Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Letters to Doug, your weekly source for letters that are written to Doug.
For those of you who haven’t read one of these before, here’s how it works: a bunch of readers write in every week with an automotive-related letter, and I pick the very best one to respond to, while simultaneously ignoring all the rest. If you think this sounds like fun, please send me your own letter at Letters2Doug@gmail.com, or by Tweeting me at @DougDeMuro.
This week’s letter comes to us from a reader named Frederick, who writes:
Mr. Doug DeMuro,
I’ve got a question for you my friend. Other countries get extremely successful, and supposedly extremely awesome trucks like the Toyota Hilux or the newer Ford Ranger I just saw on Jalop. It seems like those kinds of trucks would do pretty well here. Why don’t we get them? Do the companies just want to stick with the American way of giant sizing everything?
First off, Frederick, I want to thank you for your reminder to stay fresh! Before your letter, I had thought about becoming worn-out and soggy, but now I will remember to “stay fresh” by a) exercising regularly and eating right, and b) sleeping in the refrigerator. Now, on to your question.
Although we’ve tackled some very innovative topics here on Letters to Doug, this is an old one: why don’t automakers sell small trucks in the United States? I get asked this question all the time, by all kinds of people, absolutely certain that the small truck would be successful if automakers would just give it another try.
This is, of course, neglecting to remember the dozens of small truck failures over the years, like the GMC Sonoma, and the Chevrolet S-10, and the Ford Ranger, and the Mazda B-Series, and the Dodge Dakota, and the Suzuki Equator, and the Mitsubishi Raider, all of which had their time to shine and then were cancelled in the end because the only person buying them was the fleet manager for the U.S. Forest Service.
So I’m going to give it to you straight: Doug’s explanation for why we don’t have small trucks in America.
PROBLEM NUMBER ONE: Any automaker trying to sell a small truck in America would have to build it in America. This is due to something called the Chicken Tax, which is a tax created by chickens when they controlled the House and the Senate back during the fowl years of the late 1970s.
The Chicken Tax basically says that any foreign imported trucks are subject to big tariffs; massive tariffs; tariffs so gigantic that they sometimes visit the tariff doctor and ask if they have an abnormal growth on their esophagus. As a result, if you’re trying to sell a truck in America, it’s much cheaper to build the truck in America. Which is a problem because…
PROBLEM NUMBER TWO: Foreign countries like small trucks way more than we do. If you visit Europe, or Asia, or Latin America, you’ll see compact trucks you’ve never heard of running around everywhere. The Mitsubishi L-Series. The Ford Ranger. There’s even something called the Volkswagen Amarok, which looks like it would be a pretty competitive little pickup, until you have to remove the entire front end to change the timing belt.
So this is the problem: if you want to sell a small truck in a foreign market and in America, you’d have to build it in both places. And automakers don’t like the idea of setting up multiple factories to build the same vehicle. In fact, most automakers strive for the exact opposite: to set up one single factory that builds every vehicle.
The absolute champion of this is Nissan, who builds every vehicle in their entire lineup in Smyrna, Tennessee. Seriously: when you go on a Nissan press drive and you ask “Where is this thing built?” the answer is always Smyrna, Tennessee. They build trucks. They build cars. They probably build riding lawn tractors. I suspect this is the only factory in the world where you can see a Nissan Leaf coming down the same production line as a color television.
And then there’s PROBLEM NUMBER THREE: Americans don’t want to pay what small trucks cost. Allow me to explain: because automakers must build these small trucks America, they can’t price them as low as they would if they could build the trucks somewhere like Nicaragua. This is largely due to unions, who insist that each hour must be comprised of 18 minutes of smoke breaks, 24 minutes of lunch breaks, 9 minutes of bathroom breaks, and 4 minutes of hard alcohol consumption.
So what happens is this: the 2016 Chevrolet Colorado, which is the last small truck General Motors will ever make, starts at $24,900 with a V6 engine and an automatic transmission. Meanwhile, the larger Chevrolet Silverado starts at $27,400, also with a V6 engine and an automatic transmission. In other words: only $2,500 separates the puny, pathetic, tiny “little truck” you’ll get laughed at for driving in Mississippi from the big, bold, brawny, full-size man’s truck that’ll give you all the street cred you could possibly want.
Now, if the Colorado came with a V6 and an automatic transmission for something like $19,000, that would be one thing. But a $2,500 price difference between the Colorado and the larger, roomier, more stylish, more capable Silverado? Even die-hard small truck fans would have a tough time choosing the little guy.
And this leads us to our final problem, which I’ve nicknamed PROBLEM NUMBER FOUR. Namely, automakers don’t want to build that stripped-down $19,000 work truck with the V6 and the automatic. This is because full-size trucks have an enormous profit margin; a profit margin so large that it would make the people over at IKEA jealous, even though their entire business consists of selling wood in a box for $49.99 and making you come to a giant freight warehouse to pick it up.
With that in mind, why would an automaker want to give you the $19,000 compact work truck you want to buy, when they know they’ll make a lot more money if they talk you into the $27,000 full-size work truck they want you to buy? They wouldn’t. Major car companies aren’t stupid. We know this because they’ve given us decades of excellent products, such as the Ford Aerostar.
And so, Frederick, this is why we don’t get small trucks in America. Which is a shame, because I bet I could get an entire series of columns out of laughing at the name “Amarok.”
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.