What’s the Ideal Size and Price for a Pickup Truck in America?
The trucks are too big and too expensive. Let’s play armchair product planner and sort this out.
I remember watching the debut of the 2021 Ford F-150 earlier this summer and thinking, "That sure will be a great truck to finance for 84 months." That's because now, and somehow especially in the era of the pandemic, the American auto industry runs on three things: expensive trucks, cheap gas and cheap credit.
Whether you're an enthusiast, a prospective buyer or just a casual observer, you've probably wondered where the cheap, small pickup trucks went. The Ford Ranger and Toyota Tacoma of today look like apartment buildings compared to their counterparts 30 years ago. Though trucks are cleaner, more powerful, more high-tech, more efficient and safer for drivers and passengers than ever before, that's come with an explosion in size, weight and cost. As the Wall Street Journal noted recently, the average pickup gained 1,142 pounds between 1990 and 2019. Edmunds.com reported that by the end of 2019, the average new full-size truck transaction price had shot up to $49,888. And while the average new car loan term is around five years, it's not at all uncommon to see them for 72 months or more, setting buyers up to fail with negative equity as soon as they drive off the lot.
So while truck sales have been one of the few bright spots for automakers suffering from lagging sales during the COVID-19 crisis—profit margins from expensive trucks keep the lights on at Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler—I constantly question whether this trend is actually good for consumers or not. People too often buy more truck than they actually need or can afford.
I bring this up today because The Trucks Are Too Damn Big take is increasingly crossing over into the mainstream discourse. Ryan Cooper at The Week covered this today, and in his article he brings up the human toll of our huge truck addiction:
No, the main reason for the jump in deaths is the increasing proportion of SUVs and trucks on the roads. As a major Detroit Free Press/USA Today investigation by Eric D. Lawrence, Nathan Bomey, and Kristi Tanner reveals, both manufacturers and federal regulators have known for years that big, tall vehicles are more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists — something like 2-3 times more likely to kill when they hit someone. The reason is obvious: where a sedan will hit a standing person in the leg, usually causing them to roll onto the hood, a tall, flat-nosed truck will hit them in the torso, knocking them down and often running them over, and causing much more severe injuries. A study from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety found that between 2009 and 2016, "fatal single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs increased 81 percent, more than any other type of vehicle."
Though traffic deaths today are way down from their historic highs in the 1970s and '80s, pedestrian and cyclist deaths—especially those involving large vehicles—have skyrocketed in recent years. Safety enhancements like automated braking haven't keep pace with that. For me, all of this begs the question: if The Trucks Are Too Damn big, who is that actually good for, besides automakers?
Now, it's objectively true that many truck buyers actually use their vehicles as intended—as contractors, construction workers, landscapers and more. It's also true that plenty of King Ranch owners are just driving oversized behemoths to do the daily jobs that any family sedan could pull off better. (I'm from Texas. I know what I'm talking about here.) We buy trucks we don't need because we often aren't given much in the way of alternatives. And it's true that no one has to buy a car they need every single time; if that were the case, the only thing we'd be reviewing around here would be hybrid minivans and compact hatchbacks.
All of this is a long-winded way of posing this question to you, reader: what is the ideal pickup truck size for most Americans? And what's the ideal price point as well?
Frankly, I wish more people were clued into the Honda Ridgeline, a fantastic vehicle we once called "all the truck any intelligent person needs. Probably more." It's certainly not as small as an '80s Hilux or a '90s Chevy S10, but it's not overwhelmingly huge, either. Still yet, the Ridgeline was outsold by every midsize truck aside from the GMC Canyon in the second quarter of 2020. And not just by a little bit.
Many buyers are turned off by the Ridgeline's unibody construction and car platform; they shouldn't be. Test after test has proven the Ridgeline is a supremely capable truck, competent at all the light hauling and towing a person might encounter in their regular life. And the market average price of that where I live in New York, according to TrueCar, is $40,690, as of this writing. That's really not bad at all, and tens of thousands less than a loaded Silverado or GMC Sierra.
What do you think? Are American truck buyers overdoing it? And if so, what should they be getting instead?