Ford, the automaker synonymous with big pickups, is about to introduce a new compact truck, one considerably smaller than its popular midsize Ranger.
The little pickup is likely to be called “Maverick,” a name Ford last used for a popular compact car it built in the 1970s. It should go on sale in the third quarter of this year.
The plan isn’t without risk. American buyers have repeatedly spurned pickups engineered and sized like the 2022 Maverick, dismissing them as not being “real” pickups because they’re small, less capable and look cute or goofy rather than tough.
Small pickups built on car-type, or unibody, platforms have an uninterrupted history of disappointing in the U.S. Examples — largely forgotten — include the Volkswagen Rabbit pickup and Subaru’s Brat and Baja. The bigger unibody Honda Ridgeline — a midsize like the Ranger — has won awards, but never sold anywhere near as well as competitors built on traditional pickup chassis.
But if any automaker can make this work, it’s probably Ford. Nobody knows pickup buyers better than Ford, whose F-150 full-size pickup has been America’s best-selling pickup for 44 years. If the Maverick takes off, you can expect other brands to develop competitors, creating a market for small pickups.
Officially, Ford won’t confirm the new 2022 Maverick exists. Automakers like to treat plans for introducing new vehicles like the invasion of Normandy, but everybody knows the Maverick is coming.
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What we know about the 2022 Ford Maverick
- It will be based on the same front- or all-wheel-drive chassis, or architecture, as the Ford Bronco and Escape compact SUVs.
- It will seat five and be offered with a four-door, crew cab interior.
- It’ll be assembled alongside the Bronco Sport in Hermosillo, Mexico.
- Four-wheel drive is a given; front-wheel drive for a low-priced base model is possible.
- Sales are expected to begin third quarter, 2021.
- It’s undergoing final tests now. Camouflaged models are increasingly common around Ford engineering HQ in Dearborn.
- Prices will start below the Ranger, maybe as low as $20,000.
- Well-equipped models will cost thousands more.
- It’s an example of what Ford calls “white space vehicles” expected to help offset sales lost when the automaker stopped building sedans.
- Ford intends to give it more hauling and off-road capacity than previous small pickups, which were widely dismissed as toys, not tools.
- Ford has a history of vehicles named for types of horses — Mustang, Bronco, Pinto. “Maverick” applies to any unbranded, free-roaming range animal, but usually cattle.
- A mustang, by some definitions, is a maverick horse.
- The original Ford Maverick badge was a stylized steer’s head, with horns.
- “Maverick” was also the title of a popular 1957-62 TV Western series that at various times starred James Garner, Jack Kelly, Roger Moore and Roger Colbert.
Hyundai Santa Cruz joins the party
Hyundai will unveil a pickup based on a similar architecture April 15. Called the Santa Cruz, it’s expected to be midsize, so bigger and more expensive than the Maverick.
The Santa Cruz is the auto industry’s worst kept secret. Hyundai unveiled a radical-looking Santa Cruz concept vehicle at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The concept was an immediate hit, with journalists and show-goers calling on Hyundai to build it, despite such vehicles’ checkered sales history.
Hyundai spent years researching before greenlighting the Santa Cruz. It will be built in Montgomery, Alabama, alongside the Tucson SUV that uses the same architecture. Sales probably will begin this summer or early fall.
The Santa Cruz is expected to be sized, equipped and priced to compete with the $36K Honda Ridgeline midsize, the only U.S. pickup currently based on a unibody architecture like the Santa Cruz and Maverick.
While a Honda Ridgeline is about the size of the midsize Ranger, photos of a camouflaged Maverick test vehicle parked next to a Ranger show Ford’s upcoming compact to be considerably narrower and less tall than the Ranger. The website Maverick Truck Club has covered the truck’s development extensively.
Not a flower delivery truck
Part of the reason automakers keep experimenting with small unibody pickups is that they use architectures and engines already developed for SUVs and passenger cars.
Adding a pickup to the roster of vehicles built from those parts is pretty close to free money for an automaker that already makes millions of unibody cars, like Hyundai. The major investment is already committed. Adding even a relatively small number of pickups to the SUVs and cars you expected to get from that budget makes the whole project more profitable.
The questions, of course, are:
- How small a number can you sell and still make money?
- How much do you spend making the new pickup a vehicle people will want?
Pickups are popular, but forecasters have modest expectations for the Maverick and Santa Cruz, maybe fewer than 90,000 combined sales a year at their peak.
At that rate, it’s no sure thing the Maverick or Santa Cruz will make money. Even though developing them cost less than engineering a new vehicle from the ground up, the engineering and manufacturing investment is still significant.
Maverick assembly in Mexico may permit sales in South American countries the U.S. lacks trade agreements with, but demand there is uncertain, too.
Challenge No. 2: capability. Small vehicles that have pickup bodies but aren’t much more capable than a compact car are common in Latin America and Europe, where convenient size and low price are key selling points. The Fiat-based Ram 700 pickup is an example. It’s built in Brazil and sold in a number of countries, including Mexico. A recent facelift gave it a cool modern look, but nobody at Stellantis is considering it for U.S. sales.
Neither the Maverick nor Santa Cruz have “downtown deliveries in Rio” as a backup plan. They’re developed, equipped and priced to be attractive, capable little passenger-centric vehicles. Owners should be equally comfortable with the idea of taking one to dinner, a campsite or pick up 10 bags of mulch.
Keys to the Maverick’s success will be:
- Does it look like a real pickup?
- Can it do more than a Ford EcoSport small SUV or Hyundai Elantra compact sedan, particularly in terms of towing and payload?
If the answers are “yes,” the Maverick may lead a herd of new vehicles to driveways near you, opening the door for new small pickups to fill the entry-level market segment many automakers abandoned when they quit building small cars.
If not, it’ll be the latest, and probably not the last, time the idea captivated automakers but left American buyers cold.