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December 12, 2011 Autos Insider | Ford leaves small-pickup niche | The Detroit News

Ford leaves small-pickup niche

The last Ford Ranger for the U.S. market is expected to roll off the line by Dec. 19, marking the end of an era, with more than 6.6 million sold over 29 years.

There are an estimated 800,000 Rangers still on the road. Drivers of the compact pickup acknowledge their solidarity by waving to one another.

With the end of production and closing of the 86-year-old Twin Cities Assembly Plant in Minnesota, Ford Motor Co. will be out of the compact pickup business in North America.

Meanwhile, crosstown rival General Motors Co. prepares to launch the next generation of the compact Colorado in 2013. And Chrysler Group LLC is working on a compact unibody pickup to replace the discontinued Dodge Dakota.

At a time when automakers are introducing ever-smaller cars to meet fuel-efficiency regulations, Ford is killing its smallest truck and directing consumers to the full-size F-150 with a more efficient V-6 engine.

Ford will abandon a segment it led for 18 years until 2005, when it fell behind the Toyota Tacoma.

Ford's rationale is that there is little price bump — less than $5,000 — to the larger F-150, and dwindling sales of the Ranger did not warrant making and selling the next-generation model in the U.S.

"We've got a tremendous heritage and history with Ranger," said Doug Scott, Ford's truck marketing manager.

"The product has been very good and was true to the Built Ford Tough brand," Scott said.

"But the environment changed with full-size trucks becoming so much more fuel-efficient."

The shift is evident in the plummeting sales figures.

Ranger sales peaked in 1999 at 348,358 and have declined since. They fell below 100,000 in 2006 and never recovered.

Part of the downfall is because the Ranger became dated; the truck received cosmetic upgrades but few substantive revisions since 1983.

"Time stood still," said analyst Dave Sullivan of AutoPacific Inc. in Ann Arbor.

"It had become obsolete as Ford put money into the larger F-150."

The Ranger did not follow the trend to crew cabs, more efficient engines, advanced technology and creature comforts. The big-brother F-Series got the attention and resources.

"When you look at how we have had to prioritize our resources, both human and financial over the last five-plus years, we definitely believe that F-150 and Super Duty were more important priorities, and that's where we focused our resources," Scott said.

"Compared to a V-6 Ranger, a number of our F-150 powertrains are more fuel-efficient, and we have a good value story to tell."

Customers 'not happy'

But for those who want the machismo of a pickup to haul mulch but still fit in a one-car garage or small parking spot, Ford will have nothing in the showroom.

"A lot of our customers are not happy, obviously, that it is going away, and I imagine we will get more of that over the next month after Ranger goes out of production," Scott said.

"Some owners don't understand why we would move away from the segment," Scott said. But he believes customers seeking an affordable and fuel-efficient vehicle have more small cars and utility vehicles from which to choose.

Sharon Hill of Windsor bought a dark red Ranger Splash with flare sides in the late 1990s and hung on to it until 2007.

"I loved my Ranger," she said. She would have bought another Ranger — she loved sitting higher on the road than in a car — but she needed a real back seat for passengers.

"The F-150 is just too big," Hills said. So she opted for a small car from a competitor instead.

"It's sad," Hill said of the Ranger's demise in North America. "It was good looking, reliable, and I could get a truck in a car price range."

Orkin gets last Ranger

The last Ranger off the line is earmarked for Orkin Pest Control, which has a fleet of about 5,000 Rangers. The company buys as many as 2,000 new trucks annually.

"When Ford officially told us they would not be producing the Ranger anymore in the U.S., we asked if we could have the last one," said Paul Youngpeter, fleet director for Rollins Inc. of Atlanta, Orkin's parent company.

The Ranger has been the mainstay of the Orkin fleet for more than 15 years because of its reliability, affordability and access to the bed, which Orkin outfits with a top or a toolbox. Some get pumps and spray rigs, as well.

Orkin has about 500 F-150s, but its size "presents a bit of a challenge," Youngpeter said.

He has purchased enough stock to get through 2012 but is already shopping the competition, including the Colorado, Tacoma and Frontier, for the longer term.

The F-150 will be considered, but "it is not the best option. We prefer something smaller," he said.

He must decide by mid-2012.

Shrinking segment

Orders like Youngpeter's have contributed to the final sales rally for the Ranger.

More than 64,000 were sold through November, up 26 percent from a year ago. November sales were almost double October's, and 2011 is on track to be the best sales year since 2007.

But the compact pickup segment is a shadow of its former self: Sales of about 260,000 through November represent about 4 percent of the total truck market.

"The segment has shrunk dramatically," Scott said. "In 2000, the compact pickup segment was about 1 million units, and this year that segment will be lucky to be 250,000 or 300,000 units. When the segment was doing over 1 million units, we were doing over 300,000 Rangers. That gives you an idea of the volume changes."

Ford sold almost 517,000 F-Series (about 70 percent of them F-150s) in the first 11 months. More than half the F-150s leaving the lot have a V-6 engine.

"The V-6 in the F-150 is so good, it makes a hard case for the Ranger," Sullivan said.

But in other parts of the world, where the F-150 is simply too big, Ford has introduced the next-generation Ranger.

The new Ranger is built in Thailand and South Africa. A third plant in South America will start production in a few months.

Tariffs make it too expensive to import the foreign-made Rangers to the U.S.

"It leaves a sweet spot wide open for GM for buyers who want a domestic smaller pickup," Sullivan said.

The AutoPacific 2011 Brand Study showed 19 percent of Ranger owners would buy another compact pickup, so they would have to defect to the competition.

Competitors think small

GM has unveiled the next-generation global Chevrolet Colorado compact pickup, which will continue to be built and sold here.

The company is banking on gas prices making a small truck attractive.

"GM thinks there's a market there and so do Toyota and Nissan, while Ford is putting all its eggs in the F-150," Sullivan said.
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