A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol magazine. Subscribe today
The term “pickup truck” was an antonym. If you walk into a Ford or Chevy dealer around 2013 and order one, the salesperson will direct you to a single F-150 or Silverado cab. Even those few midsize trucks still on sale were much larger than their predecessors; The Toyota Tacoma in the early 2010s, for example, was a full two feet longer than the model on sale in the 1990s.
But it’s not 2013. It’s 2021, and the truck market has changed dramatically. Full-size pickups have become aspirational vehicles, in many cases offering space, sophistication 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 frenzy of off-road driving is driving buyers to more maneuverable and affordable pickups.
And now, two new vehicles, the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz, are poised to expand the truck’s definition even further by opening a new—or at least long-dormant—section: the compact pickup truck.
Sure, “compact capture” is somewhat of a misnomer. Neither Maverick nor Santa Cruz is incorporated per se; The Santa Cruz, for example, weighs more than 4,000 pounds and is fully loaded. And while both the Maverick and Santa Cruz boast a pickup bed, neither vehicle is technically a a truck. The Maverick uses the same unibody platform as the Ford Escape and Bronco Sport, while Santa Cruz borrows heavily from Hyundai Tucson. In other words, America’s most exciting new truck is essentially a crossover SUV.
Contrary to what some might say, this is not a bad thing. Trucks and SUVs are no longer meant for riding; Nowadays they are the default cars of choice for most American buyers. These new hybrid trucks combine the best features of both in a compelling package. Previous pickup truck attempts were weird anomalies with funny names and funky features. But Maverick and Santa Cruz feel a lot about the moment.
With the Maverick, Ford has replaced the staid sedan or sexless econobox that normally sits at the bottom of automakers’ lineups with what budget buyers want: a truck. The Maverick looks like a small F-150, but with a starting price of just over $20,000, it retails for about half that price. It has two compelling engine options — a 40-mpg hybrid or a powerful 2.0-liter 250-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder — and boasts agile handling that’s similar to a crossover. Better suited to the city than the Ranger and cooler in the countryside than the Honda Civic, the Maverick should attract a wide range of buyers.
While Ford leans into the baby truck corner, Hyundai’s Santa Cruz approaches buyers from the opposite direction. You won’t see Hyundai calling their vehicle a “truck”; Instead, the automaker is framing it as a “segment-breaking adventure sports utility vehicle” — in other words, it’s a new kind of crossover. Santa Cruz is a fun and playful young town car that happens to have a multi-use bed in the back to carry bikes or other gear. And if you’re on the lookout for a cool new teardrop-shaped camping trailer or ski-do camper, well, Santa Cruz—rated at up to 5,000 pounds—can tow it.
Ultimately, whether Maverick, Santa Cruz, and the like are called pickup trucks or crossovers is a matter of semantics. As long as these new segment-wide four-door vehicles are fun, affordable, and suitable for all kinds of adventures, buyers seem likely to buy them in droves.
Pickup trucks over the years
Automakers have always been pretty freaky with fusion trucks, but America was never quite ready for them.
Subaru Pratt (1978-1987)
Subaru wanted a pickup truck that would rival Toyota’s pickup in America. So they released the BRAT – the Leon 4×4 wagon with a truck bed cut off from the rear. Distinguishing features included the alarmingly unsafe T-top and bed-mounted jumping seats to avoid the US chicken tax, which imposed a 25 percent tariff on foreign pickups. Fun fact: Ronald Reagan owns one.
Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup (1979-1984)
Volkswagen sold a two-door pickup version of the Mk1 Golf in the United States, which was later known as Caddy when it arrived in Europe. It was not as popular in the United States as other body-style variants, such as the Sedan (Jetta) and Cabriolet, and went out of production in 1984.
Dodge Rampage (1982-1984)
Chrysler got into the car/truck battle with the 1982 Dodge Rampage pickup, which was based on an Omni Coupe. If you find the name “Rampage” is also aggro for a pint coupe truck, Chrysler also badge it as more awesome than the 1983 Plymouth Scamp.
Subaru Baja (2003-06)
Subaru revisited the BRAT idea with Outback-based Baja in 2003, calling it “the world’s first multi-choice vehicle.” It had a weird bed extender and lots of plastic trim, but at least the back seats were inside the cabin. Perhaps the biggest drawback of Baja was that it was ahead of its time.
Pontiac G8 ST (2008)
Pontiac unveiled the G8 ST at the 2008 New York Auto Show. It was to be a two-seater sports truck based on the G8 sedan, with a 6.0-liter V8 engine making more than 300 horsepower. Then the Great Recession happened. General Motors canceled the not-yet-to-production G8 ST in January 2009… Less than a year later, the Pontiac brand itself was cancelled.
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