thank Bob Hegbloom, director of the Ram Truck brand, and Mike Levine, Ford Motor Company’s truck communications manager, for their help and contributions to this editorial.