Not all that long ago, if you were looking for something smaller than a full-size pickup you had few options to choose from: Toyota’s dominant Tacoma and Nissan’s bargain-priced Frontier.

The Toyota Tacoma, in Trail trim above, is the midsize truck segment’s mainstay. It currently claims 34% of the market.

These days, truck buyers have an array of alternatives, with a number of entries getting major makeovers, starting with the 2023 Chevrolet Colorado, which recently reviewed. In the near term, GMC, Ford and Toyota will follow suit with their own ground-up renewals.

And that’s likely to add even more momentum to midsize truck sales, predicts Tyson Jominy, head of data and analytics for J.D. Power. They’ve gone “from obscure to (become) a significant segment of the industry” during the past eight years, he said, since General Motors revived the Colorado and GMC Canyon, spurring other brands to re-enter the market.

Big names, big updates

The 2023 Chevrolet Colorado is just the first in a wave of updated midsize models coming this year. Expect to also see:

A remake of the GMC Canyon which will share the basic underpinnings of the Colorado but feature some distinctive design cues and other features;A completely redesigned Ford Ranger developed with U.S. buyers in mind, rather than just updating a truck originally developed for overseas markets; andThe next-generation Toyota Tacoma, long the dominant player in the midsize pickup market.

There was a time, back in the 1970s and 1980s, when midsize and even compact pickups rivaled demand for full-size offerings. A variety of factors came into play, starting with the American mindset that “bigger is better.” 

One of the reasons the Tacoma holds “just” a third of the market is the Chevrolet Colorado, above, and its GMC twin, the Canyon.

The price gap narrowed, automakers began adding more features to their larger products and rolled out more options. Automakers were more than obliged to support the shift as full-size models delivered substantially better margins. Today, Ford’s F-150 and Chevy’s Silverado deliver the lion’s share of Ford and General Motors profits.

Bringing the midsize market back to life

As the industry emerged from the Great Recession, all three domestic automakers abandoned the midsize pickup market. But GM wasn’t gone for long, bringing back both the Chevy Colorado and GMC Sierra in late 2014 for the 2015 model-year. 

Watching the market’s response, GM’s crosstown rivals felt compelled to respond. Ford took a short-cut, configuring a truck originally designed for overseas markets to meet U.S. regulatory requirements. 

What was then Fiat Chrysler Automobiles followed with an all-new design, the boxy Jeep Gladiator. Under former CEO Sergio Marchionne, FCA tried but failed to come up with a second pickup to replace the old Dodge — and later Ram — Dakota.

Sales rebound

Big trucks like the F-150 and Ram 1500 remain dominant, in recent years American motorists routinely purchasing about three times more full-size models, reaching 2,476,502 in 2019. But demand for midsize pickups has nonetheless grown substantially from a decade ago. 

Ford is looking to get bigger piece of the midsize market with a revamped Ranger for 2023.

As recently as 2016, U.S. buyers purchased just 448,398 in 2016 midsize pickups. Demand surged to 637,857 just three years later. Sales slid during the pandemic, along with the rest of the industry — including full-size pickups. But analysts foresee another growth spurt.

S&P Global Mobility forecasts the midsize segment will grow from last year’s 622,941 to 690,190 this year. And that’s likely to reach 778,982 by 2025, said Stephanie Brinley, associate director at the research firm.

Compact trucks

And now, there’s a growing compact market also showing new life with the launch of the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz. The segment didn’t even exist as recently as 2020 but is expected to yield 163,149 sales this year, based on S&P Mobility’s forecast. That could grow to 221,303 by 2027, with several other automakers hinting of plans to bring out their own offerings.

So far, none of the entries have been able to dislodge Toyota from the top spot in the midsize pickup segment. Tacoma generated 215,853 sales last year, about a 34% share. But it’s not for lack of trying.

The Nissan Frontier was long the only other option in the midsize segment. With other players now, it got a much-needed update to remain competitive.

“This truck has been designed to go head-to-head” with Tacoma, said Mike Macphee, the Chevy marketing and advertising manager overseeing the launch of the Colorado.

During a media preview of the truck in February, Macphee said Chevy will put its primary focus on winning over new buyers just moving into the midsize truck segment.

Old competitors and new

But the bowtie brand faces the reality that Toyota is readying its own major makeover of the Tacoma for 2024. About the same time, Ford will bring out an all-new Ranger.

There’s also the likelihood of even more competitors moving into the midsize segment. And many of them are going to be battery electric. Ford CEO Jim Farley said last year that a second EV pickup will be produced alongside the second-generation F-150 Lightning once its new BlueOval City manufacturing complex near Memphis opens up in 2026. It’s not yet clear if that will be a midsize or compact truck — and some observers are predicting Ford could add both.

There are new players like Rivian, Canoo and Lordstown in the EV truck segment, with Tesla promising to finally launch production of its Cybertruck this year.“We’re now going to see a lot more investment here” in the midsize and compact pickup segments, said Power’s Jominy. And the extreme design of the Tesla truck could hint at where things will go, he added.

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