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U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Trevor McKinnon decided to buy a new car slowly and then all at once.

In a matter of days, he had to call on his boyfriend’s parents to shuttle a water heater and he read a review of the Maverick, a pint-size pickup truck — the newest new thing from Ford Motor Co.

“I got on cars.com and saw that there was one Maverick for sale in all of Colorado Springs,” he recalled. “I drove over there and bought it that day.”

McKinnon, 26, doesn’t ski or camp; he doesn’t ply a trade or even drive off road. But he is a first-time homeowner and is thrilled to no longer ratchet-strap furniture to the roof of his 2018 Ford Focus. What’s more, his “cactus gray” Maverick is just as efficient, consistently logging 28 miles per gallon of gasoline.

Having supersized its trucks and killed off many of its regular, car-shaped vehicles (including the Focus that McKinnon traded in), the U.S. auto industry is playing an old hit with tiny pickups. The same types of fuel-sipping work rigs that gained momentum in the Reagan era, after the gas crisis of the 1970s, are having a renaissance today, as young buyers fret over the climate crisis and confront piles of student debt.

Jim Baumbick, Ford’s vice president of product line management, said the company sees small trucks as “an untapped opportunity” — precious so-called white space in an auto industry jammed with SUVs of all shapes and sizes. Ford had been closely eyeing the market for starter vehicles, Baumbick said, and saw “a lot of competitors and a lot of customers” but not a lot of trucks. “When you make a list of things you can do in a truck that you can’t do in a car,” he said, “the list gets really long.”

In addition to Ford’s Maverick, Hyundai recently launched the Santa Cruz, an even more modest rig that looks like a small SUV with a hot tub bolted on the back. In developing the machine, which is being made in Alabama, Hyundai tacticians did more research in America than they have on nearly any vehicle, according to Gil Castillo, senior group manager of product strategy. They didn’t find many disgruntled pickup drivers, but they did discover a large crowd of people driving compact crossover SUVs who yearned for more cargo space. These are the mountain bikers of San Francisco and Brooklyn’s striped-bass fiends, the soccer dads and ski moms of the suburbs and the do-it-yourself fans all over America.

“We don’t really think of our vehicle as a pickup truck,” Castillo explained. “When you look at the size of the compact SUV market … we realized it wouldn’t take that many people interested in a solution like the Santa Cruz to reach some significant sales.”

Forecaster LMC Automotive sees the compact-pickup market in the U.S. growing to as many as 200,000 vehicles a year by mid-decade. It also expects Toyota will get back in the tiny-truck game, and possibly General Motors. GM declined to comment.

“This is a segment that has legs,” said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC. “Millennials are interested in the utility of a pickup and the flexibility of having that open bed, whether you’re using it as a lifestyle truck or making trips to the hardware store.”

A 2022 Ford Maverick hybrid pickup truck during the Chicago Auto Show | BLOOMBERG
A 2022 Ford Maverick hybrid pickup truck during the Chicago Auto Show | BLOOMBERG

Chris Cuellar, a computer scientist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, just bought a nearly fully loaded $39,000 Maverick in a blue-gray color called Area 51 Blue to add to his family fleet, which also includes a Ford Focus compact car and a Honda Odyssey minivan.

“If you would have asked me two years ago if I’d ever own a truck, I would have told you you’re crazy,” Cuellar said. “But then as life catches up, you’re a homeowner, you start having to do yard work, you need to make a Home Depot run and you realize your Ford Focus isn’t cutting it anymore.” The major selling point: the Maverick can fit all three of his kids’ car seats.

Matt Meredith’s YouTube videos about customizing his new Maverick have garnered 60,000 views in the past two weeks. The attention helps drum up ad revenue and business for Meredith’s company, Bullseye Custom Autos. The U.S. Air Force veteran spends much of his time tuning his two F-150s for the racetrack, but the Maverick has taken over his day-to-day driving: hauling headlights and other gear to trade shows and serving as a loaner for clients. Last year, Meredith logged 46,000 miles in his bigger Ford pickups, so he expects his fuel savings to be significant.

