Pickup trucks in the U.S. have trended for years toward the bigger, brawnier and more expensive. Now, Ford Motor Co. is reversing course, with plans to sell a diminutive hybrid truck with a price tag—and gas mileage—similar to that of a compact car.
Ford on Tuesday revealed the Maverick, a pickup truck with a body comparable in size to a compact SUV, such as a Ford Escape. Its starting price of $19,995 will make it the least-expensive vehicle in Ford’s U.S. lineup when it goes on sale this fall.
The nation’s No. 2 auto maker is betting that some people who own sedans or small sport-utility vehicles would like the versatility of having a flatbed, but don’t have the budget or garage space for a big, gas-guzzling truck, such as Ford’s F-150 or midsize Ranger pickup.
“I think we’ll get a lot of first-time truck buyers, people who really didn’t consider a truck before, because it was either out of reach or it was too big for them,” Ford product chief
said. He said he expects the Maverick will appeal to a more diverse set of customers, including women.
Pickup trucks have long been a strength for Ford and rivals
General Motors Co.
’s Ram brand.
But in recent years, they have become more central to their strategies, after the companies largely abandoned the market for sedans and small hatchbacks, which had been losing money.
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Small pickup trucks are popular in many overseas markets but not in the U.S., where big, hulking trucks like the F-150, Ram 1500 and Chevrolet Silverado dominate roadways. Some of those models are more than 3 feet longer than the Maverick.
The Maverick will be built on the same basic frame as Ford’s Focus car. The frame also underpins the company’s popular Escape SUV and the new Bronco Sport, released last year. It will be built at Ford’s factory in Hermosillo, Mexico. The vehicle will come standard with a hybrid system, which saves fuel by combining a gas engine with a small battery pack and electric motor. Ford says the system will deliver about 40 miles per gallon in city driving.
Ford recently raised its planned spending on electric-vehicle development to $30 billion through 2025. But it also is offering hybrids like the Maverick, a strategy that diverts from GM and other car companies that are largely skipping hybrids to focus on vehicles that run on battery power only.
Petite pickup trucks such as the Chevy S-10, Dodge Dakota and an earlier iteration of Ford’s Ranger were big sellers in the U.S. in the 1990s. But sales dropped sharply in the following decade and buyers gravitated to bigger trucks, encouraged by cheaper gas prices and low interest rates. GM, Ford and Dodge’s then-owner Chrysler Group LLC eventually phased out their small trucks.
In recent years GM and Ford added back more choice to their truck lineups with new midsize trucks, such as GM’s Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, and with the reintroduction of the Ford Ranger. That gave buyers a more-manageable size and decent towing capability. Still, those models are large by ’90s small-truck standards, and typically sell for far higher than $30,000.
With the Maverick, Ford is testing whether the appeal of the pickup body style can be expanded further down the size and price scale. It will be unusually small and inexpensive for a pickup in U.S. showrooms. Its only direct competitor in the category will be Hyundai Motor Co.’s Santa Cruz, which goes on sale this summer. Hyundai hasn’t disclosed pricing.
Like Ford, the Korean auto maker sees a market for buyers who want the flexibility to haul gear for outdoor sports or home projects, but also want a vehicle that is easier to drive and park in suburban or urban areas.
“We found that there is actually a big potential for these urban buyers looking for something smaller, for this recreational-lifestyle vehicle that right now the market doesn’t have a solution for,” said Gil Castillo, senior group manager for advanced vehicle strategy at Hyundai Motor North America.
The Maverick is Ford’s attempt at filling a gap in its U.S. lineup for an entry-level model. Until a few years ago, Ford customers on a budget could choose from small cars, such as the Fiesta and Focus, both of which started at less than $20,000.
Ford executives have said they wanted to divert capital from those vehicles to more lucrative pickups and SUVs, as well as expand investments on new technologies, such as electric vehicles. The strategy has helped Ford lift its profit margin, executives have said.
Still, many Ford dealers have complained that dropping those models left them without much to offer buyers on a budget.
said sales of vehicles below $25,000 have dried up at his Ford dealership in suburban Detroit. He expects the Maverick to attract buyers who might have left the brand because there weren’t options in their price range.
“People will always choose a vehicle with more space if they can afford it,” he said.
Jessica Caldwell, an executive director at car-shopping site Edmunds.com, said Ford’s strategy to attract entry-level buyers with a truck is unusual and hinges on offering features those buyers can’t find today, such as the ability to tow.
“No one has really made this small-truck segment work long-term, so that is a risk,” she said.
Write to Mike Colias at Mike.Colias@wsj.com
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