The Rise of the Small Pickup Truck

Manufacturers have attempted small car-based pickups before. This time, they might actually stick.

ford maverick
Ford

A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today


The term "small truck” used to be an oxymoron. If you walked into a Ford or Chevy dealership circa 2013 asking for one, a salesperson would have pointed you to a single-cab F-150 or Silverado. Even those few midsize trucks still on sale were much bigger than their predecessors; the Toyota Tacoma of the early 2010s, for example, was two whole feet longer than the model on sale in the 1990s.

But it's not 2013. It's 2021, and the truck market has shifted dramatically. Full-size pickups have become aspirational vehicles, in many cases offering space, refinement and performance on par with luxury cars — and with an average purchase price hovering around $50,000, they often have price tags to match. Midsize trucks are thriving, as the overlanding and off-roading craze drives buyers to more maneuverable, more affordable pickups.

And now, two new vehicles, the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz, are poised to stretch the definition of truck even further by opening up a new — or at least long-dormant — segment: the compact pickup truck.

Granted, "compact pickup" is a bit of a misnomer. Neither the Maverick nor the Santa Cruz is compact per se; the Santa Cruz, for example, weighs in at more than 4,000 pounds fully loaded. And while both the Maverick and Santa Cruz boast a pickup bed, neither vehicle is technically a truck. The Maverick uses the same unibody car platform as the Ford Escape and Bronco Sport, while the Santa Cruz borrows heavily from the Hyundai Tucson. In other words, America’s hottest new trucks are essentially crossover SUVs.

ford maverick
With the Maverick, Ford replaced the staid sedan or sexless econobox that would usually sit at the bottom of a carmaker’s lineup with what budget buyers want: a truck.
Ford
2022 ford maverick 2l ecoboost awd lariat preproduction vehicle with optional equipment shown available fall 2021
More city-friendly than a Ranger and more country-cool than a Honda Civic, the Maverick should appeal to a wide range of buyers.
Ford

Contrary to what some might say, that’s not a bad thing. Trucks and SUVs are no longer niche rides; nowadays they’re the default vehicles most American buyers choose. These new hybrid trucks combine the best features of both into a compelling package. Previous small-truck attempts were quirky anomalies with funny names and funky features. But the Maverick and Santa Cruz feel very much of the moment.

With the Maverick, Ford replaced the staid sedan or sexless econobox that would usually sit at the bottom of a carmaker’s lineup with what budget buyers want: a truck. The Maverick looks like a little F-150, but with a starting price of just over $20,000, it retails for about half as much. It packs two compelling engine options — a 40-mpg hybrid or a potent 2.0-liter turbo four with 250 horsepower — and boasts nimble, crossover-like handling. More city-friendly than a Ranger and more country-cool than a Honda Civic, the Maverick should appeal to a wide range of buyers.

ford maverick size compared to the ford f150
Ford

While Ford is leaning into the baby-truck angle, Hyundai’s Santa Cruz approaches buyers from the opposite direction. You won’t see Hyundai call their vehicle “a truck”; rather, the carmaker is framing it as a “segment-shattering sport adventure vehicle” — in other words, it's a new kind of crossover. The Santa Cruz is a fun, perky vehicle for young urbanities that just so happens to have a versatile bed in back for carrying bikes or other gear. And if you have your eye on a cool new teardrop camping trailer or a Ski-Doo, well, the Santa Cruz — rated for up to 5,000 pounds — can tow it.

santa cruz
You won’t see Hyundai call their vehicle “a truck”; rather, the carmaker is framing it as a “segment-shattering sport adventure vehicle” — in other words, it’s a new kind of crossover.
Hyundai

Ultimately, whether the Maverick, Santa Cruz and the like are called pickup trucks or crossovers is a matter of semantics. So long as these new segment-straddling four-door vehicles are fun, affordable and suitable for all manner of adventures, buyers seem likely to snap them up in droves.


Small Trucks, Through the Years

Carmakers have always been down to get weird with fusion trucks, but America has never been quite ready for them.

Subaru BRAT (1978-87)

subaru brat
Subaru

Subaru wanted a small truck to compete with Toyota’s pickup in America. So it released the BRAT — a 4x4 Leone wagon with a truck bed cut out of the back. Distinctive features included a T-top and alarmingly unsafe bed-mounted jump seats to avoid the U.S. Chicken Tax, which levied a 25 percent tariff on foreign pickups. Fun fact: Ronald Reagan owned one.

Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup (1979-84)

vw rabbit pickup
Volkswagen

VW sold a two-door pickup version of the Mk1 Golf in the U.S., which was later known as the Caddy when it arrived in Europe. It wasn’t quite as popular stateside as other body-style variants, like the sedan (Jetta) and the Cabriolet, and went out of production in 1984.

Dodge Rampage (1982-84)

dodge rampage
Dodge

Chrysler entered the car/truck fray with the subcompact Dodge Rampage in 1982, which was based on the Omni coupe. If you found the “Rampage” name too aggro for a pint-size coupe truck, Chrysler also badged it as the more adorable Plymouth Scamp in 1983.

Subaru Baja (2003-06)

subaru baja
Subaru

Subaru revisited the BRAT idea with the Outback-based Baja in 2003, branding it as “the world’s first multiple choice vehicle.” It had a weird bed extender and a lot of plastic cladding, but at least the rear seats were inside the cabin. The Baja’s biggest flaw may simply have been that it was ahead of its time.

Pontiac G8 ST (2008)

pontiac g8 st
Pontiac

Pontiac unveiled the G8 ST at the 2008 New York Auto Show. It was going to be a two-seater sport truck based on the G8 sedan, with a 6.0-liter V8 putting out more than 300 horsepower. Then the Great Recession happened. GM canceled the yet-to-enter-production G8 ST in January 2009 … and, less than a year later, the Pontiac brand itself.

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