Ranger redux: Ford hopes to claw its way back into exploding midsize truck market

When Ford decided to give some automotive journalists a chance to drive the all-new Ranger pickup this month, it took them up into the mountains east of San Diego where they could put the truck through what can best be described as a torture test.

The windshield wipers slap furiously as the pickup splashes its way through the deep mud bog, the last in a series of obstacles along an off-road trail rough enough to shake loose a few fillings.

It's not the sort of route most drivers will experience in a lifetime, but pickup owners expect their trucks to be ready to handle that sort of situation on a regular basis.

So, when Ford (F) decided to give some automotive journalists a chance to drive the all-new Ranger pickup this month, it took them up into the mountains east of San Diego where they could put the truck through what can best be described as a torture test.

Ford's full-size F-Series pickups make up the best-selling product line in the U.S. automotive market, but the automaker has been notably absent from the midsize truck segment since killing off the old version of its Ranger back in 2012, shuttering the archaic Twin Cities Assembly Plant in Minnesota. It's a decision the automaker soon came to regret.

Rule the road

Through the 1980s, small trucks ruled the road. For then-young baby boomers, they were a cheap way to get a new set of wheels. But over the last two decades, the market has shifted to full-size models like the Ford F-150 and rival Chevrolet Silverado. With demand for midsize products spiraling downward, Ford and its Detroit rivals all pulled the plug, leaving just two imports, the Toyota (7203.T-JP) Tacoma and Nissan (7201.T-JP) Frontier, to fight it out for the remaining scraps. Ford, in particular, was betting it could get old Ranger buyers to cough up a bit more cash for the bigger — and markedly more profitable — F-150.

But things didn't work out quite as planned. For one thing, Ford didn't count on General Motors (GM) to get back in the game, in 2015 reviving its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups. What seemed like a risky bet quickly began to pay off. Not only did sales of the sibling trucks take off, but they gave momentum to the midsize market as a whole, sales of the Tacoma and Frontier also improving. Two years later, Honda (7267.T-JP) returned to the segment with a complete remake of its Ridgeline model.

The irony is that Ford actually had a new midsize pickup, an all-new Ranger that it was producing in plants all over the world and selling just about everywhere but the U.S. The automaker was so sure there wouldn't be a market, it didn't even bother to engineer it to meet U.S. regulations — a process known as homologation — or make it robust enough for the unique demands of American buyers.

By 2016, it was obvious to Ford planners and senior executives that they were missing a huge opportunity, made all the more obvious by the explosive growth in light trucks, in general. Pickups, vans and utility vehicles now account for about 2 out of every 3 new vehicles sold in the States.

$100 million

Ford engineers had a good place to start with the new Ranger, but they couldn't just bring over the global model. It needed some major revisions to boost its cargo and towing capacity, as well as to let it handle serious off-road driving conditions.

The automaker won't discuss what the project cost but analysts like Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting estimate it ran well over $100 million — not including the price tag for tooling up a factory in the Detroit suburbs to build the U.S. Ranger. That was likely millions more than what it might have cost had Ford designed in the needs of the U.S. marketplace in the first place.

"We can't go back and change the past," Joe Hinrichs, Ford's president of the Americas, said at an event marking the start of Ranger production at the Wayne, Michigan, truck plant six weeks ago. Looking forward, Hinrichs said, the midsize market should grow fast enough to make room for Ford's return.

Since GM launched the revived Colorado and Canyon models, the midsize pickup segment has grown sharply, even as the overall U.S. market has struggled. In 2017, sales rose to 452,336, up from 448,398 the previous year. And with more new product, the forecast is for even faster growth. At the Wayne plant ceremony, Hinrichs told reporters that he expects the market will quickly reach 500,000, with "plenty of room for everybody."

Crowded market

Not everyone is convinced Ford will have an easy go of it, however. Phillippi pointed out that "the market is going to get crowded." At this month's Los Angeles Auto Show, Fiat Chrysler (FCA-IT) officially got back in the game by revealing the long-awaited Jeep Gladiator. It marks the first time that brand has had a pickup in nearly two decades.

The good news for Ford is that initial reviews of the Ranger have been solid. Autoblog declared that "it stands on its own and above the rest." CNBC's own test found the Ranger to be solid and capable, with the ability to haul as much as 1,800 pounds of cargo and tow a 7,500-pound trailer.

While that's well short of what some full-size models like the F-150 or the Chevy Silverado can handle, experts say that is more than enough for the typical truck buyer. Indeed, midsize models are nearly as large as — and boast nearly the same capabilities as — the full-size trucks of the 1980s thanks to the way the auto industry regularly upsizes its products with each new generation.

"These (midsize) trucks will do virtually everything a suburban cowboy needs," said Phillippi. Add the ability to do some things that those full-size trucks can't, like park in the typical suburban garage.

MSRP gap

Then there's the matter of price. The aging Nissan Frontier starts at just $18,990, barely half the cost of the typical new vehicle sold in the U.S. this year. The 2019 Ford Ranger will carry a base MSRP of $24,300. While a stripped-down F-Series starts just over $28,000, the gap between midsize and full-size models, as buyers typically equip them, pushes quickly above $10,000.

Prospects for the midsize market seem solid enough that there could be still more entries. The five-year plan outlined last June by the late Sergio Marchionne , Fiat Chrysler's former CEO, called for the Dodge division to return to the segment after abandoning its own midsize truck, the Dakota, earlier in the decade.

Volkswagen (VOW3-DE) might even get in the game. The German maker has its own pickup, the Amarok, which it sells primarily in Latin American and Europe. Last June, VW signed a memorandum of understanding with Ford that initially focused on joint efforts in the commercial vehicle segment. But company insiders confirm that the two potential partners are now looking at a variety of opportunities. That could even include a VW version of the Ranger, according to some sources.

Indian pickups

Then there's Mahindra & Mahindra (MAHM-IN). A decade ago, the Indian automaker attempted to launch a U.S. dealer network to market an SUV and a pickup. That effort collapsed during the Great Recession. But Mahindra recently launched production of a small off-road vehicle, the Roxor, at a plant in Auburn Hills, Michigan. And more could come, Group Chairman Anand Mahindra told reporters at the opening of the factory a year ago.

"I think a very logical step after that would be to get on-road," he hinted. While a street-legal Roxor appears to be in the works, a version of one of Mahindra's Indian pickups could also follow.

Hyundai, meanwhile, is working on a slightly smaller truck based on the Santa Cruz concept that won rave reviews when introduced at the North American International Auto Show a few years back. A production version could be ready sometime in 2020 or 2021, according to the Korean carmaker.

Much as with SUVs, automakers are wondering whether there might be a market for still smaller pickups, more akin to the compact models that won the hearts of then-young boomers. Ford has dropped hints it may have something to slot in below the Ranger. How the midsize segment fares over the next several years could determine whether pickup buyers will get even more options.

CORRECTION: The article was updated to reflect that the Ranger will be reintroduced in 2019.

Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations for this article were paid by Ford.