We call this class “compact pickup trucks” because there are no new pickups smaller than these—however, these trucks aren’t nearly as compact as they used to be. The vehicles in this class are almost as large as some full-size pickups were 30 years ago. Most of them are similar in size and “footprint” to a midsize SUV (in fact, the Honda Ridgeline shares its basic platform with the Honda Pilot SUV).
In recent years, the compact pickup class has endured a period of waning popularity. Back in 2009, there were 12 models in the class; in 2016, there were only four. However, the segment seems to be heating up again as of late. Honda re-introduced its Ridgeline for 2017, and Ford re-entered the category with a revival of its Ranger nameplate for 2019. Jeep introduced the Gladiator—a pickup version of its iconic Wrangler SUV—as a 2020 model.
The class is likely to gain another entrant in the near future—Ram is reportedly developing a new pickup that will likely be named Dakota, and this truck could debut as a late 2021 or 2022 model. We’ll also mention that both Hyundai and Volkswagen have shown pickups in concept-vehicle form at relatively recent auto shows, so it’s possible that one or both of those manufacturers could follow up with a production model in the future.
Save for the 4WD-only Jeep Gladiator, all of the compact pickups currently on the market come standard with rear-wheel drive except for the Honda Ridgeline, which offers front-wheel drive. If you get a 4-wheel-drive model, it will have a part-time system that shouldn’t be left engaged on dry pavement due to the risk of excessive driveline wear. The exceptions are the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, GMC Canyon, Jeep Gladiator, and Honda Ridgeline. The specialized ZR2 models of the Colorado lineup and all Canyon and Gladiator models are available with full-time 4-wheel-drive systems that can be left engaged on dry pavement; the Honda Ridgeline offers a permanently engaged all-wheel-drive system.
HIGHLIGHTS FOR 2021
A redesigned Nissan Frontier was originally expected for 2021, but official details hadn’t been released as of this writing; it may end up being a 2022 model. The new-generation Frontier is slated to use the 3.8-liter V6 and 9-speed automatic transmission that debuted in the otherwise carried-over 2020 Frontier.
The Chevrolet Colorado gets minor styling changes and a few revisions to trim levels and optional-equipment packages. The Ford Ranger gets a new Tremor Off-Road Package that adds a raised off-road-tuned suspension and 32-inch all-terrain tires. The GMC Canyon is now available in an AT4 trim level that includes off-road suspension and tires, hill-descent control, locking rear differential, and specific trim. The top-line Denali model receives a new grille and other trim updates.
The Honda Ridgeline undergoes a facelift that gives it a more rugged look, and also gets an HPD (Honda Performance Development) Package that adds unique trim components and body graphics. A 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 and an optional Selec-Trac full-time four-wheel-drive system are new options for the Jeep Gladiator. The Gladiator also gets an 80th Anniversary Edition, along with a new Willys version that includes a limited-slip differential and 32-inch mud-terrain tires.
MODELS THAT OFFER SOMETHING UNUSUAL
The Jeep Gladiator and Honda Ridgeline are the most atypical members of this class. The Gladiator carries over the one-of-a-kind styling and off-road prowess of its Wrangler parent vehicle, and is also the only convertible pickup truck on the market: it has removable doors, a fold-down windshield, and removable (and convertible) tops for an unmatched open-air experience. The Ridgeline is built on a unibody chassis instead of body-on-frame construction, it has an independent rear suspension in place of a solid rear axle, and it offers a number of unique features (such as a lockable “trunk” under the floor of the cargo bed and a dual-action tailgate that can be opened both down and to the left-hand side). The Ridgeline’s architecture means it has better ride quality and all-around on-road refinement than the rest of the class, but it isn’t as suited to really serious off-roading.