Car Industry Chronicles

Is There a Right Way to Create Car-Based Pickups?

All-new Santa Cruz and upcoming Toro seem to have hit a sweet spot some automakers have been searching for decades

Pickup trucks have gone through several changes since they first appeared. They have evolved in design, become smoother to ride, and received more comfort-related items than ever. Recently, they are even starting to fiddle with electrification. But none of that has ever made durability or cargo capacity less important to them, of course.

As usual in the automotive industry, this environment of several fronts where to act was seen as an opportunity to offer several products as well. Over time, the pickup segment grew enough to deserve sub-divisions not only regarding size and price but also construction and purpose. Cue in the pickups on which this Chronicle focuses.

In short, car-based pickup trucks go much further in the process of trading in work-suitable qualities for urban-use characteristics; that is precisely why they have never posed real threat to the traditional ones. However, while the latter have many tried-and-true solutions to rely on, the former have struggled a lot to give people what they want.

Released in 1957, the Ford Ranchero was one of the first car-based pickups

The North-American Way

Given the local penchant for pickup trucks in general, it is almost obvious that the first attempt to diversify this type of vehicle would come from the US. Ford and Chevrolet took their current sedan/station wagon platform and converted their rear half into the pickup bed. The Ranchero was born in 1957 and the El Camino two years later.

They were more attractive and comfortable than traditional pickups from the beginning, which was the exact goal. However, since people could get comfort from sedans and SWs, they gradually gave those pickups a different purpose: performance. The large engines available at the time and the reduced weight definitely contributed to that.

Over time, those pickups shifted their focus towards sportiness, to the point of being informally labeled “coupe utility”. Their target audience became young drivers, they received many improvements on style and powertrain and, for a short time, they were an interesting counterpart to pony cars such as Camaro, Barracuda and Mustang.

The 147 Pick-up would receive several improvements over the years, such as larger bed

The South-American Way

While Argentina had the Ranchero since 1973, derived from the regional Ford Falcon, car-based pickups would truly take off five years later in Brazil, thanks to Fiat. Applying the same original recipe to the 147 subcompact generated an agile, fuel-efficient pickup which was perfect for small companies to operate in big cities with heavy traffic.

The gradual shift toward sportiness eventually appeared south of the Equator as well, but it was toned down by the problematic scenario of the time: the oil crisis reduced fuel availability and the economic crisis capped the purchasing power of most people. Those pickups would cater to young drivers through style rather than performance.

Brazil’s overall importance in the South-American market ultimately forced its preference for compact car-based pickups on its neighbors. The local Big Four, Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford and Volkswagen, kept their options up-to-date for a long time because their entry-level lines, from which they are derived, have always sold very well in the region.

The high-performance potential was taken seriously in Australia until not so many years ago

A history of ups and downs

The Australian market eventually embraced the North-American performance trend to the point of having several exclusive models tuned or developed from scratch with that goal. In Brazil, makers kept improving their own car-based pickups by making them more stylish while retaining the overall capacity high and the overall cost low.

Unfortunately, both cases are undesirable for in today’s global market because they have become stagnant niches. We are talking about cars of very different purposes and characteristics which are actually successful in only one country each. Besides, their demand has reached a point where big changes are bound to do more harm than good.

If we talk about car-based pickups in general, one could say their segment has recently gotten a fresh breath of life. Not because of a new full-size pickup like the HSV Maloo or a compact one such as the Volkswagen Saveiro, but because of something which falls right in the middle: it seems that a midsize niche will be formed in the next years.

Focusing on versatility has made the Fiat Toro a strong seller in Latin America from the first moment

Boldness still pays off

Honda and Renault came first, but it was Fiat who hit the jackpot once again: instead of mimicking the rugged design and faking the off-road capability of traditional pickups, the Toro came as a decidedly urban car-based competitor, from the fluid design to the car-like ride. Adding trim levels for all tastes only made it even more successful.

Rather than competing with the likes of Ford Ranger or Toyota Hilux, the Toro represents an urban alternative: fuel-efficient powertrain, cheap maintenance due to many shared parts, smooth ride, and low price with similar equipment level. Perfect for people who enjoy the traditional style but only use a fraction of their off-road capabilities.

Being closer to traditional pickups makes it attractive to more people than the Australian “utes” and being more sophisticated and expensive than the typical Brazilian ones makes it more profitable. After the strong sales, the latest proof of the Toro’s market success is that it is finally going to have direct competitors available around the world.

What competitors are those?

The very first to appear is the Hyundai Santa Cruz, featured on this Chronicle’s first two photos. Compared to the Toro, it clearly goes further in elegance and even sportiness, thanks to angular shapes, large lights and that unmistakable front grille — the way it is visually connected with the headlights could belong to any typical concept car.

In a few months, Ford is going to fight them with the Maverick. After naming a coupé and a sedan, two badge-engineered Nissan SUVs, and its own Escape in Europe, it is expected to be a car-based pickup which shares Bronco Sport’s platform; that will keep distance from Bronco and Ranger and their exclusive, less urban underpinnings.

While the Toro is going to get a facelift soon, there will be some time until any region gets all of them. Besides that, Stellantis is already planning yet another model in this niche, more sophisticated and powerful but still leaving the pure off-road character to the Jeep Gladiator. If there are others in the works, we are yet to learn about them.

Stellantis believes there’s a slot to fill between the urban Fiat Toro and the off-road Jeep Gladiator

What do you think of car-based pickups? Do you like what they offer or do you prefer to stick with the traditional ones? Besides, do you know other examples which were relevant enough to the market segment’s history to be included in this Chronicle? Feel free to share your thoughts and your opinions by using the comment button below!

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Danillo Almeida

Danillo Almeida

3.3K Followers

Content writer and engineer-to-be who aspires to work in car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.