Only a few years ago, automakers like General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Honda were racing for the exit, pulling the plug on their midsize trucks as sales steadily collapsed, U.S. buyers opting instead for full-size pickups.
But in just a few weeks, Honda will roll an all-new version of its Ridgeline model into U.S. showrooms. GM launched two of its own new midsize models for 2016, and Ford is expected to return to the segment, as well, with an all-new Ranger pickup.
"Midsize pickups are smoking hot, and GM has had a real hit with their [Chevrolet] Colorado and [GMC] Canyon," said Dave Sullivan, a senior analyst with consulting firm AutoPacific, Inc.
A quarter century ago, midsize models actually dominated the pickup segment, handily outselling full-size offerings. But the situation turned upside down in the 1990s, in part due to rising prices. Suddenly, motorists could get a larger, more capable truck for only a little bit more money. As a result, demand for the smaller models fell from about 1.4 million a year in 1987 to barely 200,000 earlier this decade.
Going into the 2015 model-year, only two midsize trucks remained: the Toyota Tacoma, long the segment volume leader, and the Nissan Frontier.
But after hitting bottom, the midsize truck market has made another sharp U-turn. U.S. sales surged 48 percent in 2015, to 356,886, and demand is up another 17 percent so far this year, even as overall American car sales have climbed a more modest 3.4 percent. According to an AutoPacific forecast, midsize pickup demand could reach a peak of around 461,400 by 2019.
"We don't want to miss out on that," said Honda division chief Jeff Conrad, explaining why the third-largest Japanese maker decided to revive the Ridgeline. At its peak, Honda sold 50,000 a year, and it is confident it will readily match that number with the new model. In fact, the more likely limit will be production capacity constraints at its assembly plant in Alabama.
The upturn might seem counter-intuitive. After all, with gas prices still barely half of their 2014 high, despite recent rises, fuel costs shouldn't seem to be a problem for full-size models like the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado.
But industry research shows that buyers still care about mileage, and the latest crop of smaller trucks can claim fuel economy climbing into the high 20 mpg range. The diesel versions of the reborn Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups top 30 mpg on the highway.
Smaller trucks still offer plenty of raw grunt. The 2017 Honda Ridgeline, for example, can carry a load of up to 1,500 pounds and tow trailers of up to 4,000 pounds — more than enough to haul a horse trailer or good-size boat.
Midsize trucks are easier to park, especially in crowded city or suburban environments, and they can handily fit into garages that might be too small for a pickup the size of a Ram 1500 or Nissan Titan.
They're more nimble off-road, as well, a factor played up by Toyota, which has long and overwhelmingly dominated the midsize market. In 2014, Americans bought 155,041 of the maker's Tacoma model, or nearly two-thirds of the total segment. That share slipped, however, in 2015 as GM re-entered the fray.
If anything, analysts note that buyers have an unusually distinctive set of options in the midsize pickup market compared to most other vehicle segments. Where Toyota Tacoma has traditionally emphasized Tacoma's off-road capabilities, GM's two trucks target both commercial and personal use buyers who want a bit more on-road comfort without sacrificing payload.
Honda, meanwhile, is specifically going after family buyers who want a distinctly car-like ride and best-in-class fuel economy. The new Ridgeline is the segment outlier in that it uses the same basic unibody platform as Honda's passenger cars, rather than the body-on-frame chassis traditionally found in trucks.
Long stagnant, the increased competition in the midsize pickup segment is especially good for consumers. Fuel economy is on the rise. The new trucks are adding an array of advanced infotainment technologies and state-of-the-art safety systems, such as forward collision warning with emergency auto braking.
If anything, buyers will soon get even more choice. After long insisting it only needed the full-size F-150, Ford now plans to revive the old Ranger, modifying a new midsize it sells in overseas markets. Nissan Is developing an update of the Frontier. And even Fiat Chrysler is weighing a return to the segment.
Hyundai, meanwhile, is strongly hinting it will come to market with a version of the wildly popular Santa Cruz pickup it debuted a couple years ago. Like the Honda Ridgeline, it will be car-based, rather than a classic "truck-truck," in industry lingo.
"The forward years will become even more competitive," said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Automotive. And that will be good news for midsize pickup buyers who will get a broader range of options than they've had in decades.