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First Drive / COMPACT PICKUPS

Ford's Lead Narrows, but It Still Sets Pace

While its Ranger is the undisputed leader among compact pickups, Nissan, Dodge and Toyota are giving it a run for the money.

October 11, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Compact pickup trucks are as ubiquitous as faded denim in the youth market and, like bluejeans, it seems, are all about brand identity and style these days.

Ford is the undisputed leader, its Ranger brand accounting for about a third of all compact pickup sales in the U.S. last year.

But just as Tommy Hilfiger and Old Navy are fraying Levi Strauss' hold on the jeans market, Dodge's Dakota, Toyota's Tacoma and Nissan's Frontier are picking away at the Ranger (as Chevrolet's long-in-the-tooth S-10, while still in second place, sees monthly sales slipping).

Granted, each has a long way to go. As of the end of September, Ranger sales were down by 15,000 units from the first nine months of 1999, but Ford still was loping along, a couple laps ahead of the pack, with 275,858 sold (see chart).

The Dakota is selling well on the strength of its four-door Quad Cab model but is essentially unchanged for 2001. The Tacoma, with sales slowing as potential buyers wait for a complete redesign due next year, has received a mild face lift across the line and adds a "double cab" four-door model. The S-10 and its GMC Sonoma twin aren't scheduled for an update until 2002, and aside from adding four-door crew cab models at the upper end of the line, General Motors hasn't tweaked them much for 2001.

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All of which brings us back to Ford's Ranger and its competitor from Nissan, both of which appear with noteworthy revisions for 2001.

Ford, aware that its lead has narrowed, has moderately restyled the entire Ranger line, added a bigger and more powerful V-6 option and slipped in two new trim levels. Bigger changes are afoot for 2002, when an all-new Ranger will arrive.

Nissan, for its part, has heard critics' complaints that it built a great truck hampered by uninspired styling and lackluster engine performance. It sent the Frontier back to the studio for a rethink.

The result is a new supercharged V-6 at the top of the line and that beefy, rivet-studded "industrial-aggressive" face lift you can see these days in any number of Frontier ads on television and in magazines ranging from the traditional automotive buff books to edgy youth-culture publications such as Maxim.

It is doubtful that Nissan will steal many Ranger fans from Ford, or that Ford will take sales from Nissan, although the new Frontier fascia is tough enough that it could be a turnoff that sends potential customers to other brands.

What the revitalized trucks from Ford and Nissan might do, though, is help breathe a little life back into the compact segment, which has been fairly stable (a sterner critic might call it stagnant) for years.

Nissan Frontier

Nissan, clearly, is going after a young, male audience with the 2001 Frontier. The truck was designed with "a nice coolness factor" and a look that says "this is not your father's pickup truck," said Frontier marketing manager Fred Suckow (who shows no signs of an incipient split personality despite having a job that also requires him to market the decidedly unyouthful, unaggressive Quest minivan).

The target customer for the 2001 Frontier, Suckow said, is a guy in the 25-to-34 age bracket, at least 10 years younger than the "old" Frontier customer, median age 44.

Nissan created the compact pickup segment in the U.S. in 1959 and last year brought out the first four-door compact truck with independently operating rear doors (competitors' back doors couldn't be opened until the front doors were). With the new Frontier, the Japanese auto maker scores two more firsts: a lockable tailgate and an optional supercharged V-6.

The supercharger doesn't turn the Frontier into a race truck, but it does boost mid-range torque and acceleration and should appeal to buyers with boats and trailers to tow--or with egos that need stroking. The supercharged 3.3-liter V-6 churns out 210 horsepower versus 170 for the normally aspirated version. Base price for a supercharged model when it goes on sale next month is $19,999.

In reconfiguring the Frontier, Nissan also lowered the ride height of most versions, figuring that the younger buyers it is gunning for would rather have a racy-looking truck than one that looked as though it wanted to tiptoe across a mountain stream without wetting its drive shaft.

Handling across the lineup is crisp, with tight and nimble steering. The ride is decent for a pickup--but remember, it is a pickup. Suspension on the 4x4 models is stiff enough to make one marvel aloud at the efficiency of the optional in-dash CD player's anti-skip mountings, something that doesn't usually come up in a test drive.

As with most compact pickups, the Frontier comes in a wide variety of trim levels--there are 14 body, engine and transmission combinations. Nissan markets three distinct body styles: regular cab (two doors and no room behind the seat), two-door king cab (rear jump seats in an expanded cabin) and crew cab (a true four-door cab with two rows of seats, though rear legroom is constrained).

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