Sam Wedll has been driving his Toyota Tacoma pickup on the rugged roads of Northern California for seven trouble-free years, racking up almost 100,000 miles, so he’s interested in the redesigned version of the truck coming later this year. He paid $34,000 for his truck in 2016, loading it with plenty of options. He’s eyeing the new gas-electric hybrid Toyota Motor Corp. is going to offer, but Wedll, who does his own repairs, isn’t interested in paying luxury prices.
“The hybrid is pretty interesting to me because I like the idea of the fuel efficiency,” says Wedll, 47, a casino operations manager in Blue Lake, California. “I’m just trying to save some costs wherever possible.”
The Tacoma, known as the Taco to its legions of loyalists, is the leader of the pack in midsize pickups, one of the fastest-growing auto markets of the past decade. With outdoorsy weekend warriors and do-it-yourselfers looking for a truck that could fit in their garage, sales of midsize pickups more than doubled from 2010 to 2020. General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., which abandoned the market segment when sales slowed early this century, returned with new trucks to take on the Tacoma, which has dominated the medium truck market for almost two decades.
Although it’s easy to predict that the most lushly appointed versions of the new Taco could approach $50,000 (prices won’t be announced until later this year), Toyota insists it isn’t backing away from budget buyers even as it rolls out fancier trucks. The current Tacoma starts at $28,030, and the company says affordability is critical to its success. In fact, Toyota will continue to offer the Taco with an old-school stick shift. The Tacoma controls 42% of the midsize truck market and outsells Ford’s offering 4 to 1. That’s a role reversal from the full-size pickup market, where Ford’s F-Series has ruled the road for 46 years.
Tacoma sales in the U.S. surpassed 237,000 last year, more than twice the number of GM’s No. 2-ranked Chevrolet Colorado, according to consultant LMC Automotive. But as growth in the overall segment slows, the midsize market is developing into more of a turf war, with manufacturers vying for the sweetest highest-margin spots.
“This segment is likely past its prime growth spurt,” says Jeff Schuster, president of the Americas for LMC Automotive. That helps explain why all the big manufacturers are fielding redesigned trucks this year — often with more features and richer sticker prices — as they try to solidify their position in a highly profitable market where average prices have risen 27% in the past five years and now stand at almost $43,000, according to automotive researcher Edmunds.com Inc.
“The new frontier has shifted from SUVs to trucks,” says Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds. “We’re seeing automakers try different concepts and executions to try to grow volume.”
Higher pricing is becoming a hallmark for this vehicle segment once known for attracting penny pinchers. Later this summer, Ford is coming out with a high-performance, 405-horsepower Raptor version of its Ranger pickup that starts at $57,000, an eye-watering price for a midsize pickup. Toyota’s first redesign of the Tacoma in eight years also includes an off-road model dubbed Trail Hunter that’s expected to explore new heights in pricing.
Earlier this year, GM released new versions of its Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, which included both a Trail Boss version of the Colorado, starting at $38,495, and a 308-horsepower ZR2 model that runs $10,000 more. The pricier Canyon sold the fewest of any midsize truck — only 27,819 last year — but that’s still a 15% increase from 2021.
One concept still missing: a plug-in pickup. Midsize trucks are expected to be one of the last automotive categories to electrify because a heavy battery reduces a vehicle’s ability to tow and traverse rugged terrain. Plus, the premium prices electric vehicles command are a better fit in the full-size pickup market, where six-figure sticker prices aren’t uncommon.
“It adds cost, and it adds weight, and both of those things aren’t good for off-roading,” says Gretchen Sauer, marketing manager for the Ford Ranger. “It’s just not a priority given what our customers use the truck for.”
Buyers’ priorities may change mid-decade when Toyota, Rivian Automotive Inc. and Tesla Inc. are expected to introduce fully electric midsize trucks, according to LMC Automotive. “The midsize market is not quite there yet,” Schuster says. “But we do expect it to electrify.”
For now, Toyota will offer the only hybrid in the midsize market. To overcome the wimp factor, Toyota is pairing an electric motor with its most powerful gasoline engine to create a 326-horsepower hybrid. “In our lineup, the hybrid will be the more powerful, exciting-to-drive vehicle,” says David Christ, chief of the Toyota brand in North America.
Automakers are moving midsize trucks upmarket at the same time prices are coming under pressure because dealer lots have begun to swell with inventory now that pandemic-related supply snarls are being resolved. Discounts that disappeared over the past three years have begun returning, with average sales prices coming in about $500 below the sticker price in April, according to Edmunds.
Ford, which is jacking up the starting price of the 2024 Ranger by 24%, to $34,160, won’t offer its traditional cheaper entry-level model when it introduces the redesigned pickup in late summer. One of the reasons is to reduce the pricing overlap between it and the pint-size Maverick compact truck Ford introduced to high demand in 2021, with prices ranging from $22,595 to almost $40,000. This pricing also reflects all the additional goodies stuffed into the new Ranger, such as an optional 12-inch dashboard touchscreen and a 640-watt surround sound system.
Making pickups more posh is part of a larger trend of automakers boosting profits by pushing prices higher. Average U.S. auto prices overall are up 32% since 2018, to $47,770, according to Edmunds.
Wedll plans to pass on his trusty Taco to his son, Sam Jr., which Toyota executives say isn’t unusual. “With some segments, when a new model is introduced, trade-ins are common,” says Shigeru Hayakawa, Toyota vice chairman. But “many owners pass the Tacoma along to family members.”