2021: The revolutionary year in pickup trucks

The great American pickup truck has been basically one thing for quite awhile now: a big — and always getting bigger — gas- or diesel-powered lane-hogging beast with a big open bed. Trucks like the Ford F-150 and GMC Sierra have gotten more comfortable with added luxury options like heated seats, foldout work desks and high-end stereos, but the basic formula has held steady.

There was a time when pickups came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes from Chevrolet El Camino muscle trucks to cute little Volkswagen pickups and even flat-faced “cab forward” trucks. Over time, though, full-size and somewhat smaller midsize trucks of traditional size and shape have taken over. In the past year, though, some of that old breadth and creativity is returning as more Americans ditch cars for trucks.

About a decade ago, cars — meaning not trucks or SUVs — made up more than half of all vehicles sold in America, according to data from Cox Automotive, a company that owns various automotive websites and auto dealer services firms. Now only about 20% of Americans buy traditional passenger cars. Pickups, on the other hand, have gone from less than 14% of the US market to now having just as much market share as cars. The remaining 60% of the market is mostly SUVs and some vans.

With more and more Americans buying trucks, companies like Ford, Stellantis and even Hyundai started looking for yet unexplored niches in the search for customers who never knew they wanted a truck.

Even for mid-size trucks, like the Toyota Tacoma and Ford Ranger, competition has been getting tougher. This year, Nissan came out with a (finally after more than a decade) redesigned Frontier. It’s much more handsome, with a completely new body, new interior, and enough mechanical improvements to make a viable competitor to the well-aged Tacoma, the undisputed king of this category. Not surprisingly, sales of the new Frontier are up briskly, according to Cox Automotive.

Trucks got much smaller
Going even smaller, Ford came out with the Maverick. At a glance it looks like just a small pickup, but under its conservative exterior, it breaks all the rules. Sharing much of its engineering with the Ford Escape and Bronco Sport SUVs — although it looks nothing like either one — the Ford Maverick can be purchased with all-wheel-drive but the base model is front-wheel-drive. That’s almost unheard of for a pickup.

Normally, base model pickups are rear-wheel-drive, putting the powered wheels underneath the cargo bed for the best traction when carrying heavy loads. The Maverick’s $20,000 base model, less than half the price of the average new vehicle, is a hybrid as well. Hybrid trucks are not new. Ford sells a hybrid version of the F-150 but, with the Maverick, Ford made the hybrid the default entry-level version, making hybridization the norm.

But for all its hidden oddities, the Maverick still looks, basically, like a pickup. It has a squared-off front end and a simple grid-like grille. Its cargo bed and the cab, the part where people sit, don’t quite meet at right angle like they do in most trucks, but that fact is partly hidden by black plastic. Ford designers clearly went out of their way to make the Maverick look like a traditional pickup.

Hyundai designers, on the other hand, had no problems breaking design tradition with the new Santa Cruz. In fact, the Korean automaker’s executives insist the Hyundai Santa Cruz is not a pickup truck but rather a “sport adventure vehicle.” OK, but it’s really a pickup truck.

Just like the Ford Maverick, it’s a pickup based on front-wheel-drive crossover SUV engineering. Unlike the Maverick, though, the Santa Cruz looks and feels exactly like that. From the outside, it looks like a crossover, but it’s as if someone took a giant ice cream scoop to the back end. On the inside, the slightly pricier Santa Cruz also looks much nicer than the Ford, which has a distinct work-truck vibe. The Santa Cruz is also much more refined — even fun — to drive compared to the stiffer and noisier Maverick.

Trucks got electric power
2021 also saw the first of an expected wave of electric pickups. Rivian started delivering its first few R1T pickups to customers and it’s already won MotorTrend’s Truck of the Year award. Just last week, General Motors started production of the GMC Hummer EV pickup.

Electric pickups once seemed like an oxymoron. Trucks were all about strength and capability while early electric cars seemed like little pods for driving around town. But electric motors, connected to sufficiently powerful batteries, happen to provide immense pulling power. Adding an additional electric motors creates simple and very capable all-wheel-drive. Also, powerful truck batteries can be used to run power tools, and even charge up other electric vehicles. It turns out electric motors can be ideal for trucks.

Trucks like the Rivian and the Hummer won’t be competing with one another. The Rivian R1T might be expensive, with prices starting at almost $68,000, but prices for the first Hummer EVs coming off the line start at over $100,000. The smooth-driving but off-road capable Rivian is intended as camping gear for outdoor enthusiasts. The Hummer EV is being marketed as a performance truck. The Rivian R1T is no slouch when it comes to speed and power — it can go from zero to 60 miles an hour in about three seconds — but it’s built more for campers than for racers.

In 2022, electric truck competition will start getting really heavy. The Ford F-150 Lightning will go into production. A few days into the new year, General Motors will unveil its new Chevrolet Silverado EV electric truck, which CEO Mary Barra has called “unmatched.” That truck is supposed to go into production in 2023. By that time, the wedge-shaped Tesla Cybertruck might also be in production at a new Tesla factory in Texas.

Tesla reportedly has taken over a million refundable $100 deposits for its Cybertruck. Ford stopped taking such deposits for the Lightning after collecting 200,000 reservations. Ford also recently announced it would double its planned factory output for the Lightning given unexpectedly strong customer demand.

Many of the potential customers, according to Ford, are not even current pickup truck owners.

After this year and next, the world of pickup trucks, loaded up with tradition and towing heavy expectations, will never be the same.

The last stand of the piston engine

This past year also brought some competition for Ford in a very different part of the truck market. The Ford F-150 Raptor has had the high-performance off-road pickup market all to itself for over a decade. If truck shoppers were rational customers looking only for the vehicle that best suits their day-to-day needs, hardly anyone would buy a Ford Raptor, a truck designed for high-speed desert racing. But Ford sells lots of Raptors and, it must be assumed, “rational” doesn’t have much to do with the purchase process. With prices starting at at about $65,000, it’s one of Ford’s most profitable models.

Ford revealed an updated version of the extra-tall, extra-wide 450 horsepower truck this year. The latest version is available with even bigger tires — 37 inches tall — and hi-tech suspension that checks the terrain 500 times a seconds and softens or stiffens automatically.

But this was also the year that Ford’s competitor, Stellantis, came out with the Ram TRX, with a starting price $10,000 higher than the Ford’s. For that money, the TRX offers much more power. Its 6.2-liter supercharged V8 can produce up to 702 horsepower. Given that buyers are paying luxury car prices, the TRX also has a nicely appointed interior. A hard press on the gas pedal brings on a whoosh from the big supercharger along with a rush of acceleration. (Aside from its flare-fendered width and nearly bottomless thirst for fuel, it drives pretty nicely on paved roads.)

Ford has promised a higher-horsepower version of the Raptor coming soon, so this dinosaur fight is not over.