Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE:TM) will reveal an all-new version of its midsize Tacoma pickup truck at next month's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.
Smaller pickups were once a huge market segment in the U.S., but their popularity has faded as buyers have shifted to more capable full-size pickups.
But this segment might be headed for a renaissance. The new Tacoma will join Nissan's Frontier pickup, which has seen sales rise 19% this year, and General Motors' (NYSE:GM) all-new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, which began arriving at dealers last month.
But all of that raises a question: Where's Ford's (NYSE:F) longtime entry, the once-popular Ranger?
Ford builds a great Ranger, but it's not sold here
Ford still builds Ranger pickups -- in fact, a well-regarded all-new one was introduced as a 2012 model. But it doesn't sell them in the U.S. or Canada anymore, even though they're sold nearly everywhere else.
Why not? The latest Ranger is a close relative of the full-size F-Series pickups, and at the time of its launch Ford said that the new Ranger is too close in size to the F-150 to make it worthwhile to sell here.
It may be that Ford doesn't want the Ranger to steal sales from its more expensive (and very profitable) full-size trucks. And it's true that the F-Series' sales dwarf those of the smaller pickups. Toyota's current Tacoma leads the market with about 141,000 sold this year through November, but the F-Series racked up over four times as many sales (679,496) over the same period.
But none of those objections stopped rival General Motors, which sells almost as many full-size pickups as Ford.
GM has jumped in to compete with Tacoma
GM's new Colorado and Canyon are, like Ford's Ranger, somewhat smaller relatives of its full-size pickups, which were new last year. And while they may be smaller, they're still impressive trucks: The new Colorado just beat out Ford's all-new F-150 for Motor Trend's Truck of the Year award.
It wasn't close, either. Motor Trend said the vote among its editors was unanimous. Editor-in-Chief Edward Loh called the Colorado "a smart, capable, and refreshingly honest truck that makes a strong value and efficiency statement."
And at least so far, GM doesn't see its new midsize trucks as direct competitors to its big Silverado and Sierra. It says that the Colorado has "the style and versatility of a truck and the refinement, maneuverability and efficiency of a crossover," positioning the new Colorado as a truck aimed at individual buyers who like pickups but who don't need the size and capabilities of GM's full-size offerings.
That's a niche that the Tacoma has done well in. Although the Tacoma, like the Colorado, has decent towing and payload capacities, its niche is largely made up of individual buyers who might otherwise buy an SUV -- but who like a pickup's image, along with its ability to haul bicycles or camping gear on occasion.
Could Ford change its mind?
Of course. Ford closed its Twin Cities Assembly Plant, the Ranger's longtime U.S. home, in 2011 -- but there's nothing known to be stopping it from building the Ranger at another factory in North America.
That would only happen if Ford was convinced that it would sell enough Rangers to make the investment worthwhile. But I bet it's watching Colorado sales very closely. Stay tuned.
John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.