“I’ve beaten the ever-loving crap out of it and I’m still averaging well more than 23 miles per gallon,” he said. “It’s extremely useful.”

Maverick engineers traded an attic’s worth of cargo capacity for the option of parallel parking on a tight urban block — it’s almost 90 centimeters shorter than its full-size sibling. They swapped jumbo-jet towing stunts for a hybrid engine that goes up to 42 miles on a gallon. And they nixed the go-anywhere chassis of the F-150 for the unibody frame of its small Escape SUV, a far smoother ride on a paved road. The dashboard is a cheap composite, but Apple CarPlay is standard.

The decisions let the carmaker engineer a modest window sticker, with a starting price under $20,000. “Entry level does not mean cheap. It means affordable,” said Baumbick. The Maverick is built in Mexico, where worker pay is a fraction of what Ford’s U.S. employees make.

Hyundai’s Santa Cruz, meanwhile, is even more diminutive, 10 cm shorter and nearly 7 cm narrower. The rig, which starts just shy of $24,000, is dubbed a Sport Adventure Vehicle by the suits in South Korea. Unlike the Ford’s boxy build, it’s a suite of sinuous curves, akin to a contemporary SUV with a chunk chopped out of the rear.

“We couldn’t just design something that looked like a traditional truck but smaller,” Castillo said. Getting the look and capabilities right was tricky, but Hyundai did have a playbook of sorts.

A Hyundai Santa Cruz crossover concept truck is displayed in Detroit in 2015. | REUTERS
A Hyundai Santa Cruz crossover concept truck is displayed in Detroit in 2015. | REUTERS

In the wake of the 1970s gas crisis, automakers launched several tiny trucks as a cheap set of wheels for first-time buyers. These included the Chevy S-10, a Ford Ranger that was much smaller than the current version and the Toyota pickup in North America (known as Hilux in international markets). It was the inspiration for the yellow Pizza Planet pickup in the Toy Story movies, with a tailgate featuring only the letters “YO”. The Chevy S-10 became the foundation of the first compact SUV in America in 1983, the S-10 Blazer.

Gas prices eventually swooned and changing tastes sent compact pickups to the scrap heap, ultimately replaced by larger and pricier midsize trucks, including the “Taco,” Toyota’s top-selling Toyota Tacoma. GM rolled out two midsize pickups in late 2014, the Chevy Colorado and the GMC Sierra. Ford followed in 2018 with its reborn Ranger — it’d been off the market for seven years. And Jeep gave its Wrangler the truck treatment with its Gladiator, which hit dealers in early 2019.

Launching a smaller, cheaper vehicle is a fraught exercise. The risk is that it will lure buyers who would otherwise have bought the bigger, more profitable machine — what consultants call cannibalization. Critically, this didn’t happen when Detroit unleashed its parade of midsize trucks nearly a decade ago. Sales of its half-ton moneymakers continued to swell steadily, suggesting the industry had tapped an entirely new crowd of buyers.

Ford sold 4,140 Mavericks in October, its first full month on sale, and it has 100,000 nonbinding reservations, roughly the number of F-150s it sells in seven weeks. In August and September, Hyundai sold nearly 3,000 Santa Cruz pickups. The rig is poised to zoom past the company’s traditional cars. Between 2014 and 2019, U.S. sales of midsize trucks surged 155% to 639,000. In the same period, the market for full-size pickups increased by 20%. It was a nifty bit of product planning and if it worked going from large to medium, maybe it can going from medium to small.

LMC sees Ford selling 50,000 to 60,000 Mavericks a year and Hyundai may sell between 30,000 and 40,000 of the Santa Cruz. When Toyota enters the market, it will challenge Ford for bragging rights, Schuster said. GM is taking a “wait and see” approach, Schuster said, but it’s likely to join the fray if the segment takes off.

For now, the Maverick and Santa Cruz have the budding market to themselves. “There’s always that risk when you’re trying to develop something that isn’t quite here and isn’t quite there,” Castillo said. “But it seems like the market’s getting it.”

